Issue In Focus: Apartheid


There are many different angles from which to view the use of the word apartheid in the Israeli-Palestinian context. What follows is a diverse selection of those views as they exist. The conclusions remain in the care of our readers.

To live under Apartheid is to live in a state where the government and society treat you as the “inner enemy”.

As student in high school I was forced to learn “Jewish history” and narrative, yet my own people’s history was, and is still, missing from the curricula.

To live under Apartheid is to be treated differently at Israeli airports.  To have a different colored stamp on your passport, to miss the plane and to see other people passing you at the security test, just because you are “Arab Palestinian”.

To live under Apartheid is to be threatened to be evicted from your own land every day just because you are an “Arab Palestinian”

To live under Apartheid meant that even when my parents passed away, I was not allowed to hug my husband Ameer who was being held as a political prisoner. Nor could my daughter, who had just graduated from high school, hug him. All our meetings take place behind glass separation wall.

During my husband’s trial, the  prosecution   used what is called “secret evidence “,  that neither he nor his lawyers can know. He was charged and sentenced based on that evidence. It is a process used only against Palestinian political prisoners.

To live under Apartheid is to know that in practice there are two different law systems, one for Arabs and one for Jews. It is to know and feel in your own experience, that the democracy in this state is just for the Jewish.

Janan Abdu is an activist and a Palestinian researcher living in Haifa, and partner (wife) of Ameer Makhoul, Political Prisoner.

“When I dig the dictionary to find out a word to describe Israel’s racist policies, based on discrimination, segregation and fake democracy, I find no word better than apartheid. A regime separating beloved, dealing with indigenous people who hold its citizenship as second-class citizens, cannot be described but as such. Confiscating lands, stealing natural resources and everything in between are the policies of apartheid. Israel’s apartheid policies are worse than those of the notorious South African apartheid regime which collapsed in the 90s.

The term’s use should not be excluded to BDS activists, Palestinian civil society, or leftist Palestinian groups. It should be used by all bodies, factions, groups, individuals, and activists inside and outside Palestine. The explanation of WHY should be provided. The global support to put an end to these supremacist policies is mounting, just as the efforts to globalize the use of this term should be. ”

Yousef M. Aljamal is a Palestinian translator, blogger and social media activist. Aljamal works for CPDS, a Gaza-based think tank center since November, 2010.

“I cannot think of a better word than Apartheid to describe Israel’s policies against the Palestinian people. When you wake up in the morning, you open your water tap and bang! No water is coming down! Only 13% of Palestinian ground water is distributed back to 2.5 million Palestinians, and Israel continues to destroy Palestinian infrastructure. I do not know exactly how but you manage to wear a smile and head off to check the morning news on your computer, but surprise! There is no electricity!

Let’s suppose that you’re a Gaza student and you were lucky enough to get a full scholarship to one of the West Bank’s most prestigious universities. You’re so excited and cannot believe that finally, you will be able to set foot in the West Bank. In the end, the Israeli authorities refuse to grant you what they call a “permit” and you’re forced to study in Gaza. This exact scenario did happen to me in 2009. Do I constitute a threat to Israel’s “security”? To Israel, the answer is: one hell of a yes! If you are an American, and you live in New York, is there anyone to deny you a visit to Chicago? Why am I, a Palestinian, denied my right to visit Ramallah? This is Apartheid. Fact.”

Rana B. Baker is a Gaza-based business administration student. She is a member of the Palestinian students’ campaign for the Academic Boycott of Israel (PSCABI). She contributes to the Electronic Intifada and her personal blog is: She can be followed on twitter at: @RanaGaza

“Whenever Israel is charged with the crime of apartheid for its institutionalized and legalized system of racial oppression against the indigenous Palestinian people some well-meaning supporters of Palestinian rights jump to reject this charge saying, “Israel is worse than apartheid; why settle for that?”  The fact that Israel’s regime of oppression against the Palestinians includes other — and often worse — offenses than the crime of apartheid is indisputable.  From the ethnic cleansing of the majority of Palestinians during the 1948 Nakba – and ever since – to the crimes committed during its war of aggression on Gaza 2008-09, to denying of Palestinian refugees their non-negotiable right to return to their homes and lands, Israel’s system of oppression constitutes occupation and settler-colonialism, not just apartheid. However, this fact of itself does not diminish the immense moral, legal and political value of charging Israel with apartheid and proving the charge with irrefutable evidence.

Saying Israel is “worse than apartheid” is actually often based on the false premise that apartheid is defined by the South African system of racial discrimination and segregation. The truth is apartheid is well defined in international law. If the phrase is modified to “Israel’s apartheid is worse than its South African predecessor,” it would be accurate. Also one can accurately say, “Israel is more than just apartheid.” But if Israel is more than apartheid, as it is, then why is the apartheid charge so important to emphasize? Because the punishment of the crime of apartheid is well defined in international law and can serve as a solid foundation for legal BDS against Israel.

The point is not merely about how to most accurately define Israel’s violations of international law, as essential as this is; it is, more crucially, also about how to hold Israel accountable to international law through global, sustained, morally-consistent pressure, as in the BDS movement. This is the key lesson learned from South Africa.”

Omar Barghouti is an independent Palestinian researcher, commentator and human rights activist committed to upholding international law and universal human rights. He is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and the Palestinian Civil Society Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. He holds a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering fromColumbia University, NY, and a master’s in philosophy from Tel Aviv University. He is the author of, BDS: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights, published by Haymarket (2011). His commentaries and interviews have been featured on CNN, BBC, The Guardian, Aljazeera, Huffington Post, Russia Today, Al-Ahram, Democracy Now!, among others. 

“Israel is an apartheid regime simply because the systematic program of ethnic cleansing through which it was founded, the forcible exclusion of displaced refugees it has maintained ever since, and the separate, unequal legal and regulatory regimes it upholds for Jewish and Palestinian residents of both the 1948- and 1967-occupied territories all meet the definitions of the crime of apartheid established by international law. Disregarding official oppression of its own Palestinian citizens, who spent the first 18 years of the polity’s existence under military government and face over 30 discriminatory laws today, Israel can claim democratic status only by ignoring, or attempting to define out of existence, the majority of people whose lives it controls: 4.3 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, whose experiences today echo those of ’48 Palestinians before 1966, and at least five million more living as refugees outside their homeland. Darryl Li defined the existential apartheid at the core of the Zionist project when he asked ‘why the people of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip and Sderot in southern Israel should live as neighbors under the same supreme authority for over four decades, but with entirely different sets of rights.’”

Joe Catron is an American activist in Gaza, Palestine, where he organizes with Palestinian popular struggle groups and international solidarity networks, particularly around the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) and Palestinian prisoners’ movements. His writing and photography have appeared in Al Akhbar, the Alternative Information CenterCounterpunch, the Electronic Intifada, Ma’an, MondoweissZ Magazine, and other regional and allied media.

All historical analogies are imprecise, but Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories seized in 1967 bears many similarities to apartheid in the former South Africa. In some ways it is less onerous, but in many others it is far worse. Almost every aspect of daily life in the occupied Palestinian territories is separate and radically unequal on an ethnic basis, depending on whether Israel categorizes one as an Israeli settler, enjoying the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, or a disenfranchised Palestinian living under military occupation. It is certainly the closest thing to apartheid anywhere in the world today.

However, pro-Palestinian activists are better advised to show rather than tell. The word apartheid can be a conversation stopper because most Americans, being ignorant of the facts, are not ready to accept at the outset that Israel practices apartheid. Precisely describing the realities of life under occupation leads American audiences to understand that it is morally and politically indefensible. The analogy also implies the false corollary that, because many aspects of the occupation mirror apartheid, the South African solution is also applicable in this case. However, no analogous quid pro quo between Israelis and Palestinians to that struck by white and black South Africans has yet been outlined. Finally, invoking apartheid invites supporters of Israel to change the subject to the merits of the analogy, rather than keeping the focus on the immorality of the occupation and the urgent need to end it. Therefore this is emotionally satisfying but strategically ineffective rhetoric.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, and a regular contributor to the Daily Beast, Now Lebanon and Al Hayat.

“The Law of Return gives any person, anywhere in the world, the right to “return” to Israel, as long as they identify as Jewish.  Jews from Europe, Australia and Brooklyn take advantage of this law and move to Israel, where they enjoy full rights as citizens.  Palestinians, however, who were violently removed from their homes in 1948, many of whom still possess their house keys, are not granted any law of return.  In fact, they are actively denied it.  This law gives priority and supremacy to Jewish people and places their historical collective suffering above all else.  I believe this creates a culture of apartheid:  a culture of separateness and white/Jewish/colonial supremacy.”

Ryan Green lives in New York City. He works at an LGBT non-profit and is also a musician, activist and freelance translator.  He is an active member of the Siegebusters Working Group and Existence is Resistance. He blogs at

“The United Nations defined the Crime of Apartheid, not in order to limit the use of this word to the South African context, but to ensure that no peoples on this earth would endure such institutionalized forms of ethno/religious subjugation ever again. According to the definition we have been presented with, Israel unequivocally fits the name: Palestinians, whether citizens of the Israeli state or not, face deliberate discrimination and segregation on nearly every level. Personally, I have always been aware of this to some degree, but the more information and evidence I unearth, the more I understand the full command of such policies. For example, even Palestinian citizens of Israel have markers on their passports to differentiate them from Jewish citizens. Is that the practice of a democracy, or a state that wishes to mark, identify, then isolate and stigmatize one group and not the other?  Sometimes I fear that no amount of statistics or literature can fully capture the nature of the current Israeli regime, nonetheless, the word apartheid is deeply accurate, and this is why legal scholars, academics and activists are increasingly using the term.”

Tanya Keilani is the Love Under Apartheid Project Founder and Coordinator.

“The use of the term “Apartheid” in the context of the occupation is a mistake because it is diagnostically inaccurate, elicits a misguided prescription, and because it stifles serious discussion of the occupation among Israelis and their friends abroad.

Sure, the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are not equal to the rights of Israeli citizens – whether Israelis who live in Israel proper or the settlers who live in the West Bank. Israelis enjoy rights as citizens of a sovereign democratic state (even when living in occupied territory) while Palestinians in the West Bank live under an Israeli military occupation.

And sure, some of the realities that the occupation has created resemble the manifestations of the racially-motivated system of white-supremacist segregation in pre-1994 South Africa.

But focusing on that superficial resemblance often prompts people to advocate in favor of the post-1994 South African formula as a remedy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The solution that Israelis and Palestinians want and deserve for their conflict is a division of the land into two national entities, a two-state solution, not the creation of one entity, which could only perpetuate the conflict.

Apartheid is a “radioactive” term, which stifles serious dialogue about the occupation rather than nourishing discourse. If your objective is Israeli-Palestinian peace that would end the occupation, using the term “Apartheid” as a tool does more damage than good.”

Ori Nir is the spokesperson of Americans for Peace Now. In the past, he covered Palestinian affairs for the Israeli daily Haaretz.

“The idea that it is in any way legitimate to censor the use of the term apartheid as it relates to Israel, as some Israel advocacy groups have tried to do repeatedly, is clearly absurd. In fact, people who attempt to police the word are more worried about who says the term than the word itself. Israeli leaders and journalists have been using it for some time and as far as I know, the Anti-Defamation League hasn’t issued a press release calling on any of them to step down.

The reason the word apartheid has such power is that it is accepted that an apartheid system is morally heinous and demands citizen action— like boycotts, divestment campaigns, and sanctions — which were effectively used in the case of South Africa. This is primarily why use of the word is fought so bitterly by Israel’s defenders of the status quo.

That said, while experts do and must debate the legalistic particulars, the question of when and how to use the word apartheid, or any word like it, depends entirely on one’s audience and approach to change. For example, for the vast majority of Americans (and journalists) who have no idea what’s really going on in the lives of Palestinians, the word apartheid, without any context, may seem extremist and untrue. In those cases, it may be better to accurately describe separate and unequal laws and conditions, and to let the listener come to his or her own conclusion about what to call it. Or to invoke the word apartheid only after a factual description of life on the ground.”

Cecilie Surasky, Deputy Director of Jewish Voice for Peace and editor of Muzzlewatch, a blog charting efforts to stifle debate on Israel/Palestine.

Continue reading to see an extensive collection of articles and papers all about apartheid in the Israeli-Palestinian context.

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