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Apartheid relived: Israeli laws conjure-up uncomfortable memories of South Africa

On Jerusalem Day, which commemorates the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem to Israel, a young Jewish settler was asked if his country is an apartheid state. His reply was both illuminating and misguided: "How can Israel be an apartheid state? Palestinian citizens of Israel have the same rights as [Jewish] Israelis; and those in Judea and Samaria, well South Africa was one country, you can't have apartheid in an occupied territory."

As Elisabeth Koek, a Legal Researcher for the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq explained, apartheid does not need to be white against black, in one state not two states. "Apartheid requires an oppressor and an oppressed and the oppression must be systematic and institutionalised," she said. It's that simple.

Koek says that there were three pillars of legislation underpinning the South African apartheid regime. "The first was to segregate people into groups with privilege attached to the 'superior status'. The second pillar was the segregation of the population into different geographical areas, allocated by law. The third was that in order to maintain those privileges there were a matrix of draconian policies and laws that give the suppression of opposition a veneer of legitimacy."

In Israel today, the laws used to discriminate against Palestinians citizens of the state and those living under occupation in the West Bank reflect South Africa's apartheid pillars.

In South Africa, the Population Registration Act led to racial classifications which afforded privileges to the white population and a myriad of discriminatory laws for the "non-white" groups, especially the "black" majority. These laws dictated every aspect of their life, from whom they could marry to where they could send their children to school. Today in Israel, citizenship laws reflect a similar dual system of rights. Whilst those with Jewish identity from anywhere in the world are granted automatic Israeli citizenship the minute that they land at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport under the racist Law of Return, Palestinian refugees are denied their legal and moral right of return to their homeland. Furthermore, the 2003 Citizenship and Entry law prohibits spouses from "enemy states" from entering Israel for the purpose of family reunification, often forcing Palestinian families to live apart when spouses have come from exile in neighbouring states such as Lebanon and Syria.

Once classified, the black population of South Africa was forced to carry pass books which were designed to curtail their movement and segregate them from the "white" areas. This pass, which listed personal characteristics and past behaviour of the owner, was like an internal passport. The case of Kufr Aqab is a little window into the complexity of the Palestinian situation. The village lies within the Israeli-defined borders of Jerusalem, but behind the huge separation wall that carves up the West Bank. Some villagers from Kufr Aqab carry blue ID cards given to East Jerusalem residents after its annexation to Israel, and other green ID cards, the Palestinian Authority ID which prohibits holders from entering Israel or even East Jerusalem without a permit. While the villagers are cut off from amenities such as water and services such as healthcare as well as a police force, all of which are provided by the Jerusalem governorate, the authorities demand that residents still pay taxes, creating a significant financial burden.

Similar to the Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act and the Slum Act which helped institutionalise a policy of displacement for the destitute in South Africa, the poorest Palestinian villagers are forced to move out of Jerusalem to avoid the heavy taxes. Upon vacating their homes blue ID holders face being stripped of their Jerusalem residency permit, which requires them to prove that their "centre of life" has been Jerusalem for at least the previous seven years. Moving makes their homes in Jerusalem liable for confiscation under the Absentees' Property Law. This law is not applied to settlers who live in settlements in the West Bank deemed to be illegal under international law and own properties in Jerusalem and Israel.

In the Negev Desert another community is fighting for its existence. Just as the Group Area Acts and the Pass Laws displaced the black population of South Africa and herded them away from white areas, the Palestinian Bedouin are facing the 'Prawer Plan'. The proposed bill will see the "relocation" of 70,000 Bedouin from 35 "unrecognised" villages, to government-regulated towns and cities.

Through the passing of various land laws, the Negev was classified as "state land". The Bedouin camps were then wiped from the map of Israel which declared them to be "unrecognised" and denied them, by law, access to basic amenities. The policies of displacement are also commonplace in Area C, the 60 per cent chunk of the West Bank under complete Israeli control, as stipulated in the Oslo Accords. There the basic denial of rights includes "transferring" Palestinian residents forcibly to make space for the growing Jewish settler population.

As the masses grew restless, South Africa's apartheid system needed to safeguard the elevated status of the white population. Activists or those who resisted oppression were labelled terrorists under the Terrorism Act of 1967, and laws passed in the name of "security" meant innocent civilians were arrested, tortured and killed.

"What whites used to do by putting security laws in place to preserve the imbalance of power, Israel is now doing as well," said Koek. "The Israelis are denying Palestinians their basic human rights under the pretext of security. Israel needs to portray 'the Other' as a bogey to give it carte blanche to do whatever it wants."

All Palestinians living under occupation are subject to military laws and a set of over 3,000 military orders. In refugee camps and villages in the West Bank, Israeli forces routinely conduct night raids and arrest people on miscellaneous charges. Even children can be tried in the IDF's Military Courts and receive sentences of up to 25 years for "throwing stones".

In South Africa laws were enacted which defined the black population's value, made their discrimination legal and crushed any dissent. Palestinians inside Israel and within the West Bank and Gaza Strip are fighting the same kind of discrimination. Although the forces of apartheid were destroyed in South Africa the current Israeli legislation conjures up uncomfortable memories of a time not so long ago and certainly within personal memory for millions of people. Will Israel's version of apartheid come to the same sort of end as South Africa's? Only time will tell, but anyone who strives for a just world must live in hope that that is what will happen.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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