Israel/Palestine and the Apartheid Analogy: Critics, Apologists and Strategic lessons (Parts 1 & 2)

by Ran Greenstein

I. Introduction

In the last decade, the notion that the Israeli system of political and military control bears strong resemblance to the apartheid system in South Africa has gained ground. It is invoked regularly by movements and activists opposed to the 1967 occupation and to various other aspects of Israeli policies vis-í -vis the Palestinian-Arab people. It is denounced regularly by official Israeli spokespersons and unofficial apologists. The more empirical and theoretical discussion of the nature of the respective regimes and their historical trajectories has become marginalized in the process. Only a few studies pursue such comparison with any analytical rigour.1

There are three crucial distinctions we must make in order to address the issue properly and avoid the usual conceptual and political muddle that afflict the debate:

1. We need to consider which Israel is our topic of concern: Israel as it exists today, with boundaries extending from the Mediterranean to the river Jordan, or Israel as it existed before 1967, along the Green Line? Is it Israel as a state that encompasses all its citizens, within the Green Line and beyond? Israel as it defines itself, or as it is defined by others? And which definition is legitimate according to international law? Are the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 part of the definition or an element external to it? Which boundaries (geographical, political, ideological and moral) are most relevant for our discussion? What are their implications for our understanding of the nature of the regime and its relation to various groups in the population subject to it?

Each definition of the situation carries with it different consequences for the analysis of the apartheid analogy. Perhaps the central question in this respect is the relationship between three components: ‘Israel proper’ (within its pre-1967 boundaries), ‘Greater Israel’ (within the post-1967 boundaries), and ‘Greater Palestine’ (a demographic rather than geographic concept, covering all Arabs who trace their origins to pre-1948 Palestine). While discussion of the relationship between the first two components is common, the third component — and its relevance to the apartheid analogy — is usually ignored.

2. We need to distinguish between historical apartheid (the specific system that prevailed in South Africa between 1948 and 1994) and the generic notion of apartheid that stands for an oppressive system which allocates political and social rights in a differentiated manner based on people’s origins (including but not restricted to race). To illustrate the point, pointing to different trends in the use made of indigenous labour power in the two countries (exploitation in South Africa, exclusion in Israel/Palestine) serves to distinguish between historical apartheid and the Israeli ethnic-based class society. They are indeed different in this respect. But, it cannot serve to refute the claim that Israel is practicing apartheid in its generic sense of exclusion and discrimination on grounds of origins. That claim has to be tackled in its own terms, independently of our understanding of the specific South African history. This is especially the case as some features of apartheid in South Africa changed during the course of its own historical evolution and thus cannot serve as a benchmark in evaluating other political systems.

3. We need to distinguish between the extent of similarity of South African laws, structures and practices to their Israeli equivalents, and consequent strategies of political change. Even if we conclude that there is a great degree of structural similarity between the two states it would not tell us much about how we can apply political strategies used successfully in the former case to the latter case. Neither would it tell us much about the direction in which the Israeli system of control is heading. For that we need to undertake a concrete analysis of Israeli/Palestinian societies, their local and international allegiances, bases of support, vulnerabilities, and so on.

II. What Is Apartheid?

The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, adopted by the UN General Assembly in November 1973, regards apartheid as “a crime against humanity” and a violation of international law. Apartheid means “similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practised in southern Africa . . . committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”. A long list of such practices ensues, including “denial to a member or members of a racial group or groups of the right to life and liberty of person . . . by the infringement of their freedom or dignity”, and legislative and other measures “calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups, in particular by denying to members of a racial group or groups basic human rights and freedoms, including the right to work, the right to form recognized trade unions, the right to education, the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association”. In addition, this includes measures “designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups, the prohibition of mixed marriages among members of various racial groups, the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group or groups or to members thereof”.2

This is not an exhaustive list — and not all practices must be present simultaneously to qualify as apartheid — but it is based on key elements of historical apartheid. A point that stands out here is the notion of race: if we stick to the common definition of race (indicating biological origins, usually associated with physical appearance, primarily skin colour), we can dismiss the case of applicability to Israel immediately. The definition clearly is not relevant to the relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Both groups are racially diverse and cannot be distinguished on the basis of physical appearance.

Having said that, we must consider that race — just like apartheid — is a term that can apply beyond its conceptual and geographical origins. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1965, applies the term racial discrimination to “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” This does not apply, however, to “distinctions, exclusions, restrictions or preferences made by a State Party to this Convention between citizens and non-citizens”, and it does not affect “the legal provisions of States Parties concerning nationality, citizenship or naturalization”.3 These qualifications may exclude some practices common to apartheid South Africa and Israel, revolving around the boundaries of citizenship, but there are no similar loopholes in the 1973 convention on apartheid.

Putting together the two conventions, we end up with a definition of apartheid as a set of policies and practices of legal discrimination, political exclusion, and social marginalization, based on racial, national or ethnic origins. This definition obviously draws on historical apartheid but cannot be reduced to it. The focus of attention should be on the actual practices of the state, and the extent to which they are exclusionary or discriminatory, rather than on the degree of similarity to or difference from the historical case of apartheid South Africa. For example, whether the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is really a ‘Bantustan’ is not an important or interesting question. Whether it practices pseudo-independent rule that disguises the effective control by Israel is the real focus of concern. We should be interested in the substance of the political arrangements rather than in the convenient labels we can stick on them. How this definition, then, applies to Israel in substantive terms is a key theme to be addressed here.

III. What Is Israel? Perspectives from the Left

But first, what (or rather where) is Israel? In a recent book, The Time of the Green Line, Professor Yehouda Shenhav of Tel Aviv University argues against the notion that there is still any meaningful distinction between ‘Israel itself’ (in its pre-1967 boundaries) and the occupied Palestinian territories.4 He criticizes what he terms the 1967 Green Line paradigm, for which Israel, a democratic nation-state of the Jewish people, with a minority of Palestinian citizens, is separate from the territories. According to that paradigm, the 1967 occupation is an anomaly that introduced a large number of Palestinian non-citizens into the system. As long as no final decision is made on the future of the territories they remain under temporary occupation. The suspension of democracy and of political rights affecting their residents is a result of the unresolved conflict, but it does not affect the democratic nature of Israel itself. The conflict can be resolved through the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, alongside Israel. This arrangement has become known as the two-state solution: it will restore Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and give Palestinians their own nation-state.

What is the problem with this paradigm? Shenhav identifies four ‘political anomalies’ that make the distinction between democratic pre-1967 Israel and the occupied territories difficult to sustain. These anomalies reflect the interests and concerns of specific groups in the population:

1. Palestinian refugees who trace the origin of their situation to 1948. For those of them residing in the occupied territories, 1967 was a moment of liberation, in the sense that their ability to move within their homeland was enhanced as a result.

2. Jewish religious-nationalist settlers, for whom the Green Line is not morally or politically meaningful, and Israel as a Jewish state extends beyond it, all the way to the Jordan River (and possibly beyond it).

3. The people of the ‘third Israel’, who feel marginalized by the dominant political system, and for whom the occupation has provided substantial benefits. They include settlers driven by socio-economic reasons rather than religious-nationalist motivations: primarily Mizrahim, orthodox Jews and Russian immigrants.

4. The 1948 Palestinians, who remained within the State of Israel and became its citizens; for them 1967 represented an opportunity to reunite with their people and the Arab world from which they were forcibly separated when Israel was established.

For all these groups, pre-1967 Israel (regarded nostalgically as a democratic haven by adherents of the Green Line paradigm) was an oppressive social and political space. A return to it would not improve their situation and might even make it worse. Although they come from different religious, political and social backgrounds, they are united in rejecting the notion that the two-state solution would lead to a sustainable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The refugees would not benefit from the reconstitution of a Jewish Israel from which they would remain excluded; the settlers would oppose their removal from what they see as a God-given homeland; the people of the ‘third Israel’ would resent being relegated to a position of marginality from which the occupation extricated them; the 1948 Palestinians would be separated again from the Arab world and be subjected to the same exclusion and oppression from which they suffered before 1967.

And who would benefit from the two-state solution? The answer is secular Ashkenazi-Jewish elites, who had been in political and social control before the 1967 war, but have lost their dominant position since then. The rise of new Mizrahi, religious, immigrant and Arab voices has undermined the dominance of those elites. A return to small, ‘enlightened’ pre-1967 Israel, in which their power was unchallenged, would allow them to re-assert their position at the expense of other groups. That is why they are the main advocates for the Green Line paradigm. They have managed to make it the dominant perspective in public discourse, but underlying social and cultural currents have led to its continued decline in policy and practice. Increasing diplomatic support for the two-state solution has gone together with growing blurring of the physical, legal and symbolic boundaries between Israel and the occupied territories. Most residents of the country have never experienced any reality other than that of Greater Israel.

Thus, the rhetorical victory of the paradigm, as expressed in almost unanimous international support for it, and its invocation in all UN resolutions, has disguised its demise in practice. As a result of Israeli settlement activities, which created new realities, the prospect of a viable independent Palestinian state has become more remote than ever. Through massive allocation of state resources, and a consistent policy of expansion, Israel has created a patchwork of disconnected areas in which Palestinians live, criss-crossed by settlement infrastructure. This makes the task of removing hundreds of thousands of settlers, and restoring the integrity of the pre-1967 boundaries, virtually impossible. Separation between Jewish settlers and local residents within the occupied territories is maintained through an elaborate system of laws and military regulations, with settlers legally and politically incorporated into Israel, while Palestinians live as stateless subjects. The crucial distinction now is between citizens and non-citizens within the same territory, rather than between the pre- and post-1967 territories.

A similar argument, but without Shenhav’s sociological focus on marginalized Jewish groups, is provided by Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli analyst who was the first to put forward the thesis that the occupation had become irreversible (back in the mid-1980s). Israeli hold over the territories beyond the Green Line had become permanent for most practical purposes, Benvenisti argues, even if their Palestinian residents remain excluded from citizenship and rights. This means that defining the territories as occupied is misleading, as they have become incorporated into the Israeli system of control. Disguising this reality, by keeping the pretence that the situation is temporary and there is a meaningful ‘peace process’ that would result in change, helps maintain the status quo. The paradigm of temporary occupation should be replaced by that of a ‘de facto bi-national regime’, which can describe the “mutual dependence of both societies, as well as the physical, economic, symbolic and cultural ties that cannot be severed without an intolerable cost.” The bi-national situation does not mean parity of power due to “the total dominance of the Jewish-Israeli nation, which controls a Palestinian nation that is fragmented both territorially and socially . . . only a strategy of permanent rule can explain the vast settlement enterprise and the enormous investment in housing and infrastructure, estimated at US $100 billion.”5

The system is geared to undermine every agent or process that puts the Jewish community’s total domination in jeopardy and threatens its ability to accumulate political and material advantages. It has evolved as an unplanned response to some “genetic code” of a settler society, but it is no longer dependent on settlements and military occupation to entrench itself. It is sustained by Israel’s success in fragmenting Palestinians and ensuring that each of the fragments is concerned only with its own affairs with no interest in or capacity to work together with the others. As a result, a bi-national reality has emerged and partition is no longer a viable option, if it ever was. The two national groups are destined to live together and the only question is what kind of relations between them can and will be established.

A more complex picture is presented by Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir, who make a distinction between the two sides of the Green Line, in an attempt to understand how both are governed by a single internally differentiated regime.6 This regime has a dual character: brutal oppression, denial of human and political rights, total disregard for the welfare of subjects in the occupied territories, combined with (qualified) democracy in pre-1967 boundaries. This duality exists within the boundaries of the same regime. Talking today about Israel in its pre-1967 boundaries as a distinct social and political entity is meaningless — the regime encompasses both sides of the Green Line and they are interdependent. The occupied territories are included in a way that retains their exclusion from the realm of legitimate politics (they fall rather under notions of ‘security’ or of ‘demography’). The regime incorporates the occupied territories as a permanent ‘outside’, an ‘inclusive exclusion’: a space that is always subject to Israeli domination (in the Gaza Strip today just as much as in the West Bank since 1967) but is never absorbed into Israel. Neither withdrawal from the territories nor their annexation is a likely outcome: this is not a result of failure to decide on a policy due to fierce internal debate as it is usually portrayed; rather, it is a firm policy decision to retain this ambiguity forever, if possible.

While in the occupied territories the distinction between citizen (soldier, state official, settler) and non-citizen (Palestinian resident) is paramount, within the Green Line the ethnic distinction between Jewish and Arab citizens is crucial. In the occupied territories both distinctions overlap but not so in Israel, which is why it is important not to lump them together. This tension between the principles of ethnicity and citizenship opens up opportunities for change. Israeli Palestinians are discriminated against but are not subject to the same system of domination as their counterparts who live under occupation. They can exercise their citizenship rights to campaign for meaningful political and social integration as equals. And, in doing that, they could open the way for changing the regime itself. Occupied Palestinians can resist the occupation but the road to changing the regime itself is blocked, because they have no effective leverage from the external position into which they are forced. Overall regime change thus hinges on the success of changing Israel from within through the joint efforts of Israeli Palestinians and their Jewish allies. A change there will open possibilities for further change in the nature of the regime itself.

IV. Is Israel an Apartheid State?

Despite their different emphases and disagreements, all views above agree that it is impossible to look at Israel in isolation from the occupied territories. In other words, Greater Israel is the effective boundary of control and meaningful unit of political analysis. They may also agree — but do not discuss it explicitly — that Greater Palestine is an essential part of the picture even though it is beyond the 1948 and 1967 boundaries. In fact, precisely how Palestinians from the ‘beyond’ came to occupy that position and remain there against their will is part of the system of control which is left largely unaddressed. Perhaps uniquely in modern history, the Israeli regime was founded historically — and continues to be essentially based — on the forcible exclusion of a large part of its potential citizens. How to conceptualize this state of affairs remains a challenge.

This apparent agreement notwithstanding, many voices critical of Israeli policies retain a focus on the occupied territories and use the apartheid label to describe and condemn Israeli control there but not elsewhere. Famous references to the notion of apartheid in Israel/Palestine by former US President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Professor John Dugard, the special rapporteur for the UN Commission on Human Rights, are restricted to Israeli practices of occupation and do not deal with Israel ‘proper’. This is the case also for the thorough 2009 report by the South African Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), titled “Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid”.7

That the conceptual distinction between Israel and the occupied territories is still so entrenched, despite the fact that Israel has occupied the territories for 43 years (and had existed only 19 years without them), is a testimony to the success of the Israeli strategy of externalizing them from its body politic while retaining effective control over them. It is also a testimony to the spirit of nationalist resistance to the occupation (in the territories) and struggle for equal rights by Palestinian citizens of Israel. It is precisely this distinction that serves as the starting point for those rejecting the suitability of the apartheid analogy. I will examine in this section one such case of rejection, provided by the Israeli/South African journalist Benjamin Pogrund.

Armed with real though limited anti-apartheid credentials, and with a critical attitude towards Israeli policies in the occupied territories, Pogrund is perfectly positioned to present the case against the analogy between apartheid and Israel. Unlike others who work directly in the service of Israeli propaganda, he maintains an appearance of political independence and therefore a measure of credibility when addressing the issue in the international media (he seems to be completely absent from internal Israeli debates). He has become a key spokesperson — possibly in an unofficial capacity — against any attempt to label the Israeli regime and its practices as a form of apartheid, and to borrow concepts and strategies from the experience of the anti-apartheid movements in South Africa. His approach replicates many of the taken-for-granted assumptions and blind spots of liberal-left Zionists, which need to be addressed in some length.

What are Pogrund’s arguments? In dealing with Israel inside the Green Line, he acknowledges that Palestinian citizens “suffer extensive discrimination, ranging from denial of land use, diminished job opportunities and lesser social benefits”, and so on. Yet, “discrimination occurs despite equality in law; it is extensive, it is buttressed by custom, but it is not remotely comparable with the South African panoply of discrimination enforced by parliamentary legislation.”8 Pogrund clearly is unfamiliar with the extensive research and advocacy work done by legal and human rights organizations such as Adalah — the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel — and Mossawa — the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel. A look at their publications would show precisely such ‘panoply’ of discriminatory practices and laws, albeit frequently formulated in more subtle language than the blunt South African legislation. It would seem that the task of a critical journalist should consist in exposing such legal practices rather than covering up for them.9

But, Pogrund argues, “Arabs have the vote. Blacks did not. The vote means citizenship and power to change. Arab citizens lack full power as a minority community but they have the right and the power to unite as a group and to ally with others.” True enough, but then — as he should be fully aware of — some blacks in South Africa did have the right to vote at certain periods of history, most recently with PW Botha’s 1983 Constitution, which established the Tricameral parliament. This applied to minority black communities classified as coloured and Indian, not to the majority of the black African population, and they voted on a separate role rather than a common one for all citizens. And yet, they faced similar political marginalization as minorities just as Palestinian citizens of Israel do: in both cases these groups represented about 15% of the overall indigenous population and enjoyed a relatively privileged status, though in neither case have such privileges prevented them from supporting the overall struggle for national liberation. Of course, the analogy between the political status of such minority groups in South Africa and Israel is not perfect; no analogy ever is. But, it does make for potentially useful exploration that is entirely absent from Pogrund’s account.10

Beyond these issues there is a bigger concern. Pogrund says: “Israel now has a Jewish majority and they have the right to decide how to order the society, including defining citizenship. If the majority wish to restrict immigration and citizenship to Jews that may be incompatible with a strict definition of the universality of humankind. But it is the right of the majority.” Missing from this statement are a few inconvenient facts. For example, Jews became a majority in the country only through the ethnic cleansing of 1948 and, long before the UN partition resolution of 1947, the Zionist movement created an ever-expanding zone of exclusion by removing all Palestinian-Arab residents from land acquired by official Jewish agencies and by denying them employment in all Jewish public-owned workplaces. The crucial fact that Palestinians are not immigrants, nor are they seeking rights in someone else’s country but rather in their own homeland, is ignored as well. In fact, the situation is the precise opposite: Jewish immigrant settlers are granted rights directly at the expense of indigenous Arabs, a state of affairs that Pogrund should be familiar with from his South African experience.

While recognizing that “it is clearly unfair from the victims’ point of view for Israel to give automatic entry to Jews from anywhere while denying the ‘Right of Return’ to Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the wars of 1948 and 1967, and their descendants”, he claims that it is not unique to Israel: “The same has happened in recent times, often on far greater scales, in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, India and Pakistan, to list but a few parallel situations.” Again, this argument deliberately ignores the fact that no European country recognizes the right of ‘ethnic kin’ to return at the expense of its indigenous population. That the Law of Return in Israel recognizes the rights of all Jews to citizenship (even if they and their ancestors for millennia never set foot in the territory) and denies the same right to all Palestinians who are not citizens already (even if they and their ancestors were born there) is without parallel. No other country practices such policies, not even South Africa under apartheid.

Do India and Pakistan, then, provide any grounds for regarding the Israeli case as unexceptional? The answer is no, for two reasons: there was forcible but symmetrical exchange of populations between the two countries, whereas Israel expelled the indigenous population in a one-sided manner.11 And, Hindu refugees from Pakistan and Muslim refugees from India accounted for 2-3% of their countries’ respective populations. In comparison, Palestinian refugees from the territories that became Israel in 1948 accounted for 80% of the Arab population in those areas (and about 60% of the Arab population of the entire country). The removal of the majority of the indigenous population by settler immigrants is unprecedented. In a sense Pogrund is right in rejecting the apartheid analogy here: apartheid was about exploiting indigenous people, not expelling them from their country. This is a key difference between the two cases, but hardly one that portrays Israel in a better light.

Turning to the occupied West Bank (ignoring Gaza), Pogrund tries to create a false picture of symmetry: “Everyone is suffering, Palestinians as victims and Israelis as perpetrators. Death and maiming haunts everyone in the occupied territories and in Israel itself. Occupation is brutalising and corrupting both Palestinians and Israelis. The damage done to the fabric of both societies, moral and material, is incalculable.” This pseudo-humanist rhetoric disguises the crucial difference between the oppressors and the oppressed: the former are perpetrators; they do not suffer, they cause suffering; they do most of the killing and maiming, the bulk of the damage and brutalization, and all the land expropriation and political oppression. That the Palestinians are not oppressed “on racial grounds as Arabs”, but on national grounds (as Arabs), does little to offset the huge disparity in power, resources, ability to inflict damage, and impunity with which Israel pursues its settlement and occupation policies. Neither does the fact that “The Israeli aim is the exact opposite [of historical apartheid]: it is to keep Palestinians out, having as little to do with them as possible, and letting in as few as possible to work”, rather than exploit their labour, provide much consolation. After much of their land was taken away from them, Black South Africans under apartheid remained with the prospect of finding work with whites. Palestinians in the occupied territories, in comparison, are deprived of land and job prospects. Little wonder that they do not find the notion that they are free from apartheid rule very comforting. . . .

If Israel were “to annex the West Bank and control voteless Palestinians as a source of cheap labour”, Pogrund continues, “or for religious messianic reasons or strategic reasons — that could indeed be analogous to apartheid. But it is not the intention except in the eyes of a minority — settlers and extremists who speak of ‘transfer’ to clear Palestinians out of the West Bank, or who desire a disenfranchised Palestinian population.” He seems ignorant of the fact that for the first twenty years of the occupation that was indeed the case: voteless Palestinians were a source of cheap labour for Israelis. For the last twenty years, Palestinians have remained disenfranchised, though they have been largely replaced by immigrant workers as a source of cheap labour. And, for the entire duration of the occupation — 43 years so far — Israel has controlled the territories for religious messianic or strategic reasons, regardless of the professed intentions of its population. The only difference between the scenario portrayed by Pogrund and reality itself is formal annexation. But actual practices on the ground are much more powerful than legal formulas. Indeed, Benvenisti’s argument that keeping the pretence that the occupation is temporary helps maintain the status quo comes in handy here. Empty rhetoric about the need for “genuine peace efforts” cannot disguise the fact that the longer the peace process continues, the more entrenched Israeli control over the occupied territories becomes.

In summary, then, with regard to ‘Israel proper’ Pogrund misrepresents both the extent and the nature of the systemic formal and informal discrimination against Palestinian citizens. With regard to ‘Greater Israel’, he ignores the quasi-permanent nature of the occupation and the fact that Palestinian residents have been living under a system of an effective apartheid-like control for 43 years already, as recognized by most critical South African visitors. As for ‘Greater Palestine’, it plays no role in the analysis: to include it would shatter his entire construction. In other words, he provides a partial and deceptive analysis.

Examining the different aspects of Israeli policies, Palestinian citizens are granted rights that were denied to the majority of black people, occupied Palestinians are treated in much the same way as black people were treated (especially residents of the ‘homelands’), and Palestinian refugees are excluded to a far greater degree than black South Africans ever were. Considering apartheid in the generic sense, then, Israeli policies and practices meet many — not all — of the criteria identified in the international convention on apartheid, with the qualification that they are based on ethno-national rather than racial grounds.

This does not mean that the Israeli society, state, and system of control are indeed the same as those of historical apartheid, although they do bear family resemblances. No case is like any other. Even countries that shared much history with South Africa — Such as Zimbabwe and Namibia under colonial rule — did not have identical systems, and apartheid itself changed substantially over time. While the technologies of rule (coercive, legal and physical) used by Israel have largely converged with their apartheid counterparts, crucial differences between the societies remain. These involve ideological motivations, economic strategies, and political configurations. In all these respects, Israel/Palestine shows greater tendency towards exclusion than is the case for South Africa, and to understand why we need to examine historical trajectories.12

Contemporary South Africa is the product of a long history, which saw various colonial forces (the Dutch East India Company and the British Empire, Afrikaner and English settlers, missionaries, farming and mining lords and so on) collaborate and compete over the control of various indigenous groups. Over a long period of expansion, stretching over centuries, this pattern created a multi-layered system of domination, collaboration and resistance. Numerous political entities (British colonies, Boer republics, African kingdoms, missionary territories) emerged as a result, accompanied by diverse social relations (slavery, indentured labour, land and labour tenancy, sharecropping and wage labour). White supremacy was a means to ensure white prosperity, using black labour as its foundation.

By the late 19th century, a more systematic approach had begun to crystallize. It was used to streamline the pre-existing multiplicity of conditions and policies into a uniform mode of control, which would guarantee the economic incorporation of black people while keeping them politically excluded. Apartheid was a link in this historical chain, seeking to close existing loopholes and entrench white domination. During the same period, the nature of resistance changed as well, from early attempts to retain independence, to a struggle for incorporation on an equal basis, based on the massive presence of indigenous people in the white-dominated economy. The exploitation of labour gave them a crucial strategic lever for change due to their indispensable role in ensuring white prosperity. Since the 1930s at least, black political movements aimed to transform the state rather than form independent political structures. By the late 1970s, white elites had started to realize that apartheid was becoming counter-productive in ensuring prosperity. It was too costly and cumbersome, and increasingly irrational from an economic point of view: it hampered the creation of an internal market and prevented a shift to a technology-oriented growth strategy. The resistance movement that grew after the 1976 Soweto uprising, combined with international pressure and increasing stress on the state’s resources and capacity, gave the final push towards a settlement. This took the form of a unified political framework, within which numerous social struggles continue to unfold.

The South African trajectory can be contrasted with that of Israel/Palestine, which produced two distinct ethno-national groups. The formation of Israel in 1948 and the unfolding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have deepened the divide between the communities (though they also gave rise to Palestinian citizens as an intermediary group). A major reason for this diversion is that settler Jews and indigenous Arabs had started to consolidate their group identities — linked to broader ethno-national collectives — before the initial encounter between them, whereas settlers and indigenous people in South Africa formed their collective identities locally in the course of the colonial encounter. As a result, the Zionist project in Israel/Palestine has faced indigenous people as an obstacle to be removed from the land to clear the way for Jewish immigration into the country. White settlers in South Africa, in contrast, focused on controlling resources and populations (land and labour) to enhance their wealth. Political domination was a means to an economic goal in South Africa, whereas it has become a goal in its own right in Israel/Palestine.

On the basis of this trajectory, the founding act of the State of Israel in 1948 was inextricably linked with the nakba — the ethnic cleansing of the majority of the indigenous population living in the areas allocated to the new state. This has had contradictory effects: on the one hand, the removal of most Palestinians and the relegation of the rest to the status of a permanently marginalized minority have allowed the state to adopt democratic norms premised on Jewish demographic dominance. On the other hand, the same process ensured a permanent external threat from Palestinians who were dispossessed in 1948. Neither outcome had parallels in South Africa under apartheid. With the 1967 occupation, another component was added to the picture, which began to resemble historical apartheid: a large number of people became incorporated into the Israeli labour market but remained disenfranchised. The state was unwilling to extend to them political and civil rights enjoyed by Palestinian citizens, and unable to impose on them another round of the 1948 ethnic cleansing. They remain stuck in the middle, subject to a monstrous legal-military apparatus aimed to ensure their subordination, without annexation and without ethnic ‘purification’.

Is this apartheid in its generic sense, then? In crucial respects it is indeed. It is important to understand its similarities to and differences from historical apartheid, though, not for purposes of labelling but because they provide crucial clues for strategies of resistance and change. Any discussion of possible alternatives will benefit from such understanding.


1 Exceptions are Ran Greenstein, Genealogies of Conflict: Class, Identity and State in Palestine/Israel and South Africa (Wesleyan University Press, 1995); Mona Younis, Liberation and Democratization: The South African and Palestinian National Movements (University of Minnesota Press, 2000); Hilla Dayan, “Regimes of Separation: Israel/Palestine and the Shadow of Apartheid”, pp 281-322 in The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, edited by Adi Ophir, Michal Givoni and Sari Hanafi (Zone Books, 2009).

2 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, 30 November 1973.

3 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 21 December 1965.

4 Yehouda Shenhav, The Time of the Green Line (Am Oved, 2010), in Hebrew.

5 Meron Benvenisti, “United We Stand”, Ha’aretz, 28 January 2010.

6 Ariela Azoulay and Adi Ophir, The Regime Which Is Not One: Occupation and Democracy between the Sea and the River: 1967 — (Resling, 2008), in Hebrew. An excerpt from the book appeared in English as “The Order of Violence”, pp 99-140 in The Power of Inclusive Exclusion (Zone Books, 2009).

7 HSRC, Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid?: A Re-assessment of Israel’s Practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territories under International Law (HSRC Press, 2009).

8 Benjamin Pogrund, “Israel Is a Democracy in Which Arabs Vote — Not an Apartheid State”, Focus, 40 (December 2005). Online version in <>.

9 Among many examples, see Adalah, Legal Violations of Arab Minorities in Israel (March 1998); Adalah, Annual Report of Activities, 2009 (February 2010); Mossawa Center, The Human Rights Status of the Palestinian Arab Minority, Citizens of Israel (October 2008); Mossawa Center, One Year for Israel’s New Government and the Arab Minority in Israel (April 2010).

10 See the analogy between Palestinian citizens and coloured South Africans in Oren Yiftachel, “‘Creeping Apartheid’ in Israel/Palestine”, Middle East Report, 253 (Winter 2009).

11 Since Palestinian refugees did not move into countries from which Jews left for Israel in the 1950s (Iraq, Yemen, North Africa), nor did they enjoy access to abandoned Jewish property, there was no exchange of populations there.

12 Extended discussion of these issues can be found in Greenstein, Genealogies of Conflict.

Israel/Palestine and the Apartheid Analogy: Critics, Apologists and Strategic Lessons (Part 2)
by Ran Greenstein

I. Apartheid of a Special Type

In the previous section I made a distinction between historical apartheid (unique to South Africa) and apartheid in its generic form — a structured system of political exclusion and social marginalization on the basis of origins (including but not restricted to race). I concluded that Israel is different from historical apartheid, but it displays characteristics that allow us to define it as a form of generic apartheid. There is a family resemblance between the two regimes. This applies to Israel in an extended sense, covering ‘Israel proper’ in its pre-1967 boundaries, ‘Greater Israel’ with the occupied Palestinian territories, and ‘Greater Palestine’ with the 1948 Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

By de-linking historical apartheid from its generic form we no longer need to retain a focus on South African racial policies and practices. And yet, I argue in this section, it would be useful to keep a focus on comparing apartheid South Africa and Israel, in order to highlight crucial features of the Israeli system. The comparison would allow us to analyze Israeli-Palestinian relations, evaluate possible alternatives to the status quo, and devise strategies of political struggle and transformation based (among other things) on South African experiences. We must keep in mind here that the point of a comparative analysis is not to provide a list of similarities and differences for its own sake, but to use one case in order to reflect critically on the other and thus learn more about both.

Back in the early 1960s, the South African Communist Party coined the term ‘colonialism of a special type’ to refer to a system that combined the colonial legacies of racial discrimination, political exclusion and socio-economic inequalities, with political independence from the British Empire. It used this novel concept to devise a strategy for political change that treated local whites as potential allies rather than as colonial invaders to be removed from the territory. Making analytical sense of apartheid in South Africa was relatively straightforward since it was an integrated system of legal-political control. Although different laws applied to different groups of people, the source of authority was clear. Making sense of generic apartheid in the case of Israel is more complicated. The degree of legal-political differentiation is greater, as it includes an array of formal and informal military regulations in the occupied territories and policies delegating powers and resources to non-state institutions (the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund, and so on), who act on behalf of the state but in a more opaque manner, not open to public scrutiny. That much of the relevant legal apparatus applies beyond Israeli boundaries (to Jews, all of whom are regarded as potential citizens, and to Palestinians, all of whom are regarded as prohibited persons), adds another dimension to the analysis. For this reason, we may talk about ‘apartheid of a special type’ — a unique system that combines democratic norms, military occupation, and exclusion/inclusion of extra-territorial populations. There is no easy way of capturing this diversity with a single overarching concept.

What are some of the characteristics of this special system?

* It is based on an ethno-national distinction between Jewish insiders and Palestinian Arab outsiders. This distinction has a religious dimension — the only way to join the Jewish group is through conversion — but is not affected by degree of religious adherence.

* It uses this distinction to expand citizenship beyond its territory (potentially to all Jews) and to contract citizenship within it (Palestinian residents of the occupied territories have no citizenship and cannot become citizens). Thus, it is open to all non-resident members of one ethno-national group, wherever they are and regardless of their personal history and actual links to the territory. It is closed to all non-resident members of the other ethno-national group, wherever they are and regardless of their personal history and actual links to the territory.

* It is based on the permanent blurring of physical boundaries. At no point in its 62 years of existence have its boundaries been fixed by law, nor are they likely to become fixed in the foreseeable future. Its boundaries are permanently temporary, as evidenced by continued talk of the 1967 occupation as temporary, even though it has already outlived historical apartheid (which effectively lasted 42 years). At the same time, its boundaries are asymmetrical: porous in one direction (expansion of military forces and settlers into neighbouring territories) and impermeable in another direction (severe restrictions or total prohibition on entry of Palestinians — from the occupied territories and the Diaspora — into its territories).

* It combines different modes of rule: civilian authority with all the institutions of a formal democracy within the Green Line; and military authority without democratic pretensions beyond the Line. In times of crisis, the military mode of rule tends to spill over into the Green Line to apply to Palestinian citizens. At all times, the civilian mode of rule spills over beyond the Green Line to apply to Jewish citizens residing there. The distinction between the two sides of the Green Line is constantly eroding as a result, and norms and practices developed under the occupation filter back into Israel: as the phrase goes, the ‘Jewish democratic state’ is ‘democratic’ for Jews and ‘Jewish’ for Arabs.

* It is in fact a ‘Jewish demographic state’. Demography — the fear that Jews may become a minority — is the prime concern behind the policies of all mainstream forces. All state structures, policies and proposed solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are geared, in consequence, to meet the concern for a permanent Jewish majority exercising political domination in the State of Israel (in whichever boundaries).

How do these features compare with historical apartheid?

* The foundation of apartheid was a racial distinction between whites and blacks (further divided into coloureds, Indians and Africans, with the latter sub-divided into ethnic groups), rather than an ethno-national distinction. Racial groups were internally divided on the basis of language, religion and ethnic origins, and externally linked in various ways across the colour line. This can be contrasted with Israel/Palestine in which lines of division usually overlap. All potential bases for cross-cutting affiliations that existed early on — anti-Zionist orthodox Jews, Arabic-speaking Jews, indigenous Palestinian Jewish communities — were undermined by the simultaneous rise of the Zionist movement and Arab nationalism to a dominant position in the course of the 20th century. This left no space for those straddling multiple identities.

* In South Africa then, there was a contradiction between the organization of the state around the single axis of race, and social reality which allowed more diversity in practice and multiple lines of division as well as cooperation. This opened up opportunities for change. The apartheid state endeavoured to eliminate this contradiction by entrenching residential, educational, religious and cultural segregation, and by seeking to shift its basis of legitimacy from race to national identity, but to no avail. Its capacity was limited and it was further eroded over time. In Israel/Palestine there is tighter fit between the organization of the state and social reality, with one crucial exception: Palestinian citizens are positioned between Jewish citizens and Palestinian non-citizens. They are the only segment of the population of Greater Israel/Palestine that is fully bilingual, familiar with all political and cultural realities, with enough freedom to organize but not enough rights to align themselves with the oppressive status quo. As a minority group (15-20% of Israeli citizens and of Palestinian Arabs) they cannot drive change on their own but may act as crucial catalysts for change.

* Under historical apartheid a key goal of the state was to ensure that black people performed their role as providers of labour, without making difficult social and political demands. The strategy used for that focused on externalizing them. Although they were physically present in white homes, factories, farms and service industries, they were absent (politically and legally) as rights-bearing citizens. They were expected to exercise their rights elsewhere. Those who were no longer or not yet functional for the white-dominated economy were prevented from moving into the urban areas or forcibly removed to the ‘reserves’ (also known as Bantustans or homelands): children, women — especially mothers — and old people. Able-bodied blacks who worked in the cities were supposed to commute — daily or monthly and even annually, depending on the distance — between the places where they had jobs (but no political rights) and the places where they had political rights (but no jobs).

* This system of migrant labour opened up a contradiction between political and economic imperatives. To fulfil apartheid ideology, it broke down families and the social order, hampered efforts to create a skilled labour force, reduced productivity, and gave rise to crime and social protest. To control people’s movements, it created a bloated and expensive repressive apparatus, which put a constant burden on state resources and capacities. Domestic and industrial employers faced increasing difficulties in meeting their labour needs. From an economic asset (for whites) it became an economic liability. It simply had to go.

* The economic imperative of the Israeli system, in contrast, has been to create employment for Jewish immigrants. Palestinian labour power was used by certain groups at certain times because it was available and convenient, but it was never central to Jewish prosperity in Israel. After the outbreak of the first Intifada in the late 1980s, and under conditions of globalization, it could easily be replaced by politically unproblematic Chinese, Turkish, Thai and Romanian workers. In addition, a massive wave of Russian Jewish immigration in the 1990s helped this process. The externalization of Palestinians, through denial of rights, ethnic cleansing and ‘disengagement’, has presented few economic problems for Israeli Jews. There is little evidence of the contradiction between economic and political imperatives that undermined apartheid South Africa.

* Apartheid was the latest in a long list of regimes in which white settlers dominated indigenous black people in South Africa. For most of the colonial period, people of European origins were in the minority, relying on military power, technological superiority, and ‘divide and rule’ strategies, to entrench their rule. Demography was never an overriding concern. As long as security of person, property and investment could be guaranteed, there was no need for numerical dominance. When repression proved increasingly counter-productive, a deal exchanging political power for ongoing prosperity became an option acceptable to the majority of whites. Can such a deal be offered to — and adopted by — Israeli Jews, for whom a demographic majority is the key to domination and the guarantee of political survival on their own terms? Most likely, no.

In summary, then, apartheid of a special type in Israel is different from historical apartheid in South Africa in three major respects:

* At its foundation are consolidated and relatively impermeable ethno-national identities, with few cross-cutting affiliations across the principal ethnic divide in society.

* It is relatively free of economic imperatives that run counter to its overall exclusionary thrust, because it is not dependent on the exploitation of indigenous labour; and

* Its main quest is for demographic majority as the basis for legal, military and political domination.

In all these respects it is a system that is less prone to an integrative solution along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa. At the same time, it is subject to contradictions of its own, which are crucial to its dynamics and present potential opportunities for change:

* Its foundational act of ethnic cleansing left behind a weak and disorganized minority Arab group. With Palestinians no longer a demographic threat, the rump community could be incorporated into the political system which displayed many of the characteristics of a ‘normal’ democracy. Its members used this to re-organize and build a solid foundation for resistance politics, combining parliamentary and protest activities that have challenged Israel’s exclusionary structures from within. This strategic location has given them a useful vantage point from which to play a vanguard role in the struggle to transform the system.

* The geographically expansionist drive of the Zionist project has come into clash with the demographic imperative to ensure a Jewish majority. Ethnic cleansing along the lines of 1948 might provide a way to reconcile these contradictory thrusts, but it is not really feasible under the glare of international media and public opinion. Although no immediate change is likely, it is clear that the status quo is becoming increasingly unstable and is not going to last long.

* The changing international scene begins to show signs of eroding support for some aspects of the regime. For two decades it benefited from an international context that saw the collapse of the Soviet block and its policies of isolating Israel in alliance with ‘progressive’ third world regimes. The turn of the USA and its western allies against major Arab and Islamic forces also benefited the Israeli regime, which positioned itself as the frontline in the ‘war on terror’. This period was used to entrench its hold on the occupied territories, divide the Palestinian people and its leadership, isolate and crush resistance to the occupation, and silence critical voices. In the last few years, though, both Israel’s capacity to dominate its region, and the west’s support for its campaigns, have declined. Though it is not yet facing real military or political challenges, expressions of weakness abound. Among them, growing international solidarity with the struggle of Palestinians against the occupation and for political rights plays an important role. The rise of civil society movements and alternative media is increasingly counteracting the unconditional support given by western governments and traditional media to the Israeli state, though not necessarily all its policies. The Internet has not quite killed Israeli PR yet, but has definitely wounded it. There is thus room for cautious optimism that the tide is beginning to turn.

II. Prospects, Solutions and Strategies

Where does all this leave us? Avoiding the temptation for easy labels and name calling, we must examine the actual consequences of the analysis.

In Israel/Palestine there are two ethno-national groups. Israeli Jews are unified by their legal status as full citizens. Palestinian Arabs are divided by their legal status into citizens in ‘Israel proper’, resident non-citizens in ‘Greater Israel’, and non-resident non-citizens in ‘Greater Palestine’. The two groups are distinct by virtue of their language, political identity, religion and ethnic origins. Only about 10% of them (Palestinian citizens) are fully bilingual. Many Jews have Arab cultural origins, but their legacy has been erased through three generations of political and cultural assimilation. The delusion that these ‘Arab Jews’ actually or potentially share any political consciousness — even if in a dormant form — with Palestinians must be laid to rest. On the face of it, this would seem an ideal argument for a two-state solution, but things are a bit more complicated than that.

The South African rainbow nation, which was based on the multiplicity of identities and the absence of a single axis of division to align them all — unity in diversity — is clearly unlikely to be replicated in Israel/Palestine. Elements such as the use of English as the dominant medium of political communication, shared by all groups, or Christianity as a religious umbrella for the majority of people from all racial groups, do not exist in Israel/Palestine as a whole. At the same time, if we look at ‘Israel proper’ in isolation, the situation is not all that different from South Africa. People of all backgrounds — veteran Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, new Russian and Ethiopian immigrants (many of whom are not Jews in a strict sense), and Palestinian citizens — use Hebrew in their daily interaction and largely share similar social and cultural tastes. In mixed towns, such as Haifa, Jaffa, Acre, there are neighbourhoods in which Jews and Arabs live together with little to distinguish between their lifestyles except for their home language and religious practices. Without idealizing the situation, they have much more in common with one another than white suburbanites have with rural black South Africans, during apartheid or now.

But, of course, we cannot look at them in isolation, just as we could not have looked at the relatively benign white-coloured interaction in apartheid Cape Town in isolation from the broader racial scene in the country. What we can do is use these emerging realities to build a foundation for a new political perspective, that of bi-nationalism. Bi-nationalism is not a ‘solution’, and does not compete with the endlessly discussed but vacuous one-state or two-state solutions. It is an approach based on the recognition that two ethno-national groups live together in the same country, separately within homogenous villages and towns in some areas, but also mixed to varying degrees in other areas. Historical patterns of demographic engineering that resulted in forced population movement and dispersal (most notably the 1948 nakba and the post-1967 settlement project) have created a patchwork quilt of mono-ethnic and bi-ethnic regions, separated by political intent rather than by natural or geographical logic.

Acknowledging this bi-national reality is not meant as an argument for a particular form of state. Rather it is a call to base any future political arrangement on the need to accommodate members of both national groups as equals, at both individual and collective levels. In the words of radical Jewish activists who put together the 2004 Olga Document, “this country belongs to all its sons and daughters — citizens and residents, both present and absentees (the uprooted Palestinian citizens of Israel in 48′) — with no discrimination on personal or communal grounds, irrespective of citizenship or nationality, religion, culture, ethnicity or gender.”1 This statement of principles must not be confused with a call to establish one state or a bi-national state. It is the essential condition for the success of any arrangement, be it one, two, or many states. The alternative would be an imposition by one side on the other, which would render a solution unviable.

It is interesting to note that the formulation above seems to draw on the 1955 Freedom Charter, which asserted, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”. The simple elegance of the South African original was transformed here into a comprehensive but very cumbersome language, a testimony to the difficulty of conveying unity in the face of rigid fragmentation. But it is far less difficult to convey unity — as a first step — among all Israeli citizens. Making Israel a state of and for all its citizens is both logical (just as France is a French state, the home of all French people, and South Africa is the state of all South Africans, so should Israel become an Israeli state, the home of all Israeli people) and just. In the same way that Nicolas Sarkozy of (partly-Jewish) Hungarian origins and Zinedine Zidane of Algerian-Muslim origins can be citizens equal to the descendants of the Gauls, all Israeli citizens are entitled to an equal status regardless of their links to the ancient Hebrews.

At the same time, unlike France, in Israel people seek incorporation as individuals and as groups. In the Vision Documents, a series of proposals and statements written by academics, intellectuals and activists representing the Palestinian-Arab minority in Israel, the quest for equality is combined with the quest for recognition as a national collective. For example, in the Haifa Declaration they call for a “change in the definition of the State of Israel from a Jewish state to a democratic state established on national and civil equality between the two national groups, and enshrining the principles of banning discrimination and of equality between all of its citizens and residents.”2 There is an unresolved tension here between the call for a democratic state with no ethnic character and the notion of equality between ethnically-defined groups. A similar though milder tension is found in the post-apartheid South African constitution, which establishes non-racialism as an overarching principle but recognizes the legitimacy of racially-based affirmative action policies. It is an explicit attempt to redress historical legacies of racial discrimination, particularly regarding access to land and employment, without recognizing the permanent existence of racial groups, let alone any claims to representation and resources.

The bi-national approach is compatible with either option: a non-ethnic state, and a state that enshrines equality between individual citizens and provides structured representation for groups in fields such as education and culture. Both must lead to the removal of “all forms of ethnic superiority, be that executive, structural, legal or symbolic”, and the adoption of “policies of corrective justice in all aspects of life in order to compensate for the damage inflicted on the Palestinian Arabs due to the ethnic favoritism policies of the Jews.”3 Democratizing Israel in this way is important in its own right and also as a way to reinforce other campaigns. If Palestinian citizens are no longer ostracized as legitimate actors, the struggle against the occupation will receive a big boost by escaping the confines of the progressive Jewish left.

Making Israel a state of all its citizens would not change the boundaries of political sovereignty, would have no demographic implications, and would require no negotiation with external forces. It would not challenge ‘the right of Israel to exist’ but rather seek to modify the internal basis for its self-legitimation. In other words, it would be a process carried out entirely by its own citizens, probably undertaken over a period of time. Making Greater Israel a state of all its residents, and establishing common citizenship, is different in all these respects, however. It would mean a fundamental change in the boundaries of citizenship and the allocation of power, requiring a radical re-alignment of the political scene. It is not feasible in the short term as there are no serious political forces advocating it at present, and it cannot be seen as a substitute for the ongoing struggle against the 1967 occupation.

There is no doubt that the occupation is the biggest festering sore in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Futile negotiations over the last two decades have led to its intensification rather than mitigation. The only way forward is an ongoing campaign to put an end to it, without having anything to do with the diplomatic process or with the one-state-versus-two-states debate. The occupation manifests itself in the daily life of the population in numerous ways (both in Gaza and the West Bank, though differently). Wherever it operates it give rise to localized resistance. Without being too specific here, expressions of resistance to restrictions — on free movement, access to land, economic activity, water use, study, construction, and so on — must be supported, with the use of all means excluding armed attacks on civilians — demonstrations, sanctions, boycotts, mass defiance campaigns, legal challenges in Israeli and international courts, appeals to global public opinion, and the like. I am in no position to provide tactical advice — local activists are the authority on the matter — but strategically it is important to de-link the struggle against the occupation from the state of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (or Hamas for that matter). A crucial lesson of the South African transition is that subordinating local struggles to the requirements of grand diplomacy helped the ANC gain power, but it also frequently led — after the transition — to the neglect of the concerns that gave rise to the struggle in the first place.

The third dimension of Greater Palestine — refugees and their rights — is the most challenging to the boundaries of Israeli citizenship and control. It can be resolved only in a staggered manner. First, the present absentees — about 25% of the Palestinian population in Israel itself who were removed from their original homes in 1948 but have become citizens — must be allowed access to their property and confiscated land. This would have no demographic implications and would not involve changes in citizenship status. Second, the original 1948 refugees could be invited back: only about 50-75,000 of them are still alive, a small number that could be accommodated demographically easily enough (an addition of 1% to the population). Such steps obviously would be opposed with the use of one of the two most potent weapons in the Israeli arsenal of internal self-justification: they would create a precedent.4 And, indeed, the fear of the majority of the Israeli-Jewish population is that any recognition — even symbolic and limited in its practical implications — of the right of return would lead to an uncontrolled influx of millions of refugees. This is highly unlikely — research indicates that only about 10% of them are likely to exercise the right of return — but the matter would require ongoing educational, political and legal campaigns.5 Again, it is strategically important that the struggle have nothing to with the one-state-versus-two-states debate or with diplomacy. The right of return is vested in individuals rather than the political leadership, and they are the only ones who can negotiate on their own behalf.

It is this issue, above all, that makes the Israeli apartheid of a special type different from historical apartheid and more difficult to overcome. As a result of it, Palestinians have been deprived of the most important weapon of struggle used by black South Africans: their strategic location in the economy and their ability to use the threat of withdrawing their labour power (in other words, strike) as a crucial political lever. Due to the historical trajectory of excluding indigenous people in Israel/Palestine, compared to their incorporation in a subordinate economic role in South Africa, they operate outside the boundaries of the Israeli-dominated economic system. This exclusion is not complete — it does not apply to Palestinian citizens and to a minority among West Bank residents — but it applies in Gaza and fully in Greater Palestine. As a result, those excluded in that way can apply pressure on the regime from the outside — using protest, diplomacy and violence — but lack any meaningful strategy of change from within. In this respect, they are dependent on the work of forces internal to Israel (Palestinian citizens together with progressive Israeli Jews), and on pressure applied by forces in the Middle East region and internationally. Solidarity and educational efforts are crucial here, as well as the evolving sanctions and boycotts campaigns.6

III. Conclusion

By way of broad conclusion, a political strategy that might work would anchor the concerns above in the language of democracy, justice, equality and human rights, instead of that of diplomacy and statehood. The advantage of this approach is that it can associate itself with the global justice movement and struggles of diverse independent forces, civil society organizations, media activists, and so on.

What possible form can such strategy take? A thorough discussion deserves a study on its own, and only a brief outline — focusing on campaigns within ‘Israel proper’ — is possible here. First, we must recognize that progressive forces can neither ignore nationalism (risking total marginalization) nor surrender to it (risking losing their voice). Second, in a society historically shaped by sharp ethno-national conflict, most social and political issues are affected by the conflict, but should not be reduced to it. Third, the conflict can be seen as an overall framework, but its many dimensions may be better tackled as multiple political fronts that call for different local approaches and contingent alliances. This requires charting a course that would go beyond nationalism without seeking to write it off.

Concretely, a series of campaigns that position Palestinian national demands within a broader framework of rights is one way of establishing a link between particular and universal discourses and opening the way for cooperation between Palestinians and — at least some — Israeli Jews on specific issues. Examples may include questions of access to land (affecting Palestinians as well as ethnically and socially marginalized Jewish groups), questions of citizenship and immigration policies (affecting Palestinians as well as many Jews with ambiguous legal status such as recent Russian and Ethiopian immigrants), questions of labour organization, jobs and access to services (affecting Palestinians, working-class Jews, and migrant workers from Eastern Europe and South-East Asia), questions of culture, education and social exclusion (affecting Palestinians, Oriental Jews and orthodox Jews), questions of gender and sexuality (affecting everyone), and so on.

Each of these campaigns would involve alliances between different groups working for different causes, but they all share, in their specific domains, a quest for a greater equality and democracy for all, regardless of origins. They all fall under the ‘radical democracy’ approach as advanced by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, though without necessarily having an overarching theme to unify them. Unlike the traditional approach of the radical left, this strategy is not based on expectations that Jews would renounce Zionist ideology, confront state power directly, and opt for a common socialist future. Rather, it assumes that they would show some willingness to address some of the concerns of Palestinians, working jointly with them, if these were in line with their own concerns.

This approach does not tackle directly all of the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some of which pit Israeli Jews and Palestinian against each other as mutually exclusive groups fighting over resources and rights. In the short to medium term there is no prospect of weakening the boundaries between these groups or constructing an identity that would transcend ethno-nationalist loyalties. No easy formulas to deal with this situation exist, and current debates over one or two-state solutions miss the crucial point: the Palestinian population was fragmented in 1948 and further in 1967. A holistic political solution would have to address all its components (the 1948 dispersal of refugees, the 1967 occupation, and the fate of Palestinians citizens), but is very unlikely ever to be implemented simultaneously. Hence, forces seeking to change the status quo need to work on each component on its own, instead of seeking in vain to solve all issues in one big bang, with some magic formula.

Progress on one front should not be impeded by the lack of progress in another, and the final outcome cannot be predicted in advance. The key guiding principle for a solution is common to all components, however: the need for a bi-national approach, which would treat members of each ethno-national group equally, as individuals as well as collectives. The combination of a political approach operating on many different but related fronts, with a new mode of activism focused on direct action and creative media, educational, and legal strategies, may be the way forward. There are no obvious answers here, but posing the right questions is a crucial step towards a solution.


1 “The Olga Document”, June 2004.

2 Mada al-Carmel, Arab Center for Applied Social Research, The Haifa Declaration (Haifa, 2007).

3 The National Committee for the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities in Israel, The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel (Nazareth, 2006).

4 The other such weapon is that Israelis must never lose face because it would mean erosion of their power of deterrence. So, every ‘hostile’ action demands an immediate counter-action, at least twice as powerful (and it’s not a bad idea for the counter-action to precede the action. . .).

5 The work of the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights stands out in this respect: <>.

6 There is not enough space to develop this theme here, but see discussion of the academic boycott campaign in Ran Greenstein, “Reflections on Academic Sanctions” (MRZine, 6 February 2010).

Ran Greenstein, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

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