As you’ve probably heard, a number of pro-Palestinian groups have dubbed the first week of March Israeli Apartheid Week. By holding numerous events, mostly on college campuses, these groups hope “to educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement.”
Predictably, these events have elicited an angry response from many neoconservatives, who have vehemently argued that Israel is not an apartheid state. Most notably, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen has written:
“The Israel of today and the South Africa of yesterday have almost nothing in common. In South Africa, the minority white population harshly ruled the majority black population. Nonwhites were denied civil rights, and in 1958, they were even deprived of citizenship. In contrast, Israeli Arabs, about one-fifth of the country, have the same civil and political rights as do Israeli Jews. Arabs sit in the Knesset and serve in the military, although most are exempt from the draft. Whatever this is—and it looks suspiciously like a liberal democracy—it cannot be apartheid.
“The West Bank, more or less under Israeli military rule, is a different matter. But it is not part of Israel proper, and under every conceivable peace plan—including those proposed by Israeli governments—almost all of it will revert to the Palestinian Authority and become the heartland of a Palestinian state.”
Cohen’s first point—that Israeli Arabs are not subject to apartheid—is undoubtedly correct. Although Israeli Arabs face extraordinary discrimination, discrimination that is tantamount to that faced by African-Americans in the Jim Crow South, I wouldn’t say that they are victims of apartheid.
My problem with Cohen’s article lies in his second point. Ever the Israel-defender, he doesn’t say a word about the situation faced by Arabs in the West Bank but simply asserts that most of the West Bank will eventually become part of a Palestinian state and then goes on to accuse Israel’s critics of being racist and dishonest. Needless to say, claiming that the West Bank will eventually become part of a Palestinian state does not prove Cohen’s main point, which is that “[t]he Israel of today and the South Africa of yesterday have almost nothing in common.” Even if we grant that Palestinians will eventually control most of the West Bank (and I honestly don’t see how this is possible), this doesn’t change the fact that Israel has been occupying the West Bank for forty-three years now and that its current treatment of Palestinians there undoubtedly resembles South Africa’s former treatment of its black citizens.
First of all, Israel accords Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the West Bank different legal rights. Only Jewish settlers can vote. Moreover, while Jewish settlers are subject to the Israeli legal system, Palestinians live under military rule. Consequently, “settlers enjoy liberties and legal guarantees that are denied Palestinian defendants…charged with a similar offense. The authority to arrest an individual, the maximum detention before being brought before a judge, the right to meet with an attorney, the protections available to defendants at the trial, the maximum punishment allowed by law, and the release of prisoners before completion of sentence— all of these differ greatly in the two systems of law, with the Israeli system providing the suspect and defendant with more protections.”
Palestinians face discrimination in numerous other ways. For instance, although Palestinians make up 83% of the West Bank’s population, Israel prevents [.pdf] them from accessing the Jordan River and allows them to use just 20% of the Mountain Aquifer, the area’s other main water source. Additionally, Israel excludes the Palestinians from more than 60% of the land in the West Bank. Through a network of walls, checkpoints, and roads, it has splintered the remaining Palestinian land into an archipelago of sixty-four enclaves. While Israel allows its own citizens to travel between Jewish settlements and Israel proper, it often restricts Palestinian movement between these different enclaves, sometimes shutting down roads for several days at a time. It seems clear that Israel often imposes these travel restrictions as collective punishment, something it never does to its own citizens. Other forms of collective punishment Israel has employed include imposing curfews in Palestinian areas and even demolishing Palestinian homes.
And the discrimination does not end there. Israel is far more likely to approve construction permits for Jews than Palestinians. According to the Israeli government’s own numbers, from 2000 to 2007 the government approved just 91 of 1,624 Palestinian building permit requests. During the same time, Jewish settlers built 18,472 homes and apartments. This inequality has forced many Palestinians to build homes without permits. From 2000 to 2007, Israel issued demolition orders against 4,993 Palestinian homes, eventually demolishing 33% of these homes. During the same period, it issued demolition orders against 2,900 settler homes built without permits but only ended up demolishing 7% of them.
One of the ugliest examples of Jewish-Palestinian disparity can be found in the West Bank city of Hebron. As B’Tselem noted [.pdf] in its 2008 Annual Report, “In 2008, Israel continued to carry out its ‘separation policy’ in the center of Hebron. As part of this policy, Israel imposes a long list of prohibitions and restrictions on Palestinian movement on major thoroughfares, along which settlers are allowed to move freely. Israeli security forces routinely delay Palestinian passersby for repeated checks, in which they harass and humiliate them. Palestinian residents of the city center are also exposed to extensive violence by Israeli settlers, much greater than elsewhere in the West Bank. Therefore, the restraint shown by the authorities on enforcing the law against settlers in this city is especially blatant.”
There are certainly differences between the modern West Bank and South Africa from 1948 to 1994, but, as I’ve briefly described, there are also many similarities, and these similarities are striking. Like the South African National Party, the State of Israel has imposed what can only be described as an apartheid system. Given that the American government, and thus our tax dollars, make this system possible, I think it follows that each of us has an obligation to feel outraged by this injustice and to do our part to bring it to an end.
● A Introduction to Israel’s Blockade of Gaza
● A Tale of Two Regimes: Political Repression in Iran and Israel
● The Jerusalem Post Slams Amnesty International - Again