The claim that Israel practises apartheid in occupied Palestine is resisted in some South African quarters on the grounds that the system was unique to that country. They argue that to suggest that apartheid might be practised elsewhere is to denigrate the struggle of South Africans against this pernicious policy.
Arguments against the description of Israel’s occupation of Palestine as a form of apartheid are likewise raised in Israel and Trump’s United States for very different reasons.
In many ways these arguments are similar to those raised against the crime of genocide. Many Jews argue that genocide was unique to the Holocaust and that this tragedy is belittled by applying the crime of genocide to other situations.
Arguments of this kind take no account of developments in international law. Genocide was recognised as an international crime in 1948 in the Genocide Convention which provides that genocide is to be punished wherever it occurs. Apartheid was recognised as an international crime in 1973 by the Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, vigorously promoted by the ANC. In 1998, four years after South Africa became a democracy, apartheid was recognised as an international crime by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) with the active support of the Mandela government.
So, apartheid is today accepted as an international crime defined as the commission of inhumane acts by one racial group against another racial group for the purpose of maintaining domination over that group and systematically oppressing it. The ICC is today considering the commission of this crime by Israel, resulting from its establishment of an Israeli settler regime in occupied Palestine and its policies of forcible removals of Palestinians from their land, home demolitions, torture, arbitrary imprisonment, denial of free movement and more. There is very little doubt among international law jurists that Israel’s actions in occupied Palestine meet the requirements for the crime of apartheid.
This legal assessment will not satisfy either South Africans who believe Israel’s occupation of Palestine falls short of the brutality of apartheid in South Africa or those critics in Israel and the United States who share this view, albeit for different reasons.
Inevitably the credibilty of anyone who maintains that Israeli apartheid rivals that of South Africa in discriminatory intent and brutality will be questioned. In my defence, let me say that I have experienced apartheid in both societies. In South Africa, I directed the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies which engaged in advocacy and litigation against the laws of apartheid. I witnessed racism at first hand and appeared as counsel in many trials of opponents of apartheid. Later, I participated in the drafting of the Bill of Rights, resulting in the 1996 Constitution.
For the past 40 years, I have followed events in Palestine, serving as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory for seven years and chairing two international investigations into the violation of human rights in that country. I have travelled extensively in Palestine on UN missions.
Palestine occupation is permanent
Of course, there are differences between apartheid in South Africa and Palestine. The greatest difference, and the one most commonly invoked by apologists for Israel, is that South Africa was one territory in which a white minority oppressed a black majority. Palestine, on the other hand, is a territory separate from Israel – even as it is occupied by the Israeli military. They go on to argue that Israel claims no sovereignty (except over East Jerusalem) and land will be returned to Palestine after a satisfactory peace deal. In truth, this portrayal of the situation fails to take account of the fact that this 53-year-old occupation is to all intents and purposes permanent.
Israel shows no intention of ever leaving the territory and has de facto annexed much of the West Bank to construct Israeli settlements and maintain military zones. The occupation has become a fig leaf for colonisation and apartheid with many of its policies and practices resembling those of South Africa’s apartheid regime. These similarities make it clear one is dealing with the same crime – apartheid.
A cardinal feature of South African apartheid was territorial fragmentation, with four supposedly independent Bantustan states and six non-independent but self-governing territories. Palestine is likewise territorially fragmented. The territory is divided into three parts: Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The West Bank is further divided into three zones, with Israel’s occupying forces given wide but varying powers over each. In addition, military checkpoints, unlawful Israeli settlements and an unlawful wall built by Israel in the West Bank divide it into separate cantons around the main cities.
Israel’s ‘arbitrary’ apartheid
From the beginning of white settlement in South Africa, successive European regimes seized the most fertile land for farming and the best areas for residential occupation. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were forcibly moved from their ancestral homes to so-called African reserves. Thousands of black people were relocated from suburbs in the cities to outlying areas in terms of the notorious Group Areas Act.
Palestinians have suffered a similar fate at the hands of Israel. Thousands have been forcibly displaced to make way for the construction of over 130 Israeli settlements, accommodating over 700 000 settlers, and a wall that effectively seizes a tenth of the West Bank for Israel. Just like in South Africa, this displacement has been accompanied by the destruction of homes. Israel has, however, gone one step further in requiring the destruction of the family home of any Palestinian who takes up arms against the occupier.
The system of pass laws that obliged Africans to carry identity documents authorising them to be in city areas is replicated in the occupied territories. Palestinians are required to carry permits for both movement within Palestine as well as for work in Israel. Restrictions on movement are enforced by military checkpoints, some permanent, some arbitrarily erected. Queues at checkpoints more than rival those at South Africa’s Bantu Commissioner’s offices.
What is worse is that the Israeli system is characterised by its arbitrariness. Like South Africa’s pass laws, these restrictions are both harsh and humiliating. Again, Israeli restrictions outdo those of South Africa. There are separate roads for settlers and Palestinians, for example. And a wall has been built for several hundred kilometres within Palestinian territory, separating Palestinians and Israeli settlers and serving as an almost insurmountable barrier to travel across.
Segregation was the basic premise of South African apartheid. So too with occupied Palestine. The 700 000 Israeli settlers live in separate settlements and outposts to which Palestinians are admitted only as workers. Segregation is more complete than it ever was in South Africa.
Finally, there is law enforcement. Detention without trial, torture and trials before military courts go well beyond the security apparatus of South African apartheid in their brutality and arbitrariness. In addition, the actions of the Israeli security forces in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and particularly Gaza have resulted in more deaths and devastation than ever inflicted by South Africa’s security forces.
Is Israeli apartheid worse than that of South Africa? There is little point in pursuing this question. South African apartheid was evil and so is that practised by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory. And Nelson Mandela was right in saying: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”