Many shades of apartheid in Israel/Palestine

by Yaniv Reich on January 13, 2010

Apartheid is finally get the attention is deserves. Joining the longstanding arguments posed by Palestinians, prominent Jews (e.g. retired Judge Boaz Okon) and Israeli politicians (e.g. former PM Olmert) have begun to use the term to describe the system of institutionalized discrimination that exists in Israel/Palestine. This is a welcome development in the battle for ideas.

As an attempt at rebuttal, Israel’s unconditional supporters point to the fact that Israel’s system of segregation differs from the South African model. This is undoubtedly true, but holds no substantive meaning because apartheid is a system of racial privilege rather than a discrete and unique historical event.

A hierarchy of rights

A noteworthy aspect of the Israeli model of apartheid is the hierarchical system of rights distributed to various subgroups of Palestinians. At present, the category of fewest civil and human rights surely belongs to the Gazans, refugees and their descendants besieged and imprisoned on their own land. West Bank Palestinians occupy the next rung up on the ladder of apartheid’s rights. They live under occupation, with restrictions on movement and economy, experience constant dispossession, and suffer the military’s endless violence. They get to vote periodically in Palestinian elections, when the occupier deems appropriate, for leaders with only marginal control over their lives; they do not vote for the political authority that most governs them.

The third category is comprised of Palestinians with Jerusalem permits. Unlike most West Bank residents, these Palestinians are able to live, travel and work in Jerusalem, but are unable to vote in Israeli elections. They are subject to continual campaigns to strip them of their residency permits so that Israel can maintain its preferred 7:3 ratio of Jews to Palestinians in municipal Jerusalem.

Finally, there are the Palestinian citizens of Israel, those who by historical accident and/or bravery under threat of violence did not leave in 1948 the land that became Israel. These Israeli citizens have Israeli-issued passports, can elect representatives to the Knesset, vote in Israeli elections and so on. Although they share most of the rights of full Jewish citizens, they suffer institutional discrimination that makes them, de facto, second-class citizens. They currently comprise about 20 percent of Israel’s population.

Apartheid even inside the Green Line

Its a straightforward and easily verifiable argument that the West Bank Palestinians, even Jerusalem residents, as well as the Gazans are victims not only of apartheid, but of a militarized form of apartheid far more severe than anything devised in South Africa.

The situation for Israel’s Palestinian citizens, however, is a bit more subtle. Nevertheless, they too suffer from a form of apartheid, which is amply demonstrated in the following example.

I have covered before Netanyahu’s reform of the Israel Lands Administration law. I discussed some of the implications of this reform bill, including the privatization of state lands and the relationship between decision-making on lands and Jewish-only criteria.

In an op-ed in today’s Haaretz, Avirama Golan discusses a number of additional amendments that have been added to the bill, bolstering its apartheid qualities.

The land grabs that both the executive and the legislature have been perpetrating are the height of evil and folly. Evil, because all the new laws and reforms are explicitly intended to deny Arabs the self-evident civil right of buying a plot of land and residing on it. And folly, because it seems there isn’t one politician who does not yearn to humiliate and inflame the Arab public.

For one brief moment, financially well-off Arabs deluded themselves into thinking that the land reform would benefit them. After all, the government had decided to open up the real estate market, to liberate lands from the Israel Lands Administration’s governmental clutches and replace this stranglehold with a free market. Therefore, anyone who had a bit of ready cash would be able to buy land anywhere he pleased.

The government undoubtedly found this hilarious. For in the same breath, it decided – via Amendment 7 to the law, passed last August – that of the 13 members of the ILA’s governing council, six would be representatives of the Jewish National Fund. It thereby gave these representatives, who have an interest in preventing Arabs from buying land, the ability to do so. Via this amendment, the government also reserved the right to increase its own representation on the council. And finally, it concluded a land swap with the JNF under which the latter would cede land in high-demand areas in the center of the country (where, despite all the hysterical warnings about “millionaires from the Gulf states taking over Gush Dan,” not a single Arab has even tried to buy). In exchange it would get control over the Negev and the Galilee.

This new arrangement makes an already problematic situation even worse. Those same lands that the state expropriated from Arabs in the past for “public use,” and which were then added to the vast land reserves it controls, are now being privatized, meaning they are being sold to the highest bidder. As long as he’s a Jew, of course. Granted, you won’t find a sign anywhere saying “no entry for Arabs,” but aside from that, all the rules of the Wild West are in force.

The racist amendments did not end there. Two Kadima MKs, Shai Hermesh and Israel Hasson, introduced an additional amendment that would allow town councils to reject people “who aren’t suited to the community.” This legal cover for racial discrimination has already passed. The authors of the amendment argued that new Arab communities need to be set up too, “knowing full well that since the establishment of the state, not a single new Arab community has been established in the Galilee, and that every Israeli government has shown great efficiency in demolishing every scrap of illegal construction in Arab communities.”

Arab MKs, the same ones Israel’s supporters praise as indicative of Israeli democracy, proposed another amendment that would require land allocation on the basis of equal rights. This amendment was rejected by the Knesset.

These are the workings of apartheid inside the green line, a system that discriminates and segregates Israeli citizens of one ethnic group from Israeli citizens of another… And for exactly the same reason that Israel maintains its occupation and harsher apartheid regime over the West Bank and Gaza: to maintain the “Jewish character” of Israel. The law “is designed to preserve the ability to realize the Zionist dream,” argues MK Hasson.

“In this way, Israel is shutting an entire population group out of the state’s life”, as Golan concludes with indignation.

When will Jews everywhere begin working to end the brutal system of racial privilege that operates in our name?

Update: Not for a long time… Israelis generally view the ugly details of apartheid quite favorably. Today, for example, the War and Peace Index from Tel Aviv University reports that 63% of Israelis support the status-quo prohibition of Palestinians from using one of the main highways in the West Bank.

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