Desmond Tutu, formerly archbishop of the Anglican Church in South Africa and a well-known anti-apartheid activist, is one of those people that accuse the state of Israel of practicing the crime of apartheid when it comes to how Palestinians are being treated. This is a quite controversial accusation though, even if it is supported by several human rights advocates and academics, it has also received a lot of criticism, since the situation in Israel and Palestine is noticably different from the South African case.
Mitchell G Bard from Jewish Virtual Library points at the fact that around 20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs that have equal rights compared to Jews and other people groups in Israel. Arabs and Muslims are represented in Knesset, in the courts and at the universities. FW De Klerk, former South African President who together with Nelson Mandela ended apartheid, also says that because of this reason it is unfair to call Israel an apartheid state. “You have Palestinians living in Israel with full political rights. They are represented in the Knesset. You don’t have discriminatory laws against them, for example that they may not swim at certain beaches or anything like that.”
However, people who use the apartheid analogy to describe Israeli policy usually discusses how Palestinians are treated by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza rather than how Arabs are treated within Israel. The thing is that race actually can equal nationality according to international law. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which Israel along with most other countries has signed, defines racial discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life” (emphasis mine).
It was this definition of racial discrimantion that was the background for the later International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, that Israel has unfortunately not signed (or the United States, for that matter). Thus, rather than asking ourselves if Israel treats ethnic Arabs differently, perhaps we should ask ourselves if they treat Palestinians, as a national group, differently.
If we firstly look at the West Bank, we see that a majority of the area has been annexed by Israel to establish Jewish settlements. Palestinians living in the non-annexed portions of the West Bank obviously don’t have Israeli citizenship or voting rights in Israel, but are subject to movement restrictions of the Israeli government. There are separate Israeli and Palestinian roads, and separate schools, hospitals and legal systems. The power of the Palestinian Authority is very limited due to the Israeli control of free movement within the West Bank through checkpoints. And of course, we got a barrier that in many cases do not follow the 1967 borders, but includes Israeli settlements.
Then we have Gaza, where Israel withdrew all its soldiers and settlers in 2005. However, Meron Benvenisti, former mayor of Jerusalem, predicted that this would create a Gaza “Bantustan” since Israel did not acknowledge a Palestinian state. A Bantustan area was what the apartheid regime in South Africa created for the natives to live in without any interference with white people, often with very poor standard of living. If Gaza had become its own state, things would be different, but Israel continued to control its borders, and when Hamas started shooting rockets, Israel started a blockade. According to the UN, the blockade must be lifted in order to stop the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The Israeli explanation to things like the blockade, barrier and checkpoints are that they are security measures to prevent terrorism. And while it is true that it has hindered some problems, it has also created many other problems, and it is, according to many human rights groups, a form of collective punishment that hurts the Palestinian people dramatically. And here’s the thing: they cannot vote to change this. They are not citizens of Israel, yet Israel controls their lives in huge ways and has not yet acknowledged a Palestinian state. In fact, when Palestine received observer status in the UN, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by building 3000 new settlements in Eastern Jerusalem.
Furthermore, the claim that Arab Israeli citizens have equal rights compared to their Jewish counterparts has been questioned several times. Saree Makdisi writes in the Los Angeles Times:
The Jewish state (for so it identifies itself, after all) maintains a system of formal and informal housing segregation both in Israel and in the occupied territories. It’s obvious, of course, that Jewish settlements in the West Bank aren’t exactly bursting with Palestinians. In Israel itself, however, hundreds of communities have been established for Jewish residents on land expropriated from Palestinians, in which segregation is maintained, for example, by admissions committees empowered to use ethnic criteria long since banned in the United States, or by the inability of Palestinian citizens to access land held exclusively for the Jewish people by the state-sanctioned Jewish National Fund.
[…] Palestinian citizens of Israel must contend with about 50 state laws and bills that, according to the Palestinian-Israeli human rights organization Adalah, either privilege Jews or directly discriminate against the Palestinian minority. One of the key components of Israel’s nationality law, the Law of Return, for example, applies to Jews only, and excludes Palestinians, including Palestinians born in what is now the state of Israel. While Jewish citizens can move back and forth without interdiction, Israeli law expressly bars Palestinian citizens from bringing spouses from the occupied territories to live with them in Israel.
The educational systems for the two populations in Israel (not to mention the occupied territories) are kept largely separate and unequal. While overcrowded Palestinian schools in Israel crumble, Jewish students are given access to more resources and curricular options.
That being said, there are still noticable differences between Apartheid South Africa (ASA) and Israel. Firstly, the basis of discrimination in ASA was ethnicity while in the Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Terrotories, it is primarily nationality, since Arab Israelis are being treated better than Palestinians. Secondly, ASA was a racist state that motivated the separation of ethnicities with racism, this is very seldom in Israel (even if it unfortunately has happened). Thirdly, ASA was a single state where political engagement among blacks was forbidden, while the Occupied Palestinian Terrories are occupied and are in some way controlled by Israel while they also have their own Palestinian authority with limited power, so that policial engagement is possible in some ways, but it is very restricted.
There are countries today that have even stronger racial discrimination, especially dictatorships. In many Arab countries there are simply no Jews left because of persecution and antisemitism. But as always, two wrongs don’t make a right, and the Israeli discrimination of Palestinians, particularly in the occupied territories, are indefensible. Even if there are several differences to South African Apartheid, there are also several similarities, and it is sad that many Christians in their love for Israel and the Jewish people are trying to defend and trivialize the discrimination. For a sustainable peace, we need justice, democracy and reconciliation. Let’s pray for a revival that will bring peace and justice to the Holy Land.