Beyond Compare (South Africa and Israel)

Julie Peteet, an editor of this magazine, is professor of anthropology at the University of Louisville.

“Rolling into Gaza I had a feeling of homecoming,” writes the novelist Alice Walker. “There is a flavor to the ghetto. To the bantustan. To the “rez.” To the “colored section.”” In a poetic vein, Walker captures the confinement and marginality one senses in the Gaza Strip, and its familiarity to those who have lived in segregated spaces in the United States and South Africa. It is the latter parallel that has captured the collective imagination in the early 2000s. More and more, Israel”s system of rule over Palestinians in the lands occupied during the 1967 war is compared to South African apartheid.

Apartheid is the Afrikaans term meaning “separation” or “apartness,” and is used most commonly to refer the system of white rule over blacks in South Africa that lasted until 1994. But in international law, apartheid is a general category of state practices and it is prohibited wherever it occurs. The 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid defines the word as acts “designed to divide the population…by the creation of separate reserves and ghettoes for the members of racial groups, the prohibition of mixed marriages…[or] the expropriation of landed property.” In South Africa, apartheid was state-sanctioned segregation governing nearly all aspects of social life. A system designed to maintain white dominion over the indigenous black population and its resources, it rested on a complex legal system that severely hindered blacks” mobility, denied them civil and political rights, and mandated that they live in townships and bantustans–semi-rural enclaves–kept separate from white areas. The indigenous population”s resources, particularly land, were transferred to white settlers. Blacks were subjected to forcible relocation in the service of the white-dominated economy in which they participated as cheap labor.

The apartheid project in South Africa was aided by the anthropological tradition of volkekunde, or knowledge of the native, which classified populations on the basis of identifiable physical traits, mainly skin color, as well as language, tribe and ethnicity. This anthropology derived from a German-Dutch idealistic tradition that worked to identify and preserve the cultural ethos of a particular population. The formation of territorial “reserves” for blacks in the early twentieth century was grounded in this pseudo-scientific conception of difference.

It was thus no small thing when the South African Human Sciences Research Council issued a report in 2009 concluding that Israel”s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip is a “colonial enterprise that implements a system of apartheid.”[1]

Why Then, Why Now?

In November 1974, Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, addressed the UN General Assembly, shortly before the PLO was accorded observer status. In the previous month, the General Assembly had voted to exclude South Africa from its deliberations, and Arafat tailored his speech accordingly. He denounced the state of Israel for “bolstering the settler-colonialists in Africa” and “practicing racial discrimination more extensively than the racists of South Africa.” Here the PLO leader sought both to tar Israel by association, pointing to its economic and security ties with successive South African governments, and to aid his people by comparing their plight to that of South African blacks.

In fact, the African National Congress and the PLO were founded upon visions radically at odds with those of the South African and Israeli states. The ANC advocated a democratic South Africa that would be a state for all its citizens, blacks and whites, and initially the PLO advocated a democratic secular state in Palestine that would embrace Jews as citizens.

In 1975, the General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 declaring, “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Other organizations followed suit: The Conference of the International Women”s Year declared that international peace required the end of colonialism, occupation, apartheid and Zionism. The Organization of African Unity stated that South Africa, Rhodesia and Israel shared a common imperialist history. Israel found itself in a diplomatic bind similar to South Africa”s, though not as severe; just as the United States, Britain and France had blocked a move to expel South Africa from the UN entirely, so it was often the US veto alone that saved Israel from Security Council sanction. Resolution 3379 was revoked only in 1991, as a condition of Israel”s participation in the Madrid talks, and under pressure from Washington.

The apartheid analogy resurfaced with renewed relevance in the mid-1990s, when white rule in South Africa had ended. The PLO had long since accepted the idea of two states rather than one secular state, and Arafat had become president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), a non-sovereign entity with administrative powers in Gaza and patches of the West Bank, but nothing close to independence. There were striking similarities between Area A, as the districts of PA administration were known under the Oslo agreements, and bantustans: The cantons were non-contiguous, separated from each other by Israeli settlements and military bases and ubiquitous checkpoints, and travel between them or into Israel was severely restricted. Israel began building a network of roads connecting settlements in the Occupied Territories to West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and “bypassing” Palestinian population centers. These measures were adopted even as the PA, Israel and their international sponsors spoke of a comprehensive peace leading to Palestinian statehood. In reality, as Leila Farsakh writes, the Oslo process “paved the way for the “bantustanization of the area.””[2]

The Oslo era closed with Arafat”s PA seemingly acquiescent in a barely autonomous Palestinian entity whose borders, waters and airspace were in the hands of Israel, whose sovereignty extended from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. With the outbreak of the second intifada in the fall of 2000, Israel tightened the closure of Gaza and West Bank towns that had been in place periodically since the early 1990s, penning in Palestinians amidst rising unemployment and poverty. The Israeli army invaded swathes of Area A, imposing days-long curfews, and checkpoints multiplied. But the parallels with apartheid began to take concrete shape, literally, when Israel broke ground on the wall being erected in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The wall starkly illustrated Israel”s logic of separation–Jews here, Palestinians there–and became a rallying point for a host of solidarity movements. Since 2003, when wall construction commenced, political activists have readily adopted the apartheid analogy. So the question becomes: What does the comparison mean and what is its utility?

Unambiguously negative in valence, apartheid in South Africa had few self-proclaimed adherents outside that country”s white community. By the late 1980s, with divestment movements in full bloom on American college campuses, almost no one would defend it or even downplay its horrors. Anti-apartheid events elicited few calls for a “balanced” approach or demands to invite pro-apartheid speakers. The same is emphatically not true of Israel”s system of control over Palestinians. “End the occupation,” though gaining currency as a slogan, does not carry anything like the same automatic moral weight as “end apartheid,” and occupation has numerous influential defenders, some who ruefully describe it as a grim necessity for Israel”s security, and others who unapologetically reframe the debate by lumping Palestinians together with al-Qaeda. Attempts to apply the word “apartheid” to Israel-Palestine run up against an additional problem of scope: Does the term apply merely to the Occupied Territories since 1967, to Israeli dispossession of Palestinians since 1948 or to the entire Zionist project? If “security” and “terrorism” are all-purpose buzzwords that mean too many things, and are applied with little precision, apartheid seems at risk of meeting the same fate.


For Palestinians and their supporters, who have struggled for decades to advance their cause, only to suffer repeated setbacks, the impulse to compare can be overwhelming. Invoking a comparison with South African apartheid, as Arafat did before the UN, is a rhetorical device meant to make sense of enforced ethno-religious separation and mobilize action along the lines of the successful anti-apartheid movement. The comparison need not be exact. South Africa is not the benchmark against which all claims of apartheid must be measured; by the terms of the 1973 UN convention, apartheid is a crime wherever it occurs. Pinpointing differences between apartheid-era South Africa and Israel-Palestine need not render comparison an inappropriate method of inquiry. Indeed, one value of the comparative method that is often overlooked is that it throws important distinguishing characteristics into relief.

A number of prominent persons have lately echoed Palestinians in making the comparison between South Africa and Israel-Palestine. In June 2001, Ronnie Kasrils and Max Ozinsky, two Jewish heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle, made it in an open letter published in a Pretoria newspaper under the heading, “Not in My Name.” The next year, Rev. Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town honored with a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending apartheid, caused a stir when he wrote: “I”ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.”[3] In 2006, John Dugard, a South African lawyer and former special rapporteur on Palestine to the UN Human Rights Council, said that Israel”s wall, checkpoints, permits, bypass roads, house demolitions and destruction of agricultural lands “in severity go well beyond,” “surpass” and “far exceed any similar practices in apartheid South Africa.”[4]

Dugard was writing partly in defense of former President Jimmy Carter, another Nobel Peace Prize winner, who had recently published Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. In the US, the book was rapidly and repeatedly trashed in most newspapers of note, illustrating South African apartheid”s powerful legacy in American moral sensibilities. The furious response came, in part, because the term dramatically challenged the dominant narrative about Palestinian intransigence, “Islamic” terror and Israeli security, as well as the evangelical Christian narrative about a Chosen People with a God-given right to Palestine. In place of these familiar frames, Carter substituted a narrative of dispossession and occupation. It was equally the former president”s stature (and perhaps his own evangelical Christianity) that raised hackles. Human rights organizations had compiled and disseminated information about Israeli practices for decades. With only one paragraph on the comparison to apartheid, the book did not really make the case and, in fact, offered little that was new. But here was the man who helped broker the peace between Israel and Egypt placing Israel under a highly critical lens. The lens of “apartheid” illuminates an offensive rather than defensive posture on the part of the occupying forces and a well-designed plan of action rather than a series of hurried, situational responses to the violence of the occupied. Most significantly, it exposes the trumping of international law in the name of security.

Carter”s book supplied an object lesson in the power comparison can have. Comparison is a way of taking charge. If Israeli occupation practices are comparable to apartheid, then they must be condemned and made subject to sanctions.

The Named and the Unnamed

While South Africa was explicit about the goal of apartheid policies, Israel engages in discursive subterfuge so that the intent and effects of their policies must be seen on the ground to be fully comprehended. Shulamit Aloni, the former Israeli minister of education, relates an episode at a bypass road built for settlers in the West Bank:

On one occasion I witnessed such an encounter between a driver and a soldier who was taking down the details before confiscating the vehicle and sending its owner away. “Why?” I asked the soldier. “It”s an order–this is a Jews-only road,” he replied. I inquired as to where was the sign indicating this fact and instructing [other] drivers not to use it. His answer was nothing short of amazing. “It is his responsibility to know it, and besides, what do you want us to do, put up a sign here and let some anti-Semitic reporter or journalist take a photo so that can show the world apartheid exists here?”[5]

Part of the appeal of the apartheid comparison is that apartheid is a recognized name for an ideology and practice of separation. There is no similar name for what Israel has done. Neither the pre-state Zionist movement nor the state of Israel has ever spelled out an official policy of discrimination against the Palestinians, and Israel did not institute discriminatory practices in one fell swoop. Instead, it has worked in a piecemeal fashion to constrain Palestinian rights and access to resources. In other words, separation in the Occupied Territories has been a process whose legal contours are harder to discern and whose name has yet to circulate abroad.

A corollary assumption underlying the comparison is that Israeli practices cannot be condemned as discriminatory in and of themselves. They cannot stand on their own, partly because they are difficult to understand unless they are seen up close. Most people understand that Zionism, as an ideology and a project, calls for Jewish communal security, and due to centuries of pogroms and the Holocaust, this project commands considerable sympathy. But many people do not understand that Zionism, as put into practice, calls for an exclusivist state that leads to policies characteristic of apartheid, as defined by the UN.

Zionism retains a significant body of supporters in the West, particularly among Jews and evangelical Christians, but also the public at large. For numerous historical, cultural and political reasons, the American public in particular “stands with Israel,” a fact demonstrated by poll after poll and not lost on successive US administrations. Israel and its backers work constantly to cement this support, in part by equating criticism of Israel, the “Jewish state,” with anti-Semitism. Thus, drawing attention to the parallels between Israel”s occupation and apartheid has been one way to turn the tables, framing the occupation (and not criticism of Israel) as inherently racist. But the introduction of race into the conversation heats it up to the boiling point: As the Jews of Europe suffered from persecution and genocidal racism, and Jews comprised a large percentage of the white Americans who put their bodies on the line for civil rights, equating the practices of Zionism with racism is, for many, inconceivable. Rational debate shuts down.

It may be time to develop a new language. “Apartheid” cannot thoroughly explain Zionist ideology or Israeli practices. It can simply offer broad points of comparison, a framing in an already powerful concept. Yet the Afrikaans term does have a Hebrew counterpart in the term hafrada, meaning separation from and putting distance between oneself and others, in this case, the Palestinians. In Hebrew, the wall is often referred to as the “hafrada barrier.”

Components of Comparison

The similarities between South African apartheid and Israel”s control over Palestinians, indeed, are best appreciated in terms of the most prominent difference–that of demography. In apartheid South Africa, whites (English and Afrikaners) were a small minority of the population–around 16 percent. Black labor was pivotal to economic development and thus policy was designed to keep blacks impotent and docile, but in the country. Blacks and whites were socially and politically separated but economically integrated, though unequally. In Palestine, the early Zionists also came face to face with the reality of an overwhelmingly Arab population. At first, there were attempts to integrate the Arabs as workers, but as more Jews arrived and Palestinian nationalism grew in potency, the Zionists decided upon a policy of population thinning. The result is that, within the internationally recognized borders of Israel today, Jews are an estimated 78 percent of the population. If the Occupied Territories are included, the Jewish population is 48-49 percent of the total. These figures make for a markedly different colonial dynamic than what obtained in South Africa.

So where do the grounds for comparison lie? At the level of description, in apartheid South Africa, as in Israel-Palestine today, there was a striking gap between the rulers and the ruled. Israel is a First World nation, as was white-ruled South Africa, and the Palestinian population, especially in Gaza, suffers high poverty rates, as South African blacks still do. As colonial entities premised on separation and dominance, both ruling systems have forcibly expropriated natural resources, contained the native population and worked to ensure their economic dependency. Both states have pursued policies toward the local population out of step with modern, secular, democratic ways of organizing the social order (though they were hardly alone in doing so). Both states have used violent repression to squelch dissent and induce compliance. Opponents of apartheid in South Africa were labeled communists and often legally charged as such and Palestinian militants have been deemed terrorists. Apartheid South Africa routinely used torture and engaged in mass detention of militant opponents, as does Israel. Israel is a nuclear power in a region where its neighbors do not have the bomb, as was apartheid South Africa.

Both states also developed elaborate ideological justifications for how they acted. White-ruled South Africa and Israel took root, to varying degrees, with the assistance and in the service of the prerogatives of Western powers. The early Zionists and white settlers in South Africa both claimed to have found a Promised Land that was also “a land without a people” (though, in fact, both lands were densely populated). Each state assiduously defined itself as Western and thus distinct from its immediate surroundings. Thus both countries attempted to fashion, against the will and interests of the local population, ostensibly Western spaces in the heart of the Arab and African worlds.

Both states went on to draw distinctions among the population in domestic law, along racial lines in South Africa and ethno-religious lines in Israel. In South Africa, the legal system promoted, protected and reproduced white privilege over blacks. Beginning in 1913, laws were passed to deprive blacks of their resources and rights, and confine them in the “reserves” that later became bantustans. Especially after the National Party came to power after World War II, laws compelled black Africans to move to bantustans and allowed for their deportation there, forcing them to become migrant laborers. And, concomitantly, a law was passed that made resistance to deportations illegal.[6]

Israel has also enshrined privilege in law, either with the purpose of excluding Palestinians or assuming minimal responsibility for them, in line with the different colonial dynamic. The Basic Law–there is still no constitution–establishes a “Jewish state” and states that Jews across the world are eligible for citizenship. This right is denied to those Palestinians who were born in what is now Israel and became refugees in 1948, to the refugees” descendants and to Palestinians born in the areas under occupation since 1967.

In the Occupied Territories, two legal systems are operative: Israeli civil law, which applies extra-territorially to Jewish settlers, and military courts for the Palestinians. The South African Human Sciences Research Council said of these courts that their procedures “violate international standards for the prosecution of justice.”[7] The 1993 Oslo accords spawned still a third legal system that, together with the second, bears some resemblance to what obtained in the bantustans. The PA built a court system with nominal jurisdiction over Area A–Gaza and the main West Bank towns–while in Area B, authority is shared with the Israeli army and in Area C the military holds unfettered sway. Palestinian jurisdiction over Area A is nominal, because the Israeli army moves into these districts at will to arrest and extrajudicially execute Palestinians. From 1967 to the present day, settlements, checkpoints, barriers and bypass roads have been erected in breach of international law, and occasionally overriding Israeli civil law. In 2004, the International Court of Justice called upon Israel to “cease forthwith the works of construction” upon the wall, while the Israeli Supreme Court has repeatedly ordered the wall rerouted so as to infringe less upon Palestinian lands and livelihoods. At the same time, Israel is spared the mundane tasks of law enforcement in Area A; the PA stops motorists for speeding and collects the garbage.

Land and Space

The most striking parallel between white rule in South Africa and Israeli rule over the Palestinians is land policy. Both of these settler-colonial formations sought to transfer land ownership to members of the dominant society and then prevent its alienation. Over time, blacks and Palestinians were dispossessed and confined to smaller and smaller areas. Blacks could not own land in white areas. Until very recently in Israel, once the Jewish National Fund owned a plot of land, it could not revert to Arab ownership, and Palestinians who are citizens of the state still face various restrictions on building. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories cannot buy land in a Jewish settlement.

But the different demographics required different means of physically separating the dominant and dominated populations. Blacks in South Africa were forcibly removed to the bantustans, assigned on the basis of an official tribal classification. In the white imagination, each bantustan correlated with a cultural identity such that Swaziland, for example, was home to the Swazi, Ndebele to the Ndebele and Kwazula to the Xhosa. Most significantly, with the bantustans classified as “independent” by the state, their residents were no longer citizens of South Africa. Yet control over defense, security, economic policy and activity and the monetary system was in the hands of the South African government. Interestingly, on the diplomatic front, only Israel and South Africa recognized the bantustans. The bantustans tended to be located in resource-poor rural areas that could not support sustained agriculture. Thus did the white rulers maintain a pool of readily available labor.

The Zionist movement did not desire to integrate the indigenous population into a new political entity. Thus expulsion became a mode of dealing with demography. In 1948, the fledgling state of Israel expelled or engineered the flight of the bulk of the Palestinian population, with many of the refugees and native Gazans and West Bankers winding up under the rule of Egypt or Jordan. In 1967, Israel conquered the areas occupied by Egypt and Jordan, and since then it has tried in various ways to compel voluntary migration. The interlocking system of permits, bypass roads, the wall, checkpoints and settlements is a policy of territorial control but also one of immiseration.

After 1993, the resemblance of the Occupied Territories to apartheid South Africa increased. Officially, the Oslo accords fragmented the West Bank and Gaza into Areas A, B and C, which already rendered the Palestinian polity non-contiguous and subject to varying systems of law. The PA was accorded control over civilian functions in the areas under its nominal control. Israel continues to control the borders, trade and the civil registry. In effect, the PA has limited jurisdiction over the population and little over the bulk of the land. Security is in the hands of the Israel military as well as joint Palestinian-Israeli committees in which Israel retains overall control. Unofficially, but intentionally, the zones allotted to the Palestinians have been further disaggregated by settlements, bypass roads and checkpoints. Three main settlement blocs jut eastward into the West Bank, effectively chopping this zone into three parts. But the lattice of settlements and roads means the three parts are really an archipelago of enclaves corresponding loosely to Palestinian towns or regions: Jenin, Nablus, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Jericho, Bethlehem, Hebron and South Hebron. After 2003, the wall sliced the land into still more pieces.

The West Bank enclaves are self-contained to varying degrees, with Qalqilya at the extreme end being surrounded on three sides by the wall with only a narrow aperture on the fourth. Whereas the bantustans were legislated and named, in the West Bank the spaces of confinement are still emergent and unnamed. People have not been assigned to them. As Israel has circulated no plan to carve out enclaves, they constitute a sort of gray area, with ambiguous and shifting borders in contrast to the tidiness, as it were, of the bantustans. But they also correspond to Area A–the districts given over to PA administration under Oslo and intended to be the kernels of an eventual Palestinian state. Thus Israeli leaders can speak about Palestinian independence and statehood while at the same time building settlements and further obstructing any possibility that this state could be contiguous.

And then there is Gaza, the enclave that, in the post-Oslo era, probably comes closest to resembling an actual bantustan.[8] Like the bantustans, Gaza has scant hope of economic growth, with its population reduced to penury and, despite the coastal strip”s “takeover” by Hamas in 2007, near total dependence on Israel for everything from hard currency to electricity. There is little pretense in Israeli discourse today that Gaza–”Hamastan” in the parlance of Israeli wags–is part of a proto-state for the Palestinians. Its main function, like the bantustans, is to enforce segregation and contain the dislocated. And yet there is a key difference, again resulting from Israel”s demographic imperative: Palestinians in Gaza resemble a surplus population, abandoned because they no longer provide labor and are no longer a major market for Israeli goods.

In the era of apartheid, black and white South Africans lived and worked in some proximity. Blacks worked the mines and factories, labored on farms, cleaned white houses and reared white children. With an economy highly dependent on black labor, black-white interaction was hardly uncommon. Indeed, it was so common that it had to be strictly regulated by law lest apartheid be corroded from within. For example, mixed marriages were outlawed and blacks could not reside in white areas. It has been decades since Jews and Palestinians had such interaction, with poignant exceptions like anti-wall activist groups and Palestinian work gangs in settlements proving the rule. Israeli Jews are increasingly so distant from the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories that laws prohibiting meaningful contact may not be needed.


The realm of labor illustrates some of the most significant differences between South African apartheid and Israeli practices. White South Africans envisioned an integrated economy but one oriented toward white ownership and low-wage black labor. That South Africa”s economy was sustained by cheap black labor seems inevitable given the lopsided demography. Work in the industrial and agricultural sectors, as well as the mines, compelled black workers to spend months away from their families living in dormitories.

From the beginnings of the Zionist project in Palestine, the quest for separation–for exclusive Jewish land and labor–was paramount. Jewish farmers weaned themselves of the Arab helpers who knew how to grow crops in the dry climate, and the pre-state Zionist movement made a priority of acquiring the most fertile land. Massive Jewish immigration after World War II meant that Israel could easily staff its nascent industrial and service sectors with Jews. Palestinian labor was appealing, however, because it was available and less expensive than Jewish labor. After 1967, Israel began to import cheap Palestinian labor across the Green Line. It was a colonial measure, because Israel simultaneously stymied the growth of Palestinian agriculture and industry through land expropriation and structural obstacles. Thus was labor freed for work in Israel and the settlements; passage into Israel was regulated by the state, through the permit system. Palestinians were made “dependent on Israeli demand and regulations.”[9] In the mid-1980s, 45 percent of the Gaza labor force and 32 percent of West Bank workers were employed in Israel. By the mid-1990s, Israel was replacing the Palestinians with Thais, Filipinos, Romanians and Russians. At the same time, the Israeli economy began a discernible shift toward the high-tech security industry and exporting on a global scale.

In short, “security” aside, black and Palestinian mobility beyond their bantustans or enclaves has been largely a function of the dominant economy”s demand, or lack of it, for their labor. South Africans spoke openly about the surplus population, that is, those not working in the white-dominated economy. They were to be confined to the bantustans. In Israel-Palestine, those still needed for work are given permits to move about and those not needed find themselves increasingly cooped up in their cantons. Again, Gaza is the most powerful case in point.


Colonial regimes impose controls upon mobility in order to organize labor, to maintain designated spaces free of the colonized, to the extent of literally preventing their visibility, and to obstruct political organizing. Apartheid in South Africa mandated that blacks carry on their persons at all times a passbook containing a photograph, fingerprints and employment history. The passbook made it easy to classify each black person and allow him to move from one place to another–or not.

Comparisons to South Africa”s notorious passbooks sprung up in Israel-Palestine after the Oslo accords, which lent a veneer of legality to draconian controls over Palestinian mobility. Until the early 1990s, human movement across the Green Line was fairly open. In the late 1980s, Israel began to issue permits to workers from Gaza. After Oslo, the permit system was extended and gradually tightened to where it is today, such that one needs a permit to enter Israel but also to move from place to place in the West Bank, often to reside in one”s own village or town, and to enter Jerusalem. Palestinian farmers living near the wall often need permits to go to their fields on the “Israeli” side of the barrier, which cuts through the hinterlands of their villages. The permit system not only regulates the movement of labor, it also acts as a form of punishment and disciplining of the native population. In this regard, it appears analogous to the South African passbook system. The permits also serve as a mechanism for depriving Palestinians of access to their land. If one”s land is left uncultivated because a gate in the wall is closed, the land can be more easily expropriated.

With replacement workers from abroad, there was no longer much need for a supply of Palestinian labor. A Palestinian desiring a permit to enter Israel, particularly a man, was increasingly seen as a potential suicide bomber rather than a strong back. Thus the permit system was recast under the rubric of security, and permits became more and more difficult to acquire. Israeli controls on Palestinian mobility are arguably worse than the passbook system, because they are capricious and random. A trucker headed from Ramallah to Hebron never knows which checkpoint along the way will be backed up for hours and where on the road a “flying checkpoint”–one or two army jeeps and a cement block–will appear. The constant and arbitrary changing of the rules renders daily life for Palestinians in the West Bank unpredictable. Apartheid in South Africa was highly regulated and predictable.

Historically, South Africa and Israel have induced high levels of forced migration. The white South Africans engaged in mass deportations of blacks from one area to another, especially during the 1960s, when the government was attempting to consolidate the bantustans and draw boundaries in response to white farmers” desire for more land. In these years, nearly 2 million blacks were removed from their homes to another area.[10] Half the Palestinian population of about 8 million is made up of refugees, most from the fighting in 1948 and some from the war in 1967. Today Palestinians are being displaced through of a policy of immiseration designed to induce ostensibly voluntary migration from rural areas to urban areas and abroad.

A Strategic Question

By the terms of international law, there is apartheid in the Palestinian lands occupied by Israel in 1967. The Israeli system of rule over Palestinians can be credibly described, and to some extent analyzed, as something akin to apartheid as it was practiced in South Africa until 1994. But as a framework for activism and advocacy, the language of apartheid is heavily freighted with history, to wit, its indelible association with one particular historical experience. The international community eventually rejected and sanctioned apartheid in South Africa, whereas it has been difficult to mobilize international support for Palestinian rights. Apartheid South Africa had little external support comparable to Israel”s and defenders of its ideology and practices were precious few.

Another critical difference is that the UN and the international community gave South African apartheid the cold shoulder; the world body and other nations (except, again, Israel) refused to recognize the bantustans as independent political entities. In Israel-Palestine, there is a long history of warm world support for the concepts of territorial partition and ethno-religious separation. The UN formally endorsed partition in 1947, and today every major effort to bring peace to Israel-Palestine or engender amity between its peoples is predicated upon the two-state solution. More to the point, the international community, led by the US, has thrown its weight behind the untenable two-state vision associated with the Oslo accords and their successor, the “road map” drawn up on the watch of President George W. Bush. The “Quartet” of the US, the European Union, Russia and the UN secretariat is promoting a peace process that calls for neither a complete Israeli withdrawal from all territories captured in 1967 nor the dismantlement of the bulk of the settlements built since then. The international community has given its blessing to the idea of a non-contiguous Palestinian entity.

The international community, or at least the precincts of it that call the shots, also continues to view the apartheid-like practices of Israel in the Occupied Territories through the prism of security. The US harshly rejected the 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice against the wall in East Jerusalem and the West Bank (and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, then on the presidential campaign trail, hastened to concur, lest anyone find partisan daylight between him and Bush on this score). The US sees the wall as a legitimate means of deterring Palestinian attacks on Israel, a defense it extends to checkpoints, restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement, home demolitions, extrajudicial executions and other violations of international law. Most dramatically, the US, with the tacit backing of European and Arab allies, has eagerly enforced the years-long siege on Gaza and acquiesced in several Israeli assaults upon the territory, including the egregious Operation Cast Lead over the winter of 2008-2009. The international community appears to see no contradiction between its simultaneous support for a “viable Palestinian state” and the physical and virtual amputation of Gaza from the Palestinian body politic. The siege of Gaza is an apartheid measure, if ever there was one.

All this suggests that there is long, hard work ahead in the effort to mobilize international support for Palestinian rights. The question of what language to use in that effort is therefore strategic, not tactical. Ferreting out the parameters of the analogy to apartheid in South Africa suggests a new direction, the local language of separation. It may be time to question the use of the analogy seriously and explore the terminology used by the Israeli state to frame its own actions, just as activists adopted the word white South Africans used for their system of rule. Perhaps the Hebrew hafrada can one day become a rallying cry as powerful as “apartheid” was in its day.


[1] Human Sciences Research Council, Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid? A Reassessment of Israel”s Practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territories Under International Law (Cape Town, May 2009), p. 13.

[2] Leila Farsakh, “Independence, Cantons or Bantustans: Whither the Palestinian State?” Middle East Journal 59/2 (Spring 2008), p. 238.

[3] Desmond Tutu, “Apartheid in the Holy Land,” Guardian, April 29, 2002.

[4] John Dugard, “Israel Adopts What South Africa Dropped,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 29, 2006.

[5] Shulamit Aloni, “This Road Is for Jews Only. Yes, There Is Apartheid in Israel,” Counterpunch, January 8, 2007.

[6] Barbara Rogers, Divide and Rule: South Africa”s Bantustans (London: International Defense and Aid Fund, 1976), pp. 9, 17-24.

[7] Human Sciences Research Council, p. 17.

[8] See Darryl Li, “Disengagement and the Frontiers of Zionism,” Middle East Report Online, February 16, 2008.

[9] Leila Farsakh, “The Political Economy of Israeli Occupation: What Is Colonial About It?” MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies 8 (Spring 2008), p. 48.

[10] Rogers, pp. 26-27.

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