Apartheid in Palestine, the deep roots of the war

“Free Palestine’: Palestinians graffiti part of the Israeli wall enclosing the West Bank city of Bethlehem. © Montecruz Photo/Flickr/CC. Courtesy of Opera Mundi

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Apartheid in Palestine, the deep roots of the war

Written by Josep Carles Rius

UN Secretary-General António Guterres condemned the atrocious Hamas attacks, but said they "did not come out of the blue", earning him harsh criticism in Israel. However, it is essential to put the tragedy in context. And here the word apartheid, which gave a name to the discrimination of the population in South Africa, comes to mind

Apartheid (‘separation’ in Afrikaans) is the name given to the system of racial segregation in South Africa and Namibia in force between 1948 and 1992. This regime was based on laws that discriminated against South Africa’s black and Indian populations. It was driven by the descendants of European settlers who wanted to maintain their privileges over the indigenous population. Nelson Mandela symbolises resistance to oppression, and the dialogue that led to the abolition of apartheid.

The Apartheid Convention, adopted by the United Nations in 1973, and the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (1998), define this regime as a crime against humanity: “Inhumane acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining the domination of one racial group of persons over another racial group of human beings and systematically oppressing them”. In other words, apartheid is “an institutionalised regime of oppression “which has as one objective “to maintain that regime”.

Among the “inhumane acts” identified in the Convention and the Rome Statute are “forcible transfer”, “expropriation of territorial property”, “creation of separate reservations and ghettos”, denial of the “right to leave and return to one’s country”, and the “right to a nationality”. It is, they conclude, a crime against humanity “the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law on the basis of the identity (racial, national or ethnic) of the group or collectivity”.

Can we use the term ‘apartheid’ to explain the actions of the Israeli state towards the Palestinian population? The best answer can be provided by someone who is familiar with both historical contexts, that of South Africa, and that of Israel and Palestine. 

Benjamin Pogrund grew up in South Africa. He began his career as a journalist in 1958, writing for The Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg. It was the only newspaper that reported on the oppression of the black and Indian population. He documented the torture of prisoners and the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960: police fired on a demonstration aginst apartheid, killing 69 people, most of them women and children. His work as a journalist cost him numerous convictions, including prison sentences. Pogrund and his wife emigrated to Israel in 1997. He lives in Jerusalem. 

For decades, Benjamin Pogrund refused to apply the term apartheid to Israel. His thesis, defended in a multitude of articles and lectures, was that “anyone who knows what apartheid was and attributes it to Israel today is at best ignorant and naive, and at worst cynical and manipulative”.

On 10 August 2023, Benjamin Pogrund signed an article in the daily Haaretz under the headline: “For decades, I have defended Israel against accusations of apartheid. I can no longer. He explained that “in Israel, I am now witnessing the apartheid I grew up with in South Africa. The fascist and racist takeover of the Israeli government by the current prime minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) is the gift that the enemies of Israel have been waiting for for a long time”.

In the article, Pogrund denounces that “we are denying the Palestinians any hope of freedom and a dignified life. We believe our own propaganda that a few million people will meekly accept perpetual inferiority and oppression. The government is driving Israel to inhumane and cruel behaviour beyond defence. I don’t need to be religious to know that this is a shameful betrayal of Jewish morality and history”.

Shlomo Ben Ami, a former foreign minister in Labour governments, ambassador and professor, believes that in Israel “we are living and will live apartheid in a much more intense way as time goes by, because the population is becoming more and more like Arab. Israel will look more and more like apartheid South Africa, but without a South African solution. There is no possible scenario in which the Jewish minority will ever offer power to the Arab majority.

What we have from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, says Ben Ami, “is a state dominated by a ‘master race’ that is Jewish, in which the Palestinians have no rights. An apartheid. Israel says it is a military occupation, like France’s in Algeria or England’s in other territories, and that as such it is temporary, until a solution is found. This is a deception. The moment the political negotiations end, the argument is no longer valid”.

The Human Rights Watch report

Human Rights Watch released a report on 27 April 2021, the result of years of work on the ground. Based on its research, Human Rights Watch concludes that the Israeli government “has demonstrated its intent to maintain Jewish Israeli rule over Palestinians throughout Israel and the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem. This intent has been accompanied by systematic oppression of Palestinians and inhumane acts committed against them. When these three elements (domination, oppression and inhumane acts) are combined, they amount to the crime of apartheid”.

Human Rights Watch considers that “these policies intentionally and severely deprive millions of Palestinians of key fundamental rights, including residency, private property, and access to land, services, and resources, on the basis of their Palestinian identity in a widespread and systematic manner”.

As in South Africa, apartheid is underpinned by law. Human Rights Watch recalls that “Israel’s 1952 Citizenship Law creates a reality in which a Jewish citizen of any other country who has never been to Israel can move there and automatically obtain citizenship, while a Palestinian expelled from his home and languishing for more than 70 years in a refugee camp in a nearby country cannot”.

This law remains in force. As the Human Rights Watch report recalls: “In 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon argued that ‘there is no need to hide behind security arguments. The existence of a Jewish state is necessary”. Benjamin Netanyahu, then finance minister, had already pointed out that “instead of making things easier for Palestinians who want to become citizens, we should make the process much more difficult in order to ensure Israel’s security and a Jewish majority”. In March 2019, this time as prime minister, Netanyahu declared: ‘Israel is not a state of all its citizens, but rather the nation-state of the Jewish people, and only of them.”

The Human Rights Watch report concludes: “For too long, the international community has turned a blind eye to the increasingly transparent reality on the ground. Every day a person is born in Gaza in an open-air prison, in the West Bank with no civil rights, in Israel with inferior status by law, and in neighbouring countries effectively condemned to refugee status for life, like their parents and grandparents before them, solely because they are Palestinian and not Jewish. A future based on freedom, equality and dignity for all people living in Israel and the occupied territories will remain elusive as long as Israel’s abusive practices against Palestinians persist”.

The scene: West Bank and Gaza

What is the geographical and human setting where, according to Human Rights Watch, an apartheid regime has been established? In the 1967 Six Day War, Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai. Today, despite numerous UN condemnations, it maintains the occupation, except in the Sinai, which was returned to Egypt in 1979 after the signing of the Camp David peace accords.

The Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza are separated from each other by Israel. Since 2007, the population of Gaza has been under a blockade that has made it extremely difficult for people to leave and for basic goods to enter, and has turned the Strip into the largest open-air prison in the world. Nearly two million people – one million of them children – live crammed into a 41-kilometre long and 10-kilometre wide prison. Since 2004 it has been bombed by Israel on numerous occasions, with some offensives resulting in more than a thousand Palestinian deaths, most of them civilians. The most serious was the one unleashed after Hamas’s atrocious attack on Israel on 7 October 2023. More than 8,000 Palestinians were killed, a third of them children.

The West Bank and East Jerusalem are home to more than 500,000 Jewish settlers who occupy Palestinian land and control most of the aquifers. The territory is likened to a kind of Gruyère cheese, with isolated Palestinian villages separated from each other and from East Jerusalem itself by a wall, constant army checkpoints, and Israeli-only roads. The growing construction of new illegal settlements, driven by Jewish settlers under the protection of the Israeli army, effectively frustrates the possibility of a future Palestinian state. And it creates a scenario of constant violence between the two communities.

The roots of hatred

Jeremy Milgrom, an Israeli rabbi and peace activist, asks in an interview about the origin of so much hatred, so much pain. “The biggest mistake we have made since 1967 is the terrible occupation. But in reality, the problem goes back to before ’67 and even before ’48. And it is a complex thing that I have thought about a lot: how do we tell people that the terrorists who committed the terrible massacre on 7 October 2023 are the children and grandchildren of refugees who were expelled from the land where the kibbutz that was attacked are located. These terrorists returned with hearts filled full of revenge for the lives they and their families hade led. We Israelis made no effort to meet their just demands. And when you don’t respect the basic need for justice you are not going to find a civilised response”.

All of this, says Jeremy Milgrom, “is something I haven’t heard said in public, but I think a lot of people know about it. I’m not justifying them, it’s about understanding what has happened. The anger that we are feeling now against Hamas is because of the humiliation, because of the pain, but also because there is a very deep sense of guilt, which we have hidden all these years, for the refugees. We pretended that they were no longer a problem, that they were gone and that we could forget about them. But we knew it wasn’t true. 

“To understand how human beings can become barbarians capable of acting in such a brutal way – not to justify it, but to understand it – you have to be aware, and I think many Israelis are aware, that living in Gaza is living in a pressure cooker and when it explodes, it explodes in a horrible way,” argues Jeremy Milgrom.

The words of António Guterres

UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed a similar view and was severely criticised by the Israeli authorities. Hamas attacks did not come out of the blue,” he said. The Palestinians have been living under a suffocating occupation for 56 years, their land has been gradually swallowed up by settlements, and their hopes for a political solution have faded, but their grievances cannot justify Hamas’s atrocious attacks. Nor can collective punishment of the Palestinian population [as an Israeli response]”.

In response to criticism in Israel, Guterres recalled that “I have unequivocally condemned the unprecedented and horrific acts of terror perpetrated by Hamas in Israel on 7 October. Nothing can justify the deliberate killing, wounding and abduction of civilians, or the firing of rockets at civilian targets’.

A few days earlier the EU’s top foreign affairs official, Josep Borrell, had declared that ‘just as we can say that it is an abominable tragedy to kill young people who were celebrating life, can we not say it about the death of children in Gaza? How does mourning one tragedy take away from me the moral strength to mourn another? On the contrary, it gives it to me.

Gideon Levy, a renowned Israeli journalist committed to peace, wrote that “on 7 October 2023 Israel woke up to a different reality, one that should finally extinguish the country’s arrogance and complacency. It should demonstrate once and for all the impossibility of evading any consequences of continuing to indefinitely imprison more than two million people in a giant cage (Gaza), while another three million people live indefinitely under military tyranny (West Bank)”.

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Apartheid in Palestine, the deep roots of the war

Written by Josep Carles Rius

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has spoken about the difficult situation in Palestine, saying that Hamas attacks did not come out of the blue. This has generated controversy in Israel. To understand what is going on, it is important to know the term “apartheid”, which originated in South Africa and was used to describe a system of racial segregation between 1948 and 1992.

The apartheid system was based on laws that discriminated against the black and Indian populations in South Africa. It was promoted by the descendants of European settlers who wanted to maintain their privileges over the indigenous population. Nelson Mandela became a symbol of resistance and dialogue that helped end apartheid in South Africa.

The UN Apartheid Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court define apartheid as a crime against humanity, involving inhumane acts committed to maintain the domination of one racial group over another.

The question arises whether we can apply the term “apartheid” to the situation in Israel and Palestine. To answer this, let us consider the opinion of Benjamin Pogrund, a South African journalist who lived under apartheid in South Africa and later moved to Israel. For a long time, he rejected the idea that Israel practised apartheid. However, in 2023, he changed his mind and claimed that Israel was following a similar path to South African apartheid.

The situation in Palestine focuses on the West Bank and Gaza, two geographical areas separated by Israel. Gaza has been under a blockade since 2007, which has led to a situation of suffering for its population. In the West Bank, more than 500,000 Jewish settlers occupy Palestinian land and control vital resources, making the creation of a Palestinian state difficult.


Human Rights Watch report warns of the danger

Human Rights Watch has issued a report stating that Israel has demonstrated its intention to maintain Jewish rule over Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories, which they describe as a crime of apartheid. This is based on the intentional and severe deprivation of Palestinians’ fundamental rights.

West Bank and Gaza

In 1967, Israel occupied several territories in a war. Although the United Nations did not agree to this occupation, Israel still controls some of these areas, except for the Sinai, which was returned to Egypt in 1979.

The West Bank and Gaza are two places where, according to Human Rights Watch, there is a system of apartheid-like segregation. These territories are separated by Israel. In Gaza, there has been a blockade since 2007 that makes it difficult for people to leave and for food to enter. This has made Gaza a place where many people live in a very small space, like a big open-air prison. There have also been bombings by Israel, with many civilians injured or killed, including children. The worst was in 2023.

In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, there are more than 500,000 Jewish settlers who occupy land that originally belonged to Palestinians and control the water. The region is compared to a Swiss cheese because there are isolated Palestinian villages separated by a wall and Israeli-only roads. In addition, the construction of new illegal settlements has increased, making it difficult for Palestinians to have their own state in the future and causing much violence between the two communities.

The origin of hatred

Jeremy Milgrom, an Israeli rabbi and peace advocate, wonders why there is so much hatred and suffering in the region.

He says that the problem did not start in 1967, but goes back to before that date, even before 1948. He explains that some of the people who committed terrible acts in 2023 are descendants of refugees who were expelled from their land. These descendants feel a lot of anger and desire for revenge because of the hardships they and their families have faced.

Jeremy Milgrom believes that the Israelis have not done enough to address the just demands of these people, and when justice is not respected, people sometimes react violently.

The words of António Guterres

UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed his views on the situation and received criticism from Israel. He said that the Hamas attacks did not come out of the blue, as Palestinians have lived under occupation for a long time, and their hopes for a peaceful solution have faded. However, he also condemned Hamas’s acts of terror in Israel and said that there can be no justification for injuring civilians or firing rockets at civilian targets.

EU leader Josep Borrell also deplored the deaths of children in Gaza and stressed that it was as sad as the deaths of young people elsewhere.

An Israeli journalist committed to peace, Gideon Levy, mentioned that the situation in 2023 should make Israel see the reality of imprisoning many people in Gaza and living under military tyranny in the West Bank, which should make the country realise the consequences of this situation.

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