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Israeli Apartheid is the Core of the Crisis


It is unethical to blame Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem for events in Gaza. At the heart of the factional violence in Gaza and the political crisis in the Palestinian leadership lies the constant marginalization of a voice which poses an ethical challenge to an uncritically accepted presumption. Sadly, but hardly surprisingly, initial reactions to the situation have used it to further marginalize this voice.

The presumption challenged is that it is morally acceptable to have a state whose legal structures assign preferential stake to all those who pass some test of Jewishness. It is not surprising that the Israeli right wing rejects this challenge. But why is the message also rejected by those Israelis, and their Western supporters, who claim to be concerned about human rights?

It is true that some Israeli left wingers refer to the post-1967 occupation as an apartheid regime. There are good reasons for such comparison with the old South African system. In the Occupied Territories, Palestinians are subject to arbitrary military regulations, while Israeli settlers are governed by Israeli law. It is no accident that the barrier being built by Israel in the West Bank is called by Israelis the “gader hafrada”. Like the Afrikaans word “apartheid”, the Hebrew word “hafrada” means “separation”. The Israeli barrier separates Jewish settlements from Palestinian villages, usually also separating those villages from their farmland.

But the apartheid label should not be restricted to the post-1967 occupation. There is a more fundamental form of apartheid, of which the occupation is but a manifestation.

Apartheid in historic Palestine originated, and has persisted, in the ideology of creating a state in which Jews would be separated from non-Jews in terms of their stake in the political community. It was an apartheid mentality that nourished the desire of establishing and maintaining a state with a Jewish demographic majority and character. The well-planned ethnic cleansing, in 1948, of 750000 indigenous people was apartheid practice par excellence. It is apartheid which prevents the expelled and their descendants from returning: this apartheid denies residence to expellees from my former home district, the Galilee, but grants it, not just to Israeli-born Jews like me, but to Jews all over the world. It is apartheid law that creates a wall of discrimination between Jewish and Arab citizens of the Israeli state. It is an Apartheid mentality that prompts some Israeli Jews to view their Arab fellow-citizens as a “demographic threat”.

When “Israel’s right to exist” is used as a litmus test for moderation and pragmatism, the subtext is that it is reasonable for apartheid practices which are at the core of the state as currently constituted to be allowed to continue. Thus, those who mouth this mantra, and those who try to limit the apartheid label to “the occupation”, are complicit with the apartheid inside pre-1967 Israel.

Tough questions need asking. Does not moral condemnation directed against the post-1967 occupation and its apartheid practices both conceal, and thus entrench, the apartheid mentality that lies at the core of the Israeli state? Is the argument merely about the boundaries of the area in which apartheid can have free play, or should criticism be directed at such practices wherever they exist?

If Israel demolished the concrete wall and withdrew to its exact pre-1967 limits, would the self-described Israeli left-wingers agitate against the continuance of apartheid inside those borders? If not, what makes apartheid inside the pre-1967 borders acceptable? If the notion of Jewish statehood necessitates apartheid, why is this not subject to the same challenge as South African apartheid? These are questions that ought to be canvassed among the Israeli “left”.

The truth is that there has virtually never been any real “left” in Israel. So-called left-wing Israelis share their right-wing compatriots’ support for the state ideology.

Any moral condemnation which restricts its ambit to the post-1967 occupation is at best simplistic, at worst misleading. By focusing on “the occupation”, it serves to entrench the apartheid ideology which is central to the essence of the Israeli state.

The economic and diplomatic boycott imposed on the elected Hamas government, which has resulted in the recent violence in Gaza, was intended to force it to accept Israeli apartheid. Only when the world is ready to call by its true name the premise upon which Israeli statehood is based, will it not take violence to advance a morally coherent and credible criticism of Israel.

The denial of this core apartheid, of which the Gaza violence is a symptom, must stop. We should say it loud and clear. The apartheid system which lies at the core of Israeli statehood should be dismantled. It is unethical to rationalize the apartheid notion of a Jewish state. It is not consistent to be a friend of Israel, thereby endorsing its apartheid-based statehood, while criticising its apartheid practices in the Occupied Territories. Apartheid should have no sanctuary in any future vision of two states for historic Palestine.

Only when this realization sinks in will it be possible to envision a stable political solution–a single state over all historic Palestine– in which redress can be made for past injustices and equal citizenship provided for all, Arabs and Jews.

OREN BEN-DOR teaches legal and political philosophy at the School of Law, University of Southampton, UK. He can be reached at:



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