Commentary | “Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state”

The word apartheid is one of the most controversial parts of the Palestinian solidarity movement. Opponents of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign claim that the word apartheid is a slur used solely to delegitimize Israel. We in Tadamon!, however, believe this term is an accurate legal description of the Israeli state, and do not shrink from using an accurate term because it is controversial.

Apartheid is an Afrikaans word, first used to describe the system of racial separation and oppression in white-ruled South Africa. In 1973, the International Convention on the Suppression of and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid created a more generally applicable definition, characterizing the crime of apartheid as “inhuman 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.” We believe that Israel is an apartheid state because it commits inhuman acts to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over all other groups, actively oppressing Palestinians living in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Israeli apartheid, like the Palestinian population, is divided in two. There are discriminatory laws and actions targeting Palestinian citizens of Israel, and there is the militarily enforced apartheid of the West Bank. The ever-changing borders of “sovereign Israel” contain approximately 1.5 million non-Jewish Arabs. In theory, the Palestinian fifth of Israel’s population has full equality, but the reality is very different. Palestinians living in Israel suffer both from discriminatory laws and from the discriminatory application of supposedly neutral laws. The Absentee Property Law of 1950, for example, has been instrumental in the theft of land from Palestinians over the last sixty years. It allows the Israeli government to claim land by declaring the owner “absentee,” a designation that is only applied to Palestinians (including those forced off their land by the Israeli army). A recent example of an openly discriminatory law: the Nationality and Entry into Israel Law of 2003, a supposedly temporary law which has been extended indefinitely since its passage, specifically forbids the spouses of Israeli Arabs from gaining residency in Israel if they are from the Occupied Territories, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, or Iraq. The list of discriminatory laws continues to expand, with the purpose of maintaining the domination of Jewish Israelis and oppression of Palestinian citizens.

The situation in the West Bank is much worse. The West Bank is not a contiguous area of Palestinian control, but consists of islands of Palestinians, living in a sea of Israeli-only highways, settlements, check points, and closed military zones. There are more than 120 illegal Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank. The settlers, unlike Palestinians in the West Bank, are Israeli citizens, and Israel has created a huge system of settler-only infrastructure to facilitate movement to Israel proper. Palestinians, on the other hand, have almost no freedom of movement, and even the shortest inter-city trip can take hours if one encounters a checkpoint, making normal life in the West Bank impossible. In addition to the brutal occupation, Israel also engages in environmental apartheid, notably with regard to water rights. Though Palestinians make up ninety per cent of the population of the West Bank, they only control 17 per cent of the water. The rest is used by settlers or piped into Israel proper. The West Bank’s water fills Israeli pools and waters Israeli lawns, while Palestinians are forced to truck in clean water for drinking and irrigation. The oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank is systematic and horrific.

Israel’s goal, with all of these laws and actions, is to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over all Palestinians.

I am certainly not the first person to refer to Israel as an apartheid state. In 1961, Hendrik Verwoerd, then prime minister of South Africa who helped develop and implement apartheid policies in his country, said, “Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.” The message now, as it was then, must be “End Apartheid!”


Jon Booth, U2 Economics and History (Joint Honours) student, is a member of the Tadamon! collective. You can email him at jonathon.booth@mail.mcgill.ca. For more information on this viewpoint, you can visit tadamon.ca.


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