APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA AND APARTHEID ISRAEL: A VALID COMPARISON

ILAN PAPPE

In recent years, a common item in the Palestine solidarity campaign in the West has been the ‘Israel Apartheid Week’, which was often organised by students on campuses in Europe and the United States. This activity was one of many reflecting a wish to compare the reality of present-day Israel with that which existed in Apartheid South Africa. Activists all over the world felt that the analogy was not only valid but also inspirational for the continued struggle for peace and liberation in Palestine. 

The similarities were even clearer to Nelson Mandela and he referred to them when he was finally liberated from Robben Island. When an Israeli of South African origin wrote to him, shortly after his release from prison, saying that he was a ‘latter-day Moses who was about to reach the Promised Land’ (this was before the elections that brought Mandela to power as president of South Africa), Mandela replied: ‘South Africa will never forget the support of the state of Israel to the Apartheid regime.’

Scholars found it a bit more difficult as a topic for comparison, because, on the one hand, we have a clear cut, closed, case of Apartheid and on the other one, a phenomenon that is still there and still reconfiguring and changing according to the circumstances on the ground. Or put differently, apartheid Israel is an on-going, dynamic, project; whereas the one in South Africa had a closure, and it is historically easier to assess it. This may explain why the academic comparison was late in coming, while activists and politicians were fully aware of it. 

Another possible reason why academically this comparison was late in coming is the strong opposition to it in the pro-Israeli Western academia – and, of course, among the Israeli research community – to this comparison. In fact, most Israeli scholars and politicians are still enraged, even if they belong to the ‘Peace Camp’, by any such comparison. This is not surprising: even a slight or indirect implication of Israel as an Apartheid state has far-reaching implications for the international legitimacy of the Jewish state.

Once the comparison became widespread as expected, similarities and dissimilarities were noted.  The comparison benefited much from the re-emergence of the paradigm of settler colonialism. Both case studies in Palestine and South Africa were classical cases of settler colonialism. Two projects built by Europeans victims of persecution, colonizing with the help with the British Empire, non-European lands and then liberating themselves from its hold.

Two guiding principles of the settler-colonial paradigm helped to include Apartheid South Africa with Palestine in the same analysis. The first was the motivation of the settlers to eliminate the indigenous population, although the means varied as did the final targets and the second was the structural nature of the violence employed by the settlers in their attempt to achieve this goal. 

The elimination of the native, as Patrick Wolfe called it, was a motivating logic for both settler communities, but with one difference. The White supremacists in South Africa exploited and enslaved the African community for its benefits, whereas the Zionist movement wished to expunge the Palestinians from the land and its history, and attempted to create from very early on a pure Jewish space, including in the labour and land markets. 

This distinction was articulated poignantly by Ronni Karslis when he distinguishes between Apartheid’s ‘grandmasters’, as he calls them, who treated Africans as a colonialist economic resource, and the Israeli so-called ‘masters’, who view the Palestinians as an obstacle to be removed. In South Africa, as terrible as the treatment of Africans had been, over the years there was a development that improved, even if only to a meagre extent, the possibility of earning a living within the Apartheid system. This was made possible once the ‘grandmasters’ of Apartheid allowed black South Africans to leave the Bantustans and seek work outside since these ‘grandmasters’ recognised that the development of the Apartheid economy was dependent on the sweat and cheap labour of landless black nationals. 

In contrast, the state of Israel went in precisely the opposite direction: first, it allowed the occupied Palestinians to work, in slavish conditions, in the Israeli labour market, and then it denied them this right. But, of course, the difference was even more profound: there was no place for the indigenous population, as exploited labourers or residents of Bantustans, in the future vision of Zionism. Consequently, South African leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu felt that in many respects the situation in occupied Palestine was worse than that in Apartheid South Africa.

At first glance, the Israeli policy in the 1967 occupied territories seemed more akin to the South African model: it was based on segregation and Bantustanization and the authorities there employed settler-colonial methods in their efforts to sustain their hold over the population: grabbing as much of the land for its own sake and imposing a political discriminative system to keep at bay any resistance. 

Indeed, it is easier to apply the international law definition of Apartheid to the occupied territories and if we refer to sections in it and are even slightly familiar with the reality in the occupied territories, one can easily see the relevance. 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’. Such policies are criminal as they are ‘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’.

It is noteworthy that both states maintained this system even when the international community clearly declared it as a violation of international law.  Therefore, it is easier to compare the post-1967 Israel and apartheid, South Africa, as severe violators of International law.  Both regimes demanded recognition of their right to be ethnic states despite the fact that they were socially and practically multi-ethnic. Moreover, they shared a similar wish to be included in the liberal democratic world despite their overriding concern to keep the state as ethnically pure as possible. Both regimes pointed to their legal system as a proof of the democratic nature and claimed that their judicial systems were supposedly loyal to the democratic idea of the separation of power and were bulwarks against discrimination and segregation. An unsubstantiated claim in both cases. 

Despite strong pressure from Israel and its friends not to use the language of Apartheid about the Palestine situation, it does seem that worldwide, especially in the wake of Jimmy Carter’s clear reference to Israeli policy in the occupied territories as an Apartheid regime, the need for such a comparison is deemed not only legitimate but even helpful.

But not only the resort to apartheid as a means of maintaining the settler-colonial state was comparable. Also, the brutal actions against the indigenous liberation movement, the PLO and the ANC respectively, had much in common. This was noted already in 1982 by Liver Tambo, the legendary leader of the African National Congress, who stated, when addressing the UN General Assembly in November 1982: 

The parallels between the Middle East and Southern Africa are as clear as they are sinister. The onslaught on the Lebanon, the massive massacre of Lebanese and Palestinians, the attempt to liquidate the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] and Palestinian people, all of which were enacted with impunity by Israel, have been followed minutely and with unconcealed interest and glee by the Pretoria racist regime which has designs for perpetrating the same kind of crime in Southern Africa in the expectation that, like Israel, it will be enabled by its allies to get away with murder.

Thus, the comparison of Israel today to Apartheid South Africa, while still not accepted in mainstream academia and media, is academically valid and politically useful. One can detect two directions in the effort to compare the two case studies. One focused on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as ruled by an apartheid system.  I have already mentioned Jimmy Carter’s reference to the occupied territories as the land of Apartheid. This is a softer approach that only sees the reality in the post 1967 territories (22% of Palestine) as akin to the Apartheid regime in South Africa.  However, the more intriguing and useful approach is that offered by those who apply the paradigm to Palestine as a whole and note the differences between Israel proper and the occupied territories. 

Nonetheless, it is important to stress, as Leila Farsakh warned us many years ago that Apartheid has to be tested as indeed she did in many of her works. Farsakh examined carefully the applicability of the paradigm to both sides of the green line. She noted clearly in her work that the specifics of the Apartheid regime apply to Israel as well as to the occupied territories, whether those specifics relate to ideological premises, the role of labour exploitation, or the historical way in which the two regimes developed. It seems that most scholars who looked into the applicability of the paradigm acknowledge the existence of two apartheid systems in Israel: one in pre-1967 Israeli and the other in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (and there are those who would insist that there are three or even four varieties as the Gaza Strip and Greater Jerusalem differ from the other two). But it is clear that once Israel occupied these areas in 1967, the fate and life of the Palestinians in Israel became intertwined with those of the Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 

Apartheid, in fact, became more pronounced in both sides of the green after the signing of the Oslo accord. The Bantustanisation process in the occupied territories intensified especially under the guise of the Oslo Process as did the racist legislation against the Palestinians in Israel. In many ways, this is one of the striking differences between the case studies – peace in South Africa slowly eroded the Apartheid system; in the occupied territories, so-called peaceful solutions only strengthened the Apartheid realty and infrastructure.

The whole of historical Palestine is controlled by the same Israeli matrix of power. The Israeli apartheid system changes in intensity and functionalism in different historical junctures and will continue to do so in the future. Thus, Israel shifted the Apartheid system from one group to another: the military rule that was imposed on the Palestinian citizens in Israel between 1948 and 1966 was transferred to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after 1967, and the policies of ethnic cleansing in 1948 reappear, albeit in a smaller and different form, in the Israeli policy in Greater Jerusalem and southern Israel. This is why comparative analysis can be extremely elusive at times. On the one hand, the comparison triggers an understanding that in certain aspects the oppression in the occupied territories is worse and harder to overcome. A position substantiated by remarks made by leaders of the ANC, such as Desmond Tutu, when they visited the occupied territories. 

On the other hand, at the outset the Palestinian citizens in Israel seem to enjoy a better life than that experienced by Africans in South Africa. And yet the comprehensive picture is quite clear: in one way or another, all Palestinians – inside and outside Palestine – are still living under a variant of the South African Apartheid system. Indeed, the distinction between the two kinds of Israeli apartheid should not obfuscate the dismal reality inside Israel.  The Jewish state has imposed on its Palestinian citizens ever since 1948 an apartheid regime. This has recently been institutionalised through a series a legislation culminating in the Israeli nationality law from the summer of 2018. They included laws that deny the Nakba and the Palestinian nationality of the Israeli citizens; other laws legitimized the existence of segregated rural and urban communities exclusively for Jews. With the new legislation, a new hostility felt by the state and Jewish society towards Palestinian citizens also increased – this had been on the ascent since the Palestinian minority had showed a clearer identification with the Palestinian resistance in the occupied territories. 

In both places, the security services played a crucial rule in the daily maintenance of the oppression. The BOSS in South Africa and the security services in Israel both regulated the life of Africans and Palestinians, respectively. The most important state organ responsible for maintaining this separation is the Israeli ‘Secret Service’, the Shin Bet, which enjoys unlimited power under the emergency regulations of the state. When this section of the government is the principal agency dealing with a community of citizens, or inhabitants under occupation and siege, it means that they can only be deemed to be hostile and alien enemies. 

 

LOOKING AT THE FUTURE

Comparisons are not just about finding the negative or the evil in both regimes. It is also there for us to be able to glean at a better future. It is intriguing to ponder about a future prospective scenario on the basis of the historical experience in South Africa and look at the way Afrikaners eventually began to accept the inevitable change. In any future solution in Israel and Palestine, such a process would have to take place if one wanted to bring an end to the conflict there.

But for this to happen the ANC struggle should also inspire the struggle within Israel (and not just it surely did over the years that of the PLO). Until today, the so-called ‘peace camp’ in Israel has nothing in common with the whites who joined the ANC in its struggle.  A different group within Israel that also has a unique standing as part of a Palestinian resistance are the Palestinians in Israel. But there is little doubt that great numbers of Palestinians in Israel maintained contact with and allegiance to the PLO, while the white liberals, namely the Israeli Jews, regarded and still regard the organisation as the enemy.

More importantly, probably is the implication of such a comparison for the future solution to the conflict in Israel and Palestine. The common solution that has been, and still is, offered for the conflict in Israel and Palestine is the two-state solution. To many who engaged in comparing the two regimes, it is clear that whatever form the two states model were to be implemented, it would allow Israeli settler colonialism to continue throughout historical Palestine with international blessing and legitimacy.

The last thing that this comparison can bring into activism, as we noted in the beginning of this piece, is to help and focus the solidarity with the Palestinian on the basis on lessons learned from the solidarity movement with the ANC. The de-legitimisation of the South African Apartheid regime was the main achievement of the anti-Apartheid movement globally; this de-legitimisation was directed not only against Apartheid rule but also against the continued practice of settler colonialism in the second half of the twentieth century. Anti-colonialism in the case of both South Africa and Palestine represents a wish to allow everyone remaining on the land to have a normal and equal life. The overall view of the Palestinian struggle as anti-colonialist is thus associated with the vision of a democratic state throughout Palestine as the just and honourable solution. 

For this to work, we have to recognize the dissimilarities which are still relevant between the two case studies. The legacy and manipulation of the Holocaust memory in the West on the one hand, and the strength of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States on the other, are factors that did not exist in the case of historical Apartheid. Moreover, the ANC did not have to grapple with an association with a demonised Islam, as the Palestinian national movement does.

There are there features that did not exist in the case of South Africa. More than half of the indigenous people are absent from the homeland and are dispersed all over the Middle East and beyond, and, while the resistance movement was born among them, it now has more than one centre of power inside the homeland, thereby creating confusion and disorientation. 

Nonetheless, the South African model – historical Apartheid – serves as a source of inspiration for how to conduct wisely a struggle from within and from without, even when the conditions on the ground are so dismal and hard to overcome. It means that was is needed is a mixture of international pressure, including BDS, from the outside and education and confidence-building on the inside. The rest would depend on the Palestinians themselves to be united and with a clear vision for a liberated and free Palestine as soon as possible.

Notes: 

[1] Nancy Murray, ‘Dynamics of resistance: the Apartheid analogy’, MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies (Spring 2008): 133–6. Available at www.palestinejournal.net/gmh/MIT_journal.htm.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ronni Kasrlis, Birds of a Feather: Israel and Apartheid South Africa Colonialism of a Special Type” in Ilan Pappe (ed.), Israel and South Africa; Many Faces of Apartheid, Lonodn: Zed Books, pp.4-5.

 

[1] Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007.

[1] Statement at the plenary meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 9 November 1982.

[1] Leila Farsakh, Aparthied, Israel and Palestinian Statehood in I. Pappe, ibid., pp. 161-190.

The article was commissioned for the exhibition "Cry, the beloved country". 

For further reading please see the book Israel and South Africa: The Many Faces of Apartheid (2015)  edited by Ilan Pappe.  

Ilan Pappe is the Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at University of Exeter, UK 

Professor Pappé obtained his BA degree from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1979 and the D. Phil from the University of Oxford in 1984.
He founded and directed the Academic Institute for Peace in Givat Haviva, Israel between 1992 to 2000 and was the Chair of the Emil Tuma Institute for Palestine Studies in Haifa between 2000 and 2006.
Professor Pappé was a senior lecturer in the department of Middle Eastern History and the Department of Political Science in Haifa University, Israel between 1984 and 2006.
He was appointed as chair in the department of History in the Cornwall Campus, 2007-2009 and became a fellow of the IAIS in 2010.
His research focuses on the modern Middle East and in particular the history of Israel and Palestine. He has also written on multiculturalism, Critical Discourse Analysis and on Power and Knowledge in general.