It is common these days to compare the institutional racism in Israel, and its occupation of Palestine, to Apartheid South Africa. Up to a point, it’s a reasonable comparison. Up to a point. For all its horrors and brutality, the apartheid regime in South Africa never used fighter jets and artillery to bomb the oppressed people living in the townships. Israel has, and continues to do so.
Indeed, this has now become almost routine, and thus “acceptable” to the international community, allowing Israel to act with impunity. The effects are appalling.
According to the Minister of Housing and Public Works in Gaza, Naji Sarhan, 1,800 housing units were completely destroyed by Israel during its latest onslaught against civilians in the blockaded territory, including five residential tower blocks in the middle of Gaza City, a densely-populated area. Almost 17,000 more homes were partially damaged and more than 120,000 Palestinians were thus forcibly displaced from their homes.
Civil infrastructure was targeted deliberately by Israel. Just over seventy government buildings were destroyed, including the police headquarters and other public service facilities. At least 66 schools were damaged by the Israeli bombardment; three mosques were completely destroyed; 40 other mosques and a church were damaged.
The Israelis gave little or no warning that strikes were about to take place, leaving the sick and elderly no time to evacuate their homes. The New York Times reported that an Israeli airstrike on a residential building in Deir Al-Balah last Wednesday evening killed a married couple and their 2-year-old daughter, and wounded many others. The woman killed was pregnant and her husband was disabled. How were they a threat to the nuclear-armed state of Israel?
This destruction of human life and property happened in just 11 days of intense Israeli bombardment of civilians in the Gaza Strip. It ended — for now — with a ceasefire which came into force at 2 am last Friday.Most Palestinian activists and commentators seek to avoid saying or doing anything that could lead to accusations of anti-Semitism. Racism of all kinds is abhorrent, so they are right to do so. However, finding the correct terminology to describe and define the Palestine-Israel conflict is often difficult. Some of the results of this search for a suitable lexicon are so ridiculous, though, that they could end up compromising the Palestinian struggle to end the Israeli occupation.
I witnessed a debate recently about whether it was appropriate to refer to Israel’s government as a “regime”. It was surprising how many people on the political left were against the use of the term. One dictionary defines “regime” as “a government, especially an authoritarian one.” That, I would have thought, is entirely applicable to Israel where political and military leaders target women, children, the disabled, and the elderly with their bombs and missiles. Not once; not twice; but repeatedly over 11 days and nights on what was the latest of many occasions. Israel masquerades as a democratic state with a ruling regime of the most brutal kind. Not only does it display open contempt for international law, but it also imposes a military occupation upon and terrorises the Palestinians.
The state combines fascism, racism, far-right extremism, apartheid, and racial supremacy in its modus operandi. I understand completely the rationale behind describing Israel as an apartheid state, I really do; it makes perfect sense to most people to compare the Israeli regime to the worst that has ever existed.
However, such a comparison actually reduces the severity of the cruelty that Israel continues to inflict upon the Palestinians, which is unprecedented. Reasonable people around the world, therefore, should seek an alternative yet still an apt description. This could be important if and when the matter is debated at the UN Security Council where the existence of vetoes wielded by Israel’s no-questions-asked supporters in Washington, Paris, and London means that arguments, and thus Security Council Resolutions, depend more on who supports you than what you can prove. The council has Israel’s back.
So there can be disagreements about whether or not Israel is a regime. The definition of apartheid ia not appropriate for the occupation state, and here’s why: Apartheid South Africa was a brutal regime that discriminated against its “non-white” citizens; indeed, many were given “citizenship” of Bantustans created by Pretoria to remove “non-whites” from its own population. It was internationally condemned and there were dozens of critical UN resolutions.I was born and raised in Soweto, arguably one of the areas in South Africa impacted the most by apartheid. Soweto was an apartheid laboratory; it epitomised the worst excesses of the apartheid regime.
What we have witnessed in the past couple of weeks in Gaza, however, was never seen in Soweto, even at the height of apartheid. I have been to Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, and have spent time in Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East, including Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. The human rights abuses, inhuman living conditions, military checkpoints, settler-only roads, and even different car registration places making it easier to shoot and otherwise harass Palestinians were never seen in apartheid, South Africa. Importantly, neither Soweto nor any other “Black” township was ever bombed from land, air, and sea as Gaza has been.
Furthermore, notwithstanding the privileges that white South Africans enjoyed, a sizeable number of them stood up against apartheid. Many refused to serve in the apartheid army, opting instead to leave the country and live abroad. Although there is a small number of dissenting Israelis, the majority support the occupation and the state’s military offensives against the people in Gaza and are thus complicit in the atrocities and oppression. According to the Guardian, during Israel’s 2014 offensive, support among Israeli Jews was overwhelming throughout its 24 days, with opinion polls showing that 95 per cent of respondents believed the assault was justified.
As bad as the regime in my home country undoubtedly was, “apartheid” isn’t actually a strong enough term to describe Israel. We should stop comparing the rogue state to Apartheid South Africa because it is much, much worse. We need to find another label, and quickly.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.