From 1948 to 1994, the South African state divided its citizens by race and discriminated against them based on that categorization. The South African government created residential areas for different races, committed forced relocations of entire communities, and even restricted the daily movement of non-white people around South Africa with a “pass system.”
In 1973, the United Nations International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid defined 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.”
This understanding of apartheid is a useful tool to examine the systemic discrimination against minorities in Israel today. Israel currently enforces government policies that mean both Palestinian and Israeli Arabs face forms of segregation and economic marginalization that correspond to the UN convention’s definition of apartheid.
Their freedom of movement and right to residence also face serious barriers. In Israel, the right to leave and return to a country is compromised by the Law of Return (1950) and the Citizenship Law (1952) – which exclude former Arab residents who were forced to flee their homes in 1947 and 1967. Certain roads are reserved for Israeli use and checkpoints have been set up to control Palestinian movement within the West Bank and on its border with Israel. These restrictions violate the U.N. convention on apartheid, which prohibits the limitation of a racial group’s “right to leave and to return to their country…[or] the right to freedom of movement and residence.”
Israel’s four-year-long economic blockade of Gaza has ensured that 1.5 million Palestinians face increasing poverty with little hope of reconstruction. Last June, the International Committee of the Red Cross attributed this serious poverty and food insecurity to Israel’s stringent import restrictions on aid. The Red Cross said that “the fact that water and sanitation services could collapse at any moment raises the spectre of a major public health crisis.” Israel’s deliberate impoverishment of Palestinian communities violates the UN condition forbidding the “deliberate imposition on a racial group or groups of living conditions calculated to cause its or their physical destruction in whole or in part.”
Inequities in access to and ownership of land in Israel also demonstrate discrimination. Adalah, a human rights group in Israel, explains that Arab villages zoned as “non-residential” in 1965 “receive no government services, and residents are denied the ability to build homes and other public buildings. The authorities use a combination of house demolitions, land confiscation, denial of basic services, and restrictions on infrastructure development to dislodge residents from these villages.”
Using the word apartheid does not imply a call for the dissolution of the State of Israel, just as South Africa’s apartheid reforms did not require the elimination of the South African state. No matter the solution offered by proponents of the term, everyone who uses it seeks equality and respect for human rights for all – regardless of ethnicity. The South African situation differs markedly from the one in Israel and Palestine, but its example shows that dramatic advances toward equal rights can be achieved in relatively short time.
Use of the word also does not imply that Israel is the only nation that is currently perpetuating human rights abuses against the Palestinian people; Jordan’s ongoing revocation of the citizenship of thousands of Palestinians, for example, is also deplorable.
Supporters of many of these measures argue that segregation is justified by security concerns. However, systemically and repeatedly disenfranchising an entire people for the actions of a few is collective punishment, a necessarily unjust act that also violates the Fourth Geneva Convention. On a practical level, too, these measures only look toward short-term security. The safety of all persons in Israel and the Occupied Territories should be sought through a more equitable system, and increased standards of living for the Palestinian people who have been forced into poverty by the economic blockade.
Saying that the policies Israel uses to segregate people both in Israel and Palestine are an apartheid system is a practical application of historical memory. Examining past structures of apartheid allows us to see those policies – often called Hafrada by Israelis, which means “separation” and is the same word for South African apartheid – for what they are: institutions that segregate some people from others in ways that violate basic human rights and cause deep personal and community suffering.
Apartheid is a crime against humanity for which there can be no justification. We urge you to attend one of the many events of Israeli Apartheid Week, including Palestinian and South African anti-apartheid activists, indigenous North American youth, and a Palestinian-Israeli member of the Knesset. The schedule is online at montreal.apartheidweek.org.