Time for Israelis to confront the inconvenient truth
For years, friends and colleagues, many of them Palestinian, have been telling me that the manner in which Israel governs the Palestinians — and not only in the occupied West Bank and blockaded Gaza Strip — amounts to an apartheid regime. Intellectually, I understood their arguments and I have always sympathized with their plight. Yet, despite my fundamental political and moral objections, and sometimes disgust at the treatment not only of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank but also of those living inside Israel, who are supposed to enjoy full rights as citizens, I couldn’t bring myself to admit, even to myself, that the country of my birth was capable of intentionally, institutionally and systematically discriminating against those who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and happen not to be Jewish.
However, the mounting evidence has been staring me in the face, and it all points to the same conclusion: That Israel has been gradually morphing, with her eyes wide open and ears blocked to any criticism, including from friends, into an apartheid regime. Hence, the recently published report by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem resonated strongly with me. Courageously, and with surgical precision, the report dissects the disturbing chasm between the political and civil rights enjoyed by Jews and the lack of such rights afforded to Palestinians. Between the perpetuation of the occupation and an unwillingness to genuinely accept the Palestinians inside Israel as equal citizens emerged a discourse among the Jewish majority in Israel that justifies complete domination of the Zionist narrative. Or, to put it more succinctly: Apartheid.
For many years, the security discourse dominated Israeli politics — a discourse that, while having its merits, has by now come to be used mainly to conceal the objective of imposing complete Jewish domination over what before 1948 was Mandatory Palestine. The Palestinian citizens of Israel are now second-class citizens, while those who reside in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip continue to suffer from the oppression and discrimination that Israel imposes on them with impunity. The B’Tselem report makes for disturbing reading, as it outlines the myriad aspects of life where Palestinians do not enjoy the same rights as Jews. It also reminds us how this situation evolved from the very early days of the state of Israel, and has been deteriorating ever since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. In this small territory of 26,000 square km (Israel, the West Bank and Gaza), Jews and Arabs not only live separate lives, but their experiences as citizens — or just as human beings — are radically different.
Two distinct, though closely related, processes have taken place over the years since 1967. First are the illegal actions that Israel has been perpetrating in the Occupied Territories in flagrant violation of international law, as it confiscates Palestinian land, builds illegal settlements and encourages hundreds of thousands of its own citizens to live there. The second process is the gradual institutionalizing of the discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian citizens, which disgracefully culminated in 2018 with the enactment of the “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” This enshrined in law the complete superiority of the Jewish people when it comes to housing, access to land and urban planning, and respect for others’ culture and language. Though much of the formal and habitual discrimination, including the confiscation of land, was part of everyday life for Palestinian citizens long before the despicable Nation-State Law, its enactment gave the legal stamp of approval for a shameful system of unequal rights.
The term apartheid is emotive and is mainly associated with the dark days of South Africa. But this should not necessarily be the point of reference in Israel’s case. The 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court characterizes apartheid as “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” It is against this test that relations between Israel and the Palestinians should be tested.
Although the report might not tell us anything we haven’t known for a long time, by presenting in a single document a long list of examples of systematic and institutionalized discrimination against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, it makes a very powerful argument for the existence of an apartheid regime imposed by the Israeli government and society.
In this small territory, Jews and Arabs not only live separate lives, but their experiences as citizens — or just as human beings — are radically different.
In East Jerusalem, for instance, despite being annexed by Israel more than 50 years ago, its 350,000-strong Arab population cannot vote in national elections. In the West Bank, most of the 2.6 million Palestinians are under military rule and are deprived not only of basic political rights, but also the most basic freedoms of speech and movement. Meanwhile, hundreds of illegal settlements built on stolen Palestinian land are enjoying huge investments in their infrastructure that their Palestinian neighbors can only dream of. In blockaded Gaza, very few people are allowed to enter or leave, and Gazans’ health, livelihood and education are all at the mercy of Israel, while profound deprivation is their daily experience. And, inside the Green Line, Palestinian citizens of Israel do not enjoy the same citizenship and immigration laws as Jews. The cumulative impact of these and many other examples of systematic discrimination based on one’s racial group can only be seen as resulting from the actions of an apartheid state.
Most Israelis are offended at the suggestion that their country has become or is on the verge of becoming an apartheid state. They prefer to deny this inconvenient truth; one that interferes with their self-image of an enlightened liberal democracy and could also have consequences for their relations with the international community. For either or both of these reasons, it is high time for Israel’s Jews to embark on a painful, though cathartic, bout of soul-searching and, instead of rejecting out of hand the evidence and arguments presented in the B’Tselem report, or condemning the messenger, to concentrate on the message itself. This might then lead to a healthy internal debate and to a dialogue with the Palestinians aimed at ensuring that all those who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea enjoy the same human, political and civil rights — and consequently are able to live in peace with one another.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg