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A constructive comparison of Israel and apartheid South Africa

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.


  • Joseph Dana is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East and Africa. He has written for Le Monde Diplomatique, The Nation, GQ (Germany), London Review of Books and the Mail & Guardian among other publications. Dana also files radio reports about cultural, business and political issues in the West Bank and Israel for Monocle 24 in London. Spending half the year in Africa and half in the Middle East, Dana is currently working on a memoir about identity politics and family history in Israel/Palestine.


  1. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 14 March 2012


    The religious beliefs don’t clash at all – it is the historical and political myths that cause the problem

    The Jews, Muslims and Christians all beieve that Abraham and Moses were prophets.

    All believe that Jesus Christ was Holy in one way or another.

    What is the cause of the problem is politics, not religion.

    The only real interest of the Muslims is the Holy Mount in Jerusalem. The rest of the dispute about land is simply Arab nationalism, wanting the original pre-Ottoman Empire Arab Empire back.

    So they prestend that the |”Palestinians” are Biblical Ismaelites not Arabs bussed in by the Sauds into a land virtually empty in 1917.

    They pretend that the “Palestinians” are victims of the Jews, when they are victims of Arab nationalism, penned in on that land to “democratically” outbreed and outvote the Jews.

  2. Lennon Lennon 14 March 2012

    @ Lyndall: I’ve met plenty of Jews who have told me that Jesus was just a fraud.

    I’ve also spoken to people of all three belief systems who can’t stand the others. Do you mean to tell me that in Israel, none of this exists?

    It also doesn’t help when the Israeli Government (and I specifically mean the government) decides to call down air strikes on Gaza instead of sending a crack counterterrorist team in to deal with the threat (and yet they seem capable of sending Mossad into Iran to sabotage nuclear facilities and military bases).

  3. Larry Lachman Larry Lachman 14 March 2012

    You have a point Lennon, but then you are not a military strategist.

    Perhaps a simple answer to your question is that the terrorist activity is very mobile, in great number, and otherwise hidden within and amongst civilian Gaza’ns, any one of which may be an active terrorist.
    The IDF intel is based on visible activity and tracking of incoming missiles back to the cell thats operating the launchers, before they scurry back to the hole they came from.

    Another factor is that the IDF values their fighters and civilians lives, in stark contrast to that of Palestinian terrorist groups. Why endanger ground operatives if the IDF can use attack helicopters and jets to greater effect?

    You may counter by stating ‘no fair’ but all the Palestinians need to do is stop their agression.

  4. Larry Lachman Larry Lachman 14 March 2012

    On second thoughts, Lennon; lets turn this on its head.

    Why do the Gaza freedom fighters not send in crack counterterrorism teams to attack IDF positions?

    The answer:

    Because they are first and foremost inclined to attack softer civilian targets like Israeli pre-schools if they could, Secondly they are cowardly murderers, and thirdly because they then cannot parade their dead and whip up sympathy and thereby gain new recruits.

  5. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 14 March 2012


    I am talking about the religious who study the Holy Books not the secular.

    The people you describe are Jews or Muslims or Christians by culture not by religion.

  6. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 14 March 2012


    You have reminded me of one of my favourite jokes which goes:

    Reuben storms into his son’s bedroom and demands that he gets dressed as they are late for synagogue.

    His son complains that he does not want to go as he no longer believes in God.

    His father says:

    “Never mind all that. We go to synagogue to speak to Cohen.

    Cohen goes to synagogue to speak to God”.

    Which applies to all the religions.

    One of the most interesting parts of the book “People of the Lie: an analysis of human evil” by Scott M Peck is his affirming that he has preached in churches and worked in prisons – and that he has never met a truly evil person in a prison, but has met many in the churches, because they like the cloak of religious respectability.

    Which I would sum up in one word “hypocricy”.

  7. Lennon Lennon 15 March 2012

    @ Larry: While I most certainly understand the need to preserve the lives of the troops, the fact of the matter is that getting shot at is a part of the job.

    Yes, I would expect Israel (or any country) to use whatever tech they have at their disposal. What’s the point of having it if its not deployed? (Blood River and Alesia come to mind here)

    But, while there have been plenty of unwarranted attacks against Israeli targets (soft or otherwise), launching an air strike which results in collateral damage (to be idiotically PC) does no favours for the Israeli government and only makes them look hypocrates.

    Then again, the world seems to have forgotten Dresden so it’s really not surprising.

    Regarding the Palestinian fighters / troops (whatever you want to call them): Attacking soft targets is easy, so any who do not any qualms about who they kill will do so as a matter of course.

    As for attacking IDF installations: While these are logical targets (being military assets), the IDF isn’t exactly poorly equipped or trained. I doubt that even Delta Force or the SAS would consider such operations lightly. When you’re armed with a few RPG’s and a bunch of AK-47’s, any decision to do just that would seem suicidal. And it seems likely that self-preservation is a high priority for the Palestinians (at least most of them). The Boers spent a lot of their time bombing railways and supply trains and avoided formation battles because they new that the British would win in…

  8. Lennon Lennon 15 March 2012

    @ Lyndall: “The people you describe are Jews or Muslims or Christians by culture not by religion.”

    Can you conclusively prove that statement?

  9. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 15 March 2012


    I believe that because I have studied the Holy Books and what they say.

    You don’t believe the same.

    Luckily we are not politicians and don’t have to keep arguing in circles.

    So we can just agree to differ.

  10. Lennon Lennon 15 March 2012

    @ Lyndall: We can agree to differ, yes.

    Those who I have mentioned would not.

  11. Larry Lachman Larry Lachman 15 March 2012


    Looking for debate not discussion. So its settled then, there is no comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa; – constructive or otherwise.



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