In an editorial about a recently proposed bill in the Israeli Knesset (parliament) which seeks to impose Israeli law on Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, Haaretz said somewhat peevishly that the measure could officially transform Israel into an apartheid state. The bill was proposed by two extreme right-wing politicians, Ayelet Shaked and Yariv Levin. The editorial observed that they are leading Israel to one of two bad results: the end of a state that is both Jewish and democratic; or its official transformation into an apartheid state.
The proposal, said Haaretz, is "creeping annexation under the guise of imposing judicial equality on either side of the Green Line – but only for Jews." This, the leader writer confessed, constitutes exploitation of the 50-year-old fiction that the West Bank is a military area, under the rule of the commanding army officer, whose actions are dictated solely by military necessity.
Under international law, the West Bank is occupied territory, and the transfer of a civilian population into the area is a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention. While Israeli courts acknowledge this in theory, that has not prevented over half a million Jewish settlers from moving into massive settlement-colonies built by the Israeli government across the territory. The purpose of this bill, say its proponents, is perfectly consistent with the way that most Israelis view the West Bank — which they call Judea and Samaria — and with the policies of successive Israeli governments. The legal fiction otherwise, which Israeli courts uphold, has no purpose or function apart from trying to assuage Western consciences.
While proposing the bill, Justice Minister Shaked asserted that, "Judea and Samaria are not Israel's backyard, and from now on [the] ministerial committee will ask to clarify, with respect to every government law at its table, how the initiating ministry intends to treat the settlers." She went on to say that the settlement of Judea and Samaria is a fait accompli; it is not a temporary or transitory thing. The time has come, she insisted, for the State of Israel to treat all its citizens equally and apply the same laws to everyone, either within Israel itself or in what the rest of the world regards as occupied territory.
This bill may or may not become law. Nevertheless, it seems odd to suggest, as many in the Israeli left seem to be doing, that the transformation of Israel into an apartheid state is somehow predicated on jettisoning a legal fiction, when in reality the legal distinction between Israel and the occupied West Bank has already been eroded by Tel Aviv to the point of non-existence.
That being the case, it would seem appropriate to revisit the main reason why Israel is regarded by increasing numbers of people as an apartheid state. Those who are not completely familiar with how Israeli apartheid works, need to understand that apartheid comes in different forms: "petty apartheid" determines which public transport you may or may not use, for example, depending on your ethnicity; or which park you can sit in (or even which park bench you can sit on); which beach you can use, or bank or post office counter; and so on.
"Grand apartheid", however, is a different kettle of fish, and is something already in place in Israel. Its essence — and this should be obvious — is a desire to separate and segregate people on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity. The specifics will vary depending on the socio-political and historical context. The absence of well-known manifestations of apartheid, which are ingrained in our political and cultural consciousness because of the powerful images that came out of white-ruled South Africa, does not preclude the fact that apartheid is being implemented by Israel in a subtle and sophisticated manner. Shrill condemnation of anyone describing Israel as an apartheid state does not negate the reality of what it actually does.
Israel may well allow its non-Jewish Palestinian ("Arab") citizens — 20 per cent of the population —to vote in and stand for elections, but that is a democratic veneer hiding the fact that public resources are distributed disproportionately on the basis of whether this citizen or that citizen is a Jew or not; whether this town or that town is predominantly Jewish or not; whether this school or that college has mainly Jewish pupils or not. Indeed, village and town councils have the legal right to determine who can live in their area, based on whether they are Jewish or not.
Maybe the problem is with the word apartheid itself, of which no self-respecting democrat would want to be accused. If such an accusation was to stick, it would derail the entire Israel project. Paradoxically, without the support of some clearly not so self-respecting democrats in Europe and America, Israel would not be able to enforce its apartheid policies using the fig-leaf of the old fabrication that it is "the only democracy in the Middle East".
The "purpose" and "intention" to maintain an "institutionalised regime" serving the goal of racial domination is at the core of apartheid, concluded a controversial UN report recently. The detailed assessment of Israeli practices towards the Palestinian people and the question of apartheid, prepared by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA), was quarantined following pressure from US and Israel. We should not have been surprised, for the UN body said that "the Israeli regime is designed for this core purpose" of serving the goal of racial domination.
The irony, as others have pointed out, is that the use of "apartheid" (literally, "separateness", leading to systematic "separate development") to describe Israel's treatment of Palestinians did not originate with opponents of the Israeli regime, let alone Arabs and Palestinians; it came from Israelis themselves. For decades, Israeli officials have employed the Hebrew term Hafrada ("Separation" or "Segregation") to describe Israel's governing policy in the West Bank and Gaza, and its attempts to separate the Palestinian population from both the Israeli population and the Jewish settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories. The so-called Israeli West Bank Barrier, known in Hebrew as "Gader Ha-Hafrada" ("Separation Fence"), was built on this vision.
The word apartheid may be problematic for supporters of Israel, but the term describes more than adequately the reality of Israel's official policy towards Palestinians. Israel's critics are thus simply using Israel's own terminology when cataloguing a long series of official declarations, platforms and plans predicated on Israel's commitment to the principle of Hafrada.
What's more, this is not applied exclusively to Palestinians. The latest scheme to encourage Black African refugees to leave the country is that they must pay 20 per cent of their salary, with their employers paying a further 16 per cent, to the Israeli government, it being payable back to them only at a specific bank branch in Ben Gurion Airport on their way out. This is yet another example of how the Israeli government seeks to maintain the "purity" of the self-declared "Jewish state". It does not enact policies that are openly racist fearing condemnation from Europe and America, which are hung up on petty apartheid (perhaps out of guilt for their support of white South Africa for decades); Israel does, however, enact laws that will, over time, ensure that separation and segregation are reinforced for the privilege of one racial and religious group over any other.
Call it what you like, but the essence of separation and segregation overrides every government decision made in Israel and no legal fiction can hide that fact. Israel is an apartheid state; let's not pretend otherwise.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.