The meaning of apartheid

It is undeniable that apartheid has entered mainstream discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jimmy Carter penned his book “Peace Not Apartheid” in 2006. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and many others who experienced South African apartheid have described Israel as an apartheid state. Even Secretary of State John Kerry slipped this past April and said Israel might become “an apartheid state.”

Still, many people refuse to entertain the argument that Israel could be perpetrating apartheid, which is an understandable reluctance. Apartheid is heavy stuff that can make us feel uncomfortable. If the situation in Israel/Palestine makes you uncomfortable, that’s a good thing. It probably means you are human. But discomfort, while normal, is not a reason to disengage from reality. Discomfort with the term “apartheid” is not a legitimate reason to deny its existence.

Apartheid: Not Just a South African Phenomenon      

Apartheid, although of South African origin, is not a phenomenon exclusive to South Africa. In fact, it is a term that is codified in international law. Some people refer to Israeli apartheid as an “apartheid analogy” or compare it to South African apartheid, but that isn’t really the case. Israeli apartheid is simply another enumeration of the crime of apartheid as defined in international law.

In 1973 the United Nations General Assembly ratified the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. In Article I of this document, apartheid is defined as “a crime against humanity and that inhuman acts resulting from the policies and practices of apartheid … are crimes violating the principles of international law.”

Article II enumerates the specific “inhuman acts” that constitute the “crime of apartheid.” Although each and every “inhuman act” does not apply to Israel, South Africa or any real-world situation, many of the listed acts do — and all of them are “crimes violating the principles of international law.”

Crimes of Apartheid

For example, “any measures, including legislative measures, designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups, the prohibition of mixed marriages among members of various racial groups [or] the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group or groups or to members thereof.”

Certainly illegal Jewish-only settlements built on occupied land are not only efforts to divide the population, but also to expropriate Palestinian land. In addition to the settlements, Israel routinely demolishes Palestinian homes. According to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, over 1,115 homes have been completely destroyed between 1987 and 2004.

Punitive house demolitions have often been used against Palestinians suspected or convicted of crimes, a practice which results in the collective punishment and displacement of innocents. Since 2004, punitive house demolitions have been used less frequently, although the tactic was officially resumed in 2014. Many homes are also demolished if they are built without permits, but 94 percent of Palestinians who apply for housing permits are systematically denied.

When it comes to the “prohibition of mixed marriages,” there is no denying that Israel is at fault. Israel’s marriage laws clearly prohibit mixed marriages. That means a Jewish man cannot marry a Muslim woman. Likewise, a Christian man could not marry a Muslim woman. But can a Jew marry a Christian? Don’t get your hopes up — the answer is no. Even two Jews can have difficulty marrying within Israel; they must have an Orthodox wedding.

But Wait – There’s More!

Other crimes of apartheid include: “denying to members of a racial group or groups basic human rights and freedoms, including the right to work … the right to education, the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence.”

Palestinians do not have the privilege of free movement. Israel has made it nearly impossible for Palestinians to travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem residents also have great difficulty travelling abroad or through Israel. A system of checkpoints and barriers makes life even harder for Palestinians. At some checkpoints in the West Bank only Palestinians with military-issued special permits can pass. Israel also operates over 50 km of roads used mainly by Israeli settlers that are prohibited for Palestinians based on their ethno-national identity.

These vast restrictions on movement also inhibit other rights, such as the right to work or the right to education. It is hard to hold a job when you can’t physically get to your place of work. In terms of education, Israel bans Palestinians in Gaza from studying in the West Bank and restricts access to Palestinian universities for foreign nationals.

Another crime of apartheid is “arbitrary arrest and illegal imprisonment of the members of a racial group.” As of July 2014 Israel holds over 470 Palestinians in administrative detention, a practice that breaches international law and has been condemned by myriad human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Over the last decade thousands of Palestinians have experienced administrative detention, which is arrest and indefinite imprisonment without trial. Currently 17 Palestinian MPs and two ministers are held in administrative detention. In recent years there have at times been over 200 children in administrative detention.

An analysis based on international law and clear definitions rather than emotional responses and ethno-national affiliations clearly shows that there is reason for the discussion surrounding Israeli apartheid. These are the reasons some people are already having this debate — not due to anti-Semitism or pure villainization of Israel (although people who express those views do exist). Oftentimes this discussion is not between people, but within people. It starts internally. So ask yourself: Is this apartheid?


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