Apartheid: South Africa’s history, Palestine’s reality?

| Doron Isaacs

This is an edited version of remarks made by Doron Isaacs at an event hosted by the UCT Palestine Solidarity Forum for Israel Apartheid Week 2013. The other panelists, who spoke prior to Isaacs, were Professor Andrew Nash and Mbuyiseni Ndlozi.

“I intend to take a slightly different position to the previous speakers, but I want to make absolutely clear that, if anything, they have understated the parallels with apartheid.

In the Occupied West Bank the 500,000 Jewish settlers, who live their illegally, consume 242l of water per person per day. A Palestinian in Tulkarm consumes 40 litres, in Nablus 30 litres and in Palestinian Hebron 26 litres.1

Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank live under two completely separate legal systems. A Palestinian and an Israeli who commit the same crime on the same day will be charged and treated as if they were living on opposite ends of the world. The Israeli will be charged under Israeli civil law, and be subject to the protections of a modern legal system. The Palestinian will be subject to military law. The whims of military law govern every aspect of Palestinian life in the West Bank.

In Israel itself the new Admissions Law allows communities to reject potential residents if they “are not right for social life in the community”.2¬†In other words Jewish communities are rejecting would-be members because they are Arab, and this is specifically provided for in law.3

(Readers interested in further examples of apartheid laws and practises are encouraged to see these additional notes which Isaacs prepared for the evening, but left out of his speech.)

Zionism was comparable with apartheid in that the immigrant settlers aimed for and achieved the dispossession and removal of the Arabs from the land.4 It is more than fair to compare the present-day reality to Apartheid, but it is also misleading, because the resulting situations differ in a fundamental respect. There is a vicious Apartheid in the West Bank and serious discrimination, if not creeping Apartheid, in Israel itself, but to put the main focus on parallels with South Africa, particularly when it comes to the way forward, relies on a superficial analysis that actually misses the target when it comes to the practical struggle for the liberation of the Palestinian people and indeed all people in Israel and Palestine from oppression and exploitation. 

In South Africa, as a result of industrial development, dispossessed blacks became the majority of the population in the cities, and the foundation of the economy. The whites were not able to remove the blacks from the cities and establish a “white South Africa” as they had hoped. Even the repressive apparatus of the state - the police for example - became increasingly dependent on blacks to staff it. That is what led to the fall of¬†apartheid, once black people in the mines, factories, offices and kitchens, in the schools and universities and within the state itself, got organised and determined to win their rights.5 The whites were outnumbered - they felt “swamped” - by the black population all around them and had to give way.¬†The two societies were fast becoming one - as is often the case in situations of revolutionary change, the old was pregnant with the new. Apartheid¬†failed, and military force could not save it.

This urbanisation brought whites and black into each other’s daily lives, even if on a grossly unequal basis. Despite the political confrontation over control of the country, in every white home a black woman cared for and brought up the white children.

In Israel, by contrast, “apartheid” “succeeded”. A full-scale war was fought in 1948/9 which resulted in partition (along the ‘Green Line’). Approximately 700,000 Palestinians were removed, more or less deliberately, and none were permitted to return. The state of Israel was established, and the Israel Defence Force, a very strong power, is essentially dependent only on Israeli Jews, albeit with foreign support. The economy is not dependent on Palestinian labour. Israeli children and pensioners - like my grandmother (before she passed away) - are cared for by Filipina women, not by Palestinians. With the exception of a small minority, the Palestinians have been removed from Israel. No “swamping” within Israel is taking place, nor is it possible. A South African “rainbow nation” political development is not possible in Israel. Most of the dispossessed Palestinians will not be allowed back. Because of its reliance on black labour “white South Africa” was always a fantasy, but Jewish Israel is a reality.

In 1967 the State of Israel took advantage of threats to attack it by initiating6 a war and conquering the whole of Jerusalem and the West Bank (and Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights). Only East Jerusalem was annexed, with the rest being placed under military occupation. In doing so, the State of Israel over-extended itself although it has taken a long time for this to be revealed. Even now it is not fully revealed, as annexationist settlement continues in East Jerusalem and elsewhere on the West Bank, along with the heavy oppression of military rule. 

The Palestinians, correctly taking strategic advantage of this over-reaching by the Israelis, have now declared their own state “the State of Palestine” up to the Green Line. This step implicitly recognises the existence now of the State of Israel on the other side of (i.e. within) the Green Line, although formal recognition is still withheld.

The use of the term Apartheid to describe the overall situation has the great advantage of conveying the moral abhorrence of the systemized use of legality to oppress and strip people of their dignity. That is Palestinian existence. As we know, there are examples of human misery that result in far more concentrated losses of life than Apartheid ever did in South Africa or in Israel. For example, between 50,000 and 70,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011, which is only a shade under the death toll on all sides of all of Israel’s wars since 1948.7 However it is a great advance in the world that it is no longer acceptable for a Western technologically advanced state to oppress or discriminate against an indigenous people, and that is the consciousness that the Apartheid label taps into, and is its chief virtue.

But there are a number of weaknesses to the analogy with South Africa, relating mainly to the way forward.

First, although it is true that there is a brutal apartheid in the West Bank, and very real official and unofficial discrimination in Israel itself, a creeping apartheid, Palestinian citizens of Israel (a minority of the Palestinian people) are not in quite the same position of total dispossession that black South Africans were in white South Africa. Lumping it all together gives political wiggle room to the shameless Zionist lobby. They easily say “Show us a country where there is not racism and discrimination!” So they do and will argue.

Second, it lets them off the hook of the occupation and its state-organised apartheid. End the occupation, and that apartheid will also end.8

Third, for the reasons I discussed earlier a “rainbow-nation” one-state development is unlikely. The prospects of a longer-term economic and political integration of two initial states, tending towards a unified situation, seem more plausible.

Fourth, every day the occupation isn’t stopped, it is deepened: Israeli de-facto annexation of Palestinian land continues. The immediate political goal should be forcing the military out of the West Bank to arrest this process. Israel’s former foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami explains in his book that on 12 May 1948, when the decision to declare the state of Israel was made, it was decided not to indicate the borders of the new state in the Declaration on Independence, so as to leave open the possibility of expansion beyond the then 1947 UN partition plan.9 Ben Ami explains that under Ben-Gurion the early state developed its method of deliberate diplomatic obfuscation as a foil for gradualist territorial acquisition through insuperable military force,10 on the clear understanding that non-specification of borders suits the strong.11

Fifth, a#ffffff”>lthough rights pre-exist laws, it was a great boost to the South African anti-apartheid movement that it had UN resolutions, and international law, in its favour. In the case of Israel all UN resolutions and the international legal framework support the creation of an independent Palestinian state, alongside Israel.

Sixth, the global anti-apartheid campaign will gain less international traction if the real goal is dismantling the State of Israel. This would be seen as providing no answer to the fears¬†of the Israeli population of a renewed Holocaust, playing into the hands of the Israeli right wing and annexationists, actually reinforcing the State of Israel politically, and doing a disservice to Palestinian liberation.12 The fact that the BDS movement often doesn’t state its goals contributes seriously to this problem.

So we need to pose some difficult questions to ourselves:

  • What does Israel-Apartheid¬†Week say about the ending of the occupation as the vital practical demand?

  • If you support that demand, where would you say the occupation ends, if not at the Green Line?

  • Do we support the declaration of the State of Palestine, endorsed by the UN General Assembly?

  • Do we therefore demand that the State of Israel withdraw from its unlawful presence in what is now an independent state?

  • Do we recognise the existence today of the State of Israel within the Green Line?

If we are not answering “yes” to these questions I don’t think serious progress will be made.

If we are for B, D, & S, which I very much am when they are skillfully used to shine a light on the oppression, then BDS until which political demands are met?

None of this is to say that Israel should be defended on the Zionist basis that it has some inherent existential value, or that Jews today (other than Israeli Jews) require a state for their safety, or for their self-actualisation. I don’t believe any of that. It is simply to say that Israel is there, is home to a few million individuals who also have rights to a secure existence, and cannot be wished away.

None of this is to say that activists should care only about bringing an end to the occupation, and not also about human rights questions in Israel (or Palestine for that matter), and the need for Israel to shift from a somewhat ethnically-exclusive deformed democracy into a secular democratic state, with religious freedom, in which citizens enjoy all rights and freedoms equally.

None of this is to say that a single Palestine-Israel in which Jews and Arabs lived together more or less harmoniously wouldn’t be something wonderful. It would be. I would celebrate it and admit that I was wrong, but I think it is unlikely in my lifetime.

None of this is to detract from the legitimate and important role of international campaigning, boycotts and targeted sanctions, which in my view are not only appropriate in the case of Israel, but due to the suffocation of political life under occupation, and the consequent difficulty of mounting internal resistance, are possibly even more important in that context than they were in our own.

This is all to say just that the global campaign for Palestinian liberation needs a defined political demand. This essential practical demand is the end of the military occupation. This, in my view, should be its slogan, its banner, its headline.

The security company on this campus is called “G4S”.13 Besides for protecting students and faculty at UCT G4S also provides security equipment to Israel’s Jerusalem interrogation and torture facility, to¬†a military compound¬†in the West Bank where Palestinian political prisoners are often detained without trial, to the West Bank Israeli Police headquarters, to illegal settlements and checkpoints¬†including Bethlehem, Qalandiya, and Erez, to Israel’s al-Jalame and Megiddo prisons, both of which detain Palestinian children, and to the security apparatus of Israel’s Separation Wall. This company profits directly from occupation. In my opinion UCT should cancel that contract, immediately.






1 BTselem ‘ The Gap in Water Consumption between Palestinians and Israelis’ (1 Jan 2013) available at http://www.btselem.org/water/consumption_gap and stats available at http://www.btselem.org/water/statistics. “There are still 220 Palestinian localities with 215,000 residents (about 10% of the population) which are not connected to any running water systems” (B’Tselem, 2000) available at http://www.btselem.org/sites/default/files2/thirsty_for_a_solution.pdf. See also Yoav Kislev ‘Water in the Palestinian localities’ Water Engineering - the Israeli Water Magazine, March 2008 translation available at: http://departments.agri.huji.ac.il/economics/teachers/kislev_yoav/yoav-black.pdf.

2 Or if they “do not match the socio-cultural fabric of the settlement and there is reason to assume they might harm it.”

3 The Admissions Law: Proposed by MKs David Rotem (Yisrael Beitenu), Israel Hasson (Kadima), Shai Hermesh (Kadima). Voted into law on March 22, 2011. See http://www.timesofisrael.com/which-anti-democratic-laws-actually-passed/.

4 I don’t consider this a controversial statement. Former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami describes Zionism as a “movement of conquest, colonisation and settlement …”. Shlomo Ben Ami Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, The Israeli-Arab Tragedy (Phoenix, 2005) p 3. See also Chapter 1 of Benny Morris¬†1948¬†(pp 2-3, 4-5, 7, 8, 10, 15-16, 18-19, & 23), as well as p 42 in the same book (re Ben Gurion, n 26), which also shows an intention to separate the populations.

5 (A question raised from the floor suggested that this point was misinterpreted as me downplaying the importance of external campaigns and boycotts. That was not the point being made. The support the struggle received in the form of international campaigns and boycotts was important. The contribution of the armed struggle, on the other hand, was unimportant.)

6 Also not controversial. See Tom Segev 1967: Israel, the war, and the year that transformed the Middle East (Metropolitan: 2005).

8 (In the discussion Prof Andrew Nash made the point that the difference between the current occupation and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza would be like the difference between being in jail and being under house arrest. That is an exaggeration, but it has truth in it. But it is also true that the difference for someone living in Khayelitsha, Alex, Umlazi or Mdantsane during Apartheid, as compared to now, is also like the difference between jail and house arrest. All political struggles need to be waged not only for abstract ideals but also for attainable political goals.)

9 On 12 May 1948 the Provisional State Council of Israel decided by 6 votes to 4 to declare their state on the expiration of the British Mandate for Palestine, two days later.

10 This the Israelis had even in 1948, their forces outnumbering invading forces at all stages of the war, albeit at a technological disadvantage until an arms shipment arrived from Czechoslovakia.

11 The leadership of the Arabs in Palestine did not understand this iron law. They rejected the UN partition plan, understandably, having been allocated one third of the land whilst constituting two thirds of the population, but in the wake of wake of 1948 ended up with less land and 700,000 Arabs displaced by war and ethnic cleansing. Today some remain inured to the lessons of history. The failure to define concretely the territorial ambitions of Palestinian liberation concedes to Israel the condition of ambiguity in which force predominates. While activists float between the international consensus of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders, and the potentially loftier democratic merits of the so-called one state solution, Israel daily annexes the West Bank.

12 This is made more important by the fact that Palestinian liberation leadership has failed to provide a moral pole of attraction to the world. Despite all its flaws the ANC was able to project a moral superiority of the liberation movement over the Apartheid government. This Palestinian leaders have generally failed to provide, with serious consequences. Eg 1: Terrorism targeting Israeli civilians is far worse than it was against white South Africans. (Israeli state-terrorism against Palestinian civilian populations is also worse than what was inflicted on black South Africans.) Eg 2: The backwardness of Hamas, particularly with regards to women - recent banning of women from Gaza marathon. See Nabila Ramdani ‘Hamas’s ban on women running Gaza marathon is a missed opportunity’ The Guardian¬†6/3/2013¬†http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/06/hamas-ban-women-gaza-marathon-missed-opportunity.¬†(Israel recently arrested women for praying at the Western Wall with prayer shawls. The disease is catchy!) Eg 3: There is serious corruption in Palestinian government. (At least the ANC understood that such things were for after you have come to power!)


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