Does Israel operate an apartheid system? The question is highly fraught and provokes strong emotions on both sides. Pro-Palestinian activists argue that it does; defenders of the Israeli state argue that this is a fallacy. Most neutral arbiters agree that there are certainly elements of apartheid, particularly in the separation of roads and transport systems in the Occupied West Bank, even if the entirety of the state cannot accurately be described as such. The comparison to South Africa under apartheid is one that is being made more and more frequently, though, as the separation between Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the West Bank becomes more entrenched. It is cited frequently by proponents of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, who advocate isolating Israel as a way to apply pressure to end the occupation and seek a two-state solution, in the same way that pressure was applied to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.
This week, the Israeli parliamentarian Tzipi Livni visited Britain to attend a Fortune summit for powerful women. Livni, who was foreign minister during the 2008-9 Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip, has in the past had to use diplomatic immunity to travel to the UK, after activists had a warrant for her arrest issued over alleged war crimes. Now, she is a member of parliament for the left-leaning Zionist Union, opposing the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu. She argues in favour of the two-state solution and a renewed peace process with the Palestinians. It is believed that the staunchly pro-Israel British government applied special status to her again to allow her visit to go ahead without fear of arrest.
Part of her visit was spent debating with supporters of the BDS movement. In early June, the National Union of Students voted in favour of a boycott of Israel. This week, Livni appeared at a student event. In response to questions about Israel's hard line right-wing government, she responded that there is a difference between the state of Israel and a specific administration. She argued that supporting the boycott is a "collective punishment" that will not change the government's policies.
Livni repeated the description of the BDS movement as "collective punishment" when she appeared on the BBC's Newsnight programme. She told presenter Evan Davis that, "BDS is not about two states, two people; they are against the state of Israel", although she also said that the movement was not big enough to be a major worry. Davis asked Livni if she had supported the equivalent movement in apartheid South Africa. "We are not in the same situation," she responded. The presenter said that he was not asking whether it was the same, merely whether it was the right approach. Livni evaded the question, saying that she agreed with sanctions on Iran. "What about South Africa?" Davis asked for a third time. Finally Livni responded: "Yes, I did [agree]. But those were different, because there is no apartheid in Israel." Later in the conversation, Davis asked whether she found it depressing that the comparison to South Africa keeps being made. "Yes, it is frustrating as an Israeli," she said. "While I can criticise the Israeli government's policy, I cannot accept the idea that Israel is becoming an apartheid state."
Yet, for all Livni's denials, the comparison to South Africa is not going anywhere, and it is not just made by proponents of the BDS movement in the west, but by the same South Africans who fought against apartheid in their country. The Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu is one of the most prominent people to make the case that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is comparable to South Africa. He first made the case in a series of newspaper articles in 2002. Since then, he has maintained that the international community should divest support from Israel until the territories are no longer occupied. "I have been to the Occupied Palestinian Territory and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of apartheid," he wrote in an open letter in 2010. "I have witnessed the humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children made to wait hours at Israeli military checkpoints routinely when trying to make the most basic of trips to visit relatives or attend school and college, and this humiliation is familiar to me and the many black South Africans who were corralled and regularly insulted by the security forces of the apartheid government."
Other prominent South African anti-apartheid activists have also spoken out in recent years against Israel's policies in the West Bank, including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Arun Gandhi, Ahmed Kathrada, and Ronnie Kasrils (who is Jewish). In 2012, Baleka Mbete, the chairman of the ANC, went so far as to say that the situation is "far worse than apartheid South Africa."
Clearly, the apartheid comparison is sticking to Israel, and as systems of segregation in the Occupied West Bank become more entrenched the description is becoming increasingly accurate. One recent government pilot project that was pulled after an international outcry involved segregated buses for Palestinians and Jewish settlers; it is difficult to argue that this is not reminiscent of apartheid. Tzipi Livni's evasiveness, and that of other apologists, can't disguise the obvious apartheid facts on the ground.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.