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In Opinion

The situation for Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel is often referred to as ‘apartheid’. But what does this mean? Is it accurate – and what about the comparison with South Africa? To look at these questions and more, read on.

What is apartheid?

Apartheid is a system of separation and institutionalised racism. It is prohibited as a crime against humanity in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Rome Statute (the treaty which established the ICC) defines apartheid as “inhumane acts…committed in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”1 Apartheid is also outlawed in the 1977 Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, where it is described as a “grave breach”, and, in the words of legal scholar John Dugard, “without any geographical limitation.”2

Earlier still, in 1973, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.3 The definition includes “any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country … [including] the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence.” The definition also includes “the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group.”

Finally, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1969, which Israel ratified in 1979, includes (in Article 3), a condemnation of “racial segregation and apartheid”, and obliges state parties “to prevent, prohibit and eradicate all practices of this nature in territories under their jurisdiction.”4 In 1995, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination clarified that while the reference to apartheid originated with South Africa, “the article as adopted prohibits all forms of racial segregation in all countries.”5


Why do you describe it as apartheid in Israel?

When Israel was established in 1948, around 90 percent of all Palestinians who would have been inside its borders were expelled, and prevented from returning (see my article for PSC on the Nakba).6 To this day, millions of Palestinians are denied access to their homeland, their lands and properties expropriated, purely because they are not Jewish. Since its establishment, Israel has systematically discriminated against Palestinian citizens, and, for 49 years of its 68-year existence, has subjected non-citizen Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to a military regime characterised by colonisation and segregation (and note that Palestinian citizens of Israel were themselves subjected to military rule right up until 1966).

By the mid-1970s, the average Palestinian village in Israel had lost 65-75 percent of its land.7 Today, 43 percent of Israeli towns have residential admission committees that filter out applicants on the grounds of “incompatibility with the social and cultural fabric”. These committees are  “used to exclude Arabs from living in rural Jewish communities”, in the words of Human Rights Watch.8 In the Negev, Bedouin Palestinians constitute more than 34 percent of the population, yet only 18 settlements out of 144 are designated for the community.9 No wonder then, that after a 2012 visit, UN special rapporteur on housing Raquel Rolnik declared that she had witnessed in Israel “a land development model that excludes, discriminates against and displaces minorities.”10

In the West Bank, the Israeli state has established and expanded more than 100 illegal settlements, in defiance of international law. These settlements are Israeli towns and villages built on land stolen from Palestinians. Settlements’ residents are Israeli citizens; the Palestinians they live among are not and are ruled by military law. Addressing the discriminatory planning and housing regime in the West Bank, Amnesty International has called the situation “unique globally.”11 In 2012, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged Israel to “prohibit and eradicate” policies which violate the prohibition of “racial segregation and apartheid.”12


Is it like apartheid in South Africa between 1948 to 1994?

Over the decades, scholars have highlighted similarities and differences between South African apartheid and Israeli policies and practices; it is certainly not an exact equivalence.

That being said, it is significant how South African anti-apartheid campaigners have identified parallels: Desmond Tutu said a trip to Palestine in 2002 had reminded him “so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.”13 And it’s not just apartheid’s opponents; in 1961, South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd stated: “the Jews took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for 1,000 years. Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.”14

As mentioned above, however, apartheid is a crime under international law – irrespective of the merits or otherwise of a comparison with the historic regime in South Africa. There are similarities and there are differences but ultimately, the policies of the Israeli state, like those of the old South African regime, amount to apartheid as legally defined. It is thus particularly significant that, as described above, the Rome Statute defines and outlaws apartheid – a treaty that was adopted some four years after the formal end of apartheid in South Africa.


But people say that everyone enjoys the same rights in Israel – is this not true?

It is important to understand that, today, there is a de-facto single state – one regime, maintained by the Israeli authorities – between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Since 1967, successive Israeli governments have steadily incorporated the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, into the fabric of the state, through settlements, a road network, and so on. Within this single regime, incorporating pre-1967 Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Jews and Palestinians are afforded or denied rights based on ethnicity, ID card, and geography.

Within Israel, inequality is institutionalised; even the U.S. State Department acknowledges that Palestinian citizens of Israel – approximately 20 percent of the population inside the pre-1967 lines – face “institutional and societal discrimination.”15 According to legal rights centre Adalah, there are more than 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens, affecting areas of life such as land ownership, housing rights, family life, citizenship, education, and more.16 Indeed, contrary to a widely-held perception, there is not even a legal guarantee of equality; in January 2016, the Knesset voted against a draft bill calling for the inclusion of an equality clause in a key Basic Law.17

So while Palestinian citizens of Israel can vote in parliamentary elections, and become Members of Knesset or Supreme Court justices, none of that changes the documented discrimination outlined above. Moreover, their representation in the corridors of power and judiciary is extremely limited; since 1948 there have only even been two non-Jewish ministers, out of more than 600, while there has only ever been one Arab judge on the Supreme Court (from 66 justices past and present).18

Of course, Israel’s policies of systematic discrimination, state-sponsored racism, and brutal repression of dissent, is even harsher in the occupied Palestinian territory; from the colonisation of land in the West Bank, to the inequality and displacement faced by the Palestinian ‘residents’ – who are neither full citizens nor under military rule – in East Jerusalem. In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians are subjected to the collective punishment of blockade, fenced-in, and subjected to periodic, brutal massacres.


What should I do?

Apartheid in South Africa was defeated primarily thanks to resistance led by the likes of the African National Congress – but international support, through the boycott campaign, was crucial in isolating the Apartheid regime, and exacting a price for its discriminatory and brutal policies. Today, across the globe, more and more people are supporting the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and getting involved in Palestine solidarity activism in their communities. It is this international campaign, called for by Palestinians and highlighted by the Israeli government as a clear “strategic threat” to their regime, that will ultimately help bring justice and equality for Palestinians.
Article by Ben White


Palestine Solidarity Campaign campaigns for justice, peace and self-determination for the Palestinian people, in support of international law, human rights and against all racism. Join us now and become part of a mass movement for peace and justice for the Palestinian people.



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  1. Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977, (last accessed 30/6/16); Introductory note to Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, (last accessed 30/6/16).
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  1. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, (last accessed 30/6/16).
  1. General recommendation No. 19 on article 3 of the Convention, 1995 (last accessed 30/6/16).
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  1. ‘Beyond the ballot box: how Israel’s ‘Arab voters’ are second-class citizens’, Middle East Monitor, March 26, 2015, (last accessed 1/7/16); ‘Courting apartheid: how Israel’s top judges rubber-stamp discrimination’, Middle East Monitor, April 26, 2015, (last accessed 1/7/16).