Palestine and South Africa: United by their differences

Palestine and South Africa: United by their differences
63 years since the launch of the South African anti-apartheid movement which continues to inspire BDS efforts against Israeli crimes, Emad Moussa reminds us of important differences that make the fight for Palestinians much more difficult.
6 min read
22 Jun, 2022
Whilst there are striking similarities between apartheid in South Africa, and Israeli apartheid today, there are also notable differences argues Emad Moussa. [AFP]

Sixty-three years ago this week, a group of South African exiles and their supporters gathered in London to call for the boycott of several South African imports into Britain. The gathering would launch the Anti-Apartheid Movement, a British organisation leading the international boycott against South Africa’s apartheid. 

Over the years, more European citizens began to pressure supermarkets and companies to stop selling South African commodities. Barclays Bank, for instance, was pushed by students in the UK to withdraw from the apartheid state. By the mid-1980s, one in four Britons boycotted South African products.

Armed with the notion that years of campaigning can yield results, the movement has become an inspiration to Palestinians and rights groups worldwide to gather support against Israel’s apartheid.  

This is helped by the increasing shift in global public opinion regarding the Israel’s crimes, even in places traditionally supportive of the state, like the US. 

''A simple comparison between the two apartheid systems shows striking similarities, but also reveals oppressive measures deployed by the Israeli state against Palestinians that exceed those implemented by the Afrikaners against South Africa’s black majority.''

A 2021 Gallup poll showed that despite continued general support, Americans are increasingly critical of its policies, with signs that support for Palestinians is at its highest and steadily increasing.

Amongst the Jewish community in the US there is still baseline solidarity with Israel, but the stance against Israel’s policies, especially among young people, is on the rise, with many becoming outspoken members of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. 

Despite the aggressive pushback and smear campaigns, including through accusations of anti-Semitism by the pro-Israel lobby, the boycott movement has clearly succeeded in breaking the taboos on discussing Israel’s system of oppression.

It helped expand the internal discourse on the two-state solution to include the question of Palestinian human rights and justice. And more critically, it brought into the public domain the comparisons between Israel’s actions and  apartheid in South Africa, which was previously a sensitive topic confined within the narrow circles of academia.

The earlier attempts to contextualise Israel as an apartheid system were exploratory and mostly focused on the state’s separatist and exclusivist policies towards its Palestinian citizens.

More discursive and empirical work over the past decade led the debate to acquire a legal character that was encouraged by the increased coverage of Israel’s system of oppression.

 In 2020, Israel’s leading human rights organisation, B’tselem, became the first body to officially label Israel an apartheid state. The organisation’s approach was comprehensive, looking at Israeli discriminatory and exclusivist laws in both the 1967-occupied territories and within Israel against the Israeli-Palestinian minority.

It did not take long for Human Rights Watch and Amnesty to follow suit, moving the debate a step further from activism, toward international accountability. In March this year, the UN joined the growing consensus, calling Israel’s rule in the occupied West Bank an apartheid system.

On paper, the growing momentum is encouraging for it opens up more avenues for Palestinian justice, which  resembles the trajectory of the South African anti-apartheid movement.

But, the comparison with South Africa, however close, leaves two intrinsic facts out of the discussion.

The first is the nature of the Israeli regime, and the second is the more complex dynamics characterising Israel’s apartheid model.

The human rights reports on Israel’s apartheid seem to suggest that Israel has only become an apartheid system after it had failed to withdraw from the 1967 borders and allow the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Among Palestinian intellectuals and their supporters, apartheid is not an aberration, but rooted in the exclusionary, settler-colonial nature of the Zionist enterprise. 

Israel’s establishment would not have been possible without the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and later, geographical confinement of what is left of them within the borders of pre-1948 Palestine. Because of that, Palestinian scholar Fayez Sayegh frames Zionism as “racial elimination,” thus distinct from European colonial projects defined primarily by racial domination. 

Critics of the settler-colonialism analogy point to Zionism’s lack of a metropole, an imperial home or centre, to debunk the claims of Zionism’s inbuilt apartheid. 

However, the Zionist movement relied heavily on “Western patrons” to fulfil its colonial project, and is/was not the only metropole-less example in colonial history. Even Algeria, the locus classicus of settler-colonialism, did not fit the strict legal definition of the metropole model.

This is particularly true for South Africa. After the Cape Colony had passed to Britain in 1806, the Afrikaners were severed from their Dutch metropole and became an independent entity, and later went on to establish an apartheid regime.

Majorly because of this inbuilt exclusiveness it may be more difficult for Palestinians to achieve justice, for that will require dismantling or, at least, de-racialising Zionism. That is, when Israeli leaders speak of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, they effectively speak of its right to exist as a racist, exclusivist state. Only an apartheid system can maintain this vision.

It was perhaps inevitable that this would generate a worse apartheid model than that of South Africa.


A simple comparison between the two apartheid systems shows striking similarities, but also reveals oppressive measures deployed by the Israeli state against Palestinians that exceed those implemented by the Afrikaners against South Africa’s black majority.

Consider, for instance, that the chief purpose of South African apartheid was the exploitation of Labour. Palestinians, on the other hand, require permits and security checks to work in Israel or move across the West Bank. The same applies to Palestinians from Gaza who want to travel to the West Bank. Labour is also used as a means of collective punishment against Palestinians.

There were no separate roads in South African apartheid. But in the West Bank, separate Israeli and Palestinian road networks exist, allegedly to ensure the security of the illegal Jewish settlers, but also to impose facts on the grounds and usurp more Palestinian land.

More importantly, unlike South Africa, Palestinians live under a bizarre combination of settler-colonialism and hyperactive military occupation. Deprived of their historical rights, they are also exposed daily to Israeli violence, dispossession, and other evolving oppressive measures and, in Gaza’s case, major military onslaughts and an illegal blockade.

South Africa’s white minority eventually reached a point where it could not maintain racial segregation or secure sufficient International backing. But for Palestinians, the odds are higher; so expecting an identical trajectory to South Africa, despite adopting similar campaigning tactics, to defeat Israel’s apartheid might be unrealistic.

Yet, as the Israeli apartheid evolves, so do the Palestinian methods of resistance, and international solidarity efforts.

It remains uncertain at this very moment how exactly the current system will unravel. But we know, judging by the logic of history,  that apartheid can never be normalised.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.