How legitimate are comparisons of Israel’s control over the Palestinians and apartheid South Africa’s treatment of blacks? As Israeli Apartheid Week sweeps through university campuses across the world, renewed attention is drawn to the parallels in the policies of both countries. This year, the frenzy generated by Israeli Apartheid Week is that much more intense due to recent conferences at two American Ivy League universities concerning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Naturally, both conferences drew heavily on the history of apartheid South Africa by claiming that Israel is on its way to or has already become an apartheid state. The argument goes that Israel is a country based on ethnic privilege and a large number of people under its control, i.e. the Palestinians in the West Bank, are deprived citizenship and are oppressed, which amounts to a fundamental condition of apartheid. This is not to mention the institutionalised discrimination which Palestinian citizens of Israel face in virtually all aspects of civil life.
Reactionary self-described ‘Pro-Israel’ groups and individuals have been quick to keep this rhetoric at bay. Israel is guilty of many things including racism, the standard line goes, but it is not apartheid South Africa. This engrained and expected position has taken on an incredibly ironic tone given the repeated comments by former Israeli prime ministers who have publicly warned that the gulf between the two countries is not as wide as we might think, and the publication of The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa.
Yet there are many Israelis that agree that their country has no choice but to implement a programme of separation in order to protect the Jewish character of the state. With a heavy dose of cognitive dissonance, arguments are often put forth that there is no inherent problem with Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” and the state harbours no choice but to grant privilege on the basis of ethnicity.
At a time when the standoff between Iran and Israel seems more and more like a manufactured crisis designed to keep the Palestinian issue off the radar, Palestinian activists and their supporters are doubling down on efforts to reformulate the narrative of the conflict. The desire is to highlight the deprivation of Palestinian human rights, as opposed to the carefully managed narrative of security, which has become commonplace in the Western understanding of the conflict.
This rights-based discussion necessitates a review of the methods which Israel employees to safeguard its unique programme of enforced separation between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, both inside the occupied territories and inside Israel. It is here that the comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa can be of constructive use.
Perhaps the best way to fully understand and learn from the similarities between apartheid South Africa and Israel is to simply read the daily news coming out of Israel. For example, the recent mainstream news cycle has devoted unusually high attention to Israel’s controversial use of administrative detention because of a non-violent Palestinian protest. Khader Adnan, a 33-year-old father of two and spokesman for the militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad, launched a 66 day hunger strike – the longest in Palestinian history – against his administrative detention which began last December after Israeli soldiers raided his northern West Bank home in the middle of the night.
At issue in Adnan’s case was not his involvement in the extremist group Islamic Jihad, but rather his detention without trial. Prominent American pundits unravelled Israeli administrative detention by comparing it to recent American legal provisions driving the ‘War on Terror’, but few noticed the obvious and shocking parallel between administrative detention and apartheid South Africa’s detention without trial. I wrote about the two in last Friday’s Mail & Guardian:
The main goal of apartheid detention without trial was to control the non-white population by creating a façade of justice. Using the language of pre-emptive security, apartheid South Africa created legal provisions that served the regime’s efforts to crush any protest. There is a growing body of evidence that Israel’s military-legal system in the West Bank serves a similar purpose.
At a time when Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its institutionalised discrimination of Palestinians seem to be reaching fever pitch, revisiting the structures of apartheid South Africa and their similarities to Israel’s current governing procedures is greatly needed. Comparing Israel and apartheid South Africa is not about singling Israel out for undue condemnation. Rather, comparisons can yield important historical lessons which can be implemented to improve the situation on the ground in Israel and Palestine. Such treatment will likely unveil painful comparisons but also crucial clues on how to move towards the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.