Israeli Apartheid: More Than a Metaphor
Published: Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 02:02
Israeli Apartheid Week is an annual series of events devoted to raising awareness about Israeli apartheid and furthering the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and international trade and financial sanctions. Many question our use of the term “apartheid,” but it is more than a catchy metaphor. It is a literal comparison.
“Apartheid” was broadly defined by the United Nations as a system of certain “inhumane acts 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.”
For all the talk about the conflict and inequality between Israelis and Palestinians being about pride and religion, Israeli treatment of Palestinians is about one thing: racism — deeply ingrained, institutionalized and systematic.
Israel was founded on a process of “ethnic cleansing” known as the Nakba, which entailed the violent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. In many cases, Jewish villages were built in their place. In many others, the land was left to simply grow into forests.
Most of the land within Israel is still owned by either the government or the Jewish National Fund, which claims Israel as the “inalienable property of the Jewish people,” forcing Arabs to continue to face restrictions on leasing and ownership.
Today, that trend extends to the West Bank and east Jerusalem, creating a large-scale fragmentation that mimics the Bantustans of South Africa under apartheid. Israeli settlements have broken the West Bank into isolated communities, connected by roads heavily restricted by Israeli military checkpoints.
Similarly, east Jerusalem is isolated from other Palestinian communities. It is surrounded on all sides by Jewish settlements in addition to a racially biased municipal planning policy that places restrictions on Palestinian building and allows the government to confiscate land.
But in addition to physical aspects, apartheid is a deliberate economic system. In South Africa, it allowed the white minority to exploit black African labor. For Israelis, Palestinians are a cheap, exploitable labor source as well, bound in economic dependence to their oppressor. In the West Bank, there is a permanently depressed economy and a lower minimum wage than in Israel. Many of these Palestinians work in settlements for Israeli manufacturers, or as day laborers within Israel, a process that entails its own humiliating commute through cage-like checkpoints.
The crippling economic situation in the West Bank is the intentional product of Israeli policy that denies Palestinians access to basic resources and freedom of movement. They are confined to controlled roads with checkpoints that make short drives take hours, while settlers travel on exclusive, unrestricted roads. They face extremely limited and unequal access to water, amounting to billions in losses for the West Bank economy. Palestinians’ agricultural resources, such as the olive trees grown by so many farmers, are regularly uprooted and destroyed by settlers without justification or punishment.
Meanwhile, being Palestinian is essentially criminalized, creating a racist system of mass incarceration. Israel routinely employs administrative detention powers to indefinitely hold Palestinian prisoners without trial. In the West Bank, those who do see a judge are tried in military courts, including children, and anyone could be arrested for just about anything. Palestinians have no freedom of political organization or expression. In fact, it is illegal for them to even recognize their own suffering: A bill passed in 2011 makes commemorating the Nakba an offense worthy of imprisonment.
Within Israel, Arabs are second-class citizens, identified by race on government IDs, and not even as Palestinian, but as “Arab.” Access to jobs and social benefits is conferred through military service, which Palestinians forgo rather than serve in the Israeli military that routinely commits human rights violations against Palestinians.
But nowhere is apartheid more shocking than in Gaza, where the U.N. description of apartheid as the “deliberate imposition on a racial group … of living conditions calculated to cause its or their physical destruction in whole or in part” is most explicitly embodied. Palestinians in Gaza live caged, like animals under siege, without the resources to support even clean water and sewage systems.
All in the name of fighting “terrorism.”
It is for all of these reasons that the boycott, divestment and sanctions call must be heeded. These very tactics have a precedent in South Africa, where racism and human rights violations went unpunished by international institutions for far too long. Israeli apartheid is real, and recognizing it is the first step to combatting it.
LEILA SHEBARO is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. She is the president of Students for Justice in Palestine.