The roots of Israeli apartheid

The roots of Israeli apartheid
Comment: For decades, Israeli law has enshrined the principles of apartheid, stripping Palestinians of their rights for the purposes of maintaining Israel's grip on power, writes Yousef Munayyer.
5 min read
28 Feb, 2017
A Palestinian protestor holds a portrait of late South African President Nelson Mandela, 2013 [Andalou]

In March and April, activists around the world will hold events marking Israeli Apartheid Week to raise awareness in communities and on campuses about the injustices being done to Palestinians.

The series of events, now in its 13th year, continues to grow. In 2016, according to its website, Israeli Apartheid Week "included a wide range of events, from lectures, film screenings, cultural performances, BDS actions, to postering in metro stations, setting up apartheid walls on campuses, and many more. These actions took place in more than 225 cities across the world."

The events have played an important role in advancing the notion that Israel is indeed an apartheid state and - just as South Africa before it - requires a unified and unwavering international approach to isolating the dominating power until this discriminatory system is dismantled.

Among the most common debates sparked by the advancement of this notion is whether or not the apartheid designation is truly fitting for Israel. Furthermore, if it is at all, some will argue that it may be fitting for the situation in the West Bank, but not in Israel because Palestinian citizens of Israel have voting rights unlike those in occupied territory.

Such arguments fail to understand both the meaning of apartheid, as well as the important historical realities which are essential for properly understanding the full scope of the injustice imposed on Palestinians, that must be resolved for there to be a lasting peace.

What is apartheid?

Upon hearing the word, many think immediately of South Africa. While the South African system was one of apartheid, it would be wrong to think that every apartheid system must look exactly the same. Just as no two genocides are exactly alike, they fit within a basic and widely understood definition of the concept. So what does the concept of apartheid look like? 

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Apartheid is defined in international law in different documents including the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, and the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The basic definition is that apartheid is a system of acts taken by a state which violate the basic rights of one group of people for the purpose of keeping another in power.

When did Israel become an apartheid state?

So, did Israel take such actions that denied the basic rights of one group for the purpose of keeping another in power and if so, when did this begin? The answer of course, is yes - and these acts go back to the earliest days and years of the state.

A series of legal and military steps taken by the state of Israel were critical to the establishment of apartheid, and many do not fully appreciate the ramifications of these measures. 

First, during the war from 1947-1949, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were depopulated from their homeland and made refugees. While the Israeli state was declared on 14 May 1948, by which point about 400,000 Palestinians had been made refugees, approximately another 400,000 more were created after this date.

The state needed a way to keep legitimate residents out, while allowing in non-residents in based on their ethno-religious background

During the war, the provisional government of the Israeli state took the first of several steps toward apartheid, it enshrined British Emergency Regulations into Israeli law. These regulations - essentially a version of martial law - would be used to govern Palestinian citizens left in Israel after the depopulation from 1948-1966.

But what of all the displaced persons and refugees who were residents, claimants and property owners in the newly created state? Were they citizens? If so on what basis? These were questions that dogged the Israeli state's leadership.

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If they permitted the Palestinian refugee residents back into their homeland, they'd have to give them citizenship and access to the political system, effectively undercutting the power of the newly created Jewish majority. At the same time, the state sought to facilitate the entry of global Jewry into the new state, even if those individuals did not have residency.

The state needed a way to keep legitimate residents out while allowing in non-residents in based on their ethno-religious background.

To do that, a new series of laws were passed. The Law of Return (1950) created a path to citizenship for any Jew anywhere in the world. The Nationality Law (1952), defined other paths to citizenship - including residency - effectively giving citizenship to the small number of Palestinians who managed to remain in their homeland during the period of depopulation.

And what about the residents in refuge abroad? They would be denied entry, first at gunpoint and then through the Prevention of Infiltration law (1954). Through these laws, the Israeli state set up a discriminatory system through which they could restrict the rights of some, while privileging those of others based on ethno-religious background.

These laws and practices then served as the basis to promote Israeli settler-colonialism throughout Palestine.

Through the Absentee Property Law (1950) the state began to appropriate land that belonged to so-called "absentees" - Palestinians who were either refugees denied return into Israel, or internally displaced Palestinians denied access to land that was declared a military zone through the emergency regulations.

The very foundation of the Israeli state is an apartheid foundation, laid out in Israeli law

This process allowed the state of Israel to lay claim to some 92 percent of the territory, dispossessing the owners the state made into involuntary "absentees". 

Importantly, this is a process that continues to this day. The emergency regulations, adopted from the British by the Israelis to use against Palestinian citizens of Israel from 1948-1966 were consequently applied to Palestinians in occupied territory after 1967. These regulations are used to further the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, taking settler-colonialism even deeper into Palestine.

The very foundation of the Israeli state is an apartheid foundation, laid out in Israeli law, intended to keep one ethno-religious group in power by denying the rights of another in a systematic fashion.

Understanding the unitary nature of this system and the singular historical trajectory from those early days of the state until today, is essential for understanding precisely what the obstacles to peace are.

Dr. Yousef Munayyer is a Middle East Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC and Executive Director of US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefMunayyer

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.