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Is Israel an Apartheid State?

By Alan Smithee
 Photo by Taylor Brandon on Unsplash
The definition of apartheid, a word translated from Afrikaans, means “apartness” and was the South African government’s official policy of racial segregation between 1948-1994 to separate the country’s different racial groups. When discussing Israel, the word “apartheid” often comes up to describe its treatment of Palestinians. Today, critics describe Israel’s practices against the Palestinians as apartheid. Meanwhile, others contest this characterization, claiming that the term and historical concept of apartheid have been misappropriated to fit a context that’s inaccurate and unfair.
Here are three arguments setting the record straight about this inaccurate and unfair accusation and three arguments confirming that Israel can be considered an apartheid state.


Three Reasons Why Israel Isn’t an Apartheid State


Security Concerns

Labeling Israel as an apartheid state oversimplifies the complexities of the multi-layered Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, Palestinians fall under three vastly different groups based on geography:  people who live in Gaza, people who live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Arab Israelis who live in Israel. There is no such as thing as one Palestinian entity that Israel addresses in one specific way.


Second, what outsiders might see as Israeli hostility toward Palestinians can be seen as a reaction to life-threating violence. The history of conflict and terrorism – which isn’t relegated to history but, sadly, a part of the country’s present – has led to necessary defensive security measures, such as border checkpoints and controls, aimed at protecting Israeli citizens from repeated terrorist attacks. Israelis strongly feel that if they don’t manage the Palestinian situation, they and their family members can be raped and murdered. It’s as simple as that. Even Palestinians who had legal work permits to cross into Israel from Gaza and had been welcomed as friends into the kibbutzim where they worked were later found to be guilty of leading and/or aiding Hamas terrorists in their murderous massacre on Oct. 7, 2023.


Gives Peace a Chance…Again and Again and Again

Proponents of the apartheid label should consider Israel’s previous peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, as proof that Israel is interested in building bridges, not tearing them down. Over the decades, despite ongoing violence, Israel has participated in peace talks with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and has made concessions in pursuit of a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The IDF pulled out of Gaza unilaterally in 2005, giving the Palestinians an opportunity to build their own country. It wasn’t a perfect situation, but thriving and nation-building were viable options. One of the first acts on behalf of the Palestinians in Gaza following Israeli withdrawal was to loot and destroy the greenhouses that were positioned there by donors for their welfare.   Israelis  kept on watching as Hamas was elected and made a clear choice to divert all resources to war infrastructure instead of the welfare of its citizens – with billions of dollars used to create tunnel networks of terror, which still house Israeli civilian hostages – instead of building a self-sustaining society and tourist-friendly destination.


Universal Suffrage & Freedom of Religion

Israel has many integrated cities, like Haifa, Jaffa and Lod, to name a few, where Jews and Muslim citizens live side by side peacefully, living and working together, challenging the notion of apartheid-like segregation. Israel also promotes freedom of religion, as its Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters in Jerusalem, whose residents also live side by side, prove. Citizens and visitors are allowed to pray and practice their religion freely.


Another key argument against labeling Israel as an apartheid state is its democratic structure and commitment to democratic principles. Arab Israeli citizens, who compose 21% of the Israeli population, can and have served in Israel’s parliament and other positions in government, including diplomatic roles and as judges in the country’s courts, including on the Supreme Court. They are entitled to the same municipal and educational services and have the same municipal voting rights as Jewish Israelis. Israel has also allowed its female and minority citizens to vote and run in open and free elections since its founding in 1948, decades before other Arab or Muslim countries introduced suffrage for women.


Three Reasons Why Israel Should Be Considered an Apartheid State


Different Laws Create Separate Societies

Israel’s legal system treats Jews and non-Jews differently. Just look at the “Law of Return,” which grants automatic citizenship to Jews worldwide, leaving out that automatic right for Muslim and Christian Arab Israelis, as well as for Druze and Bedouin; this also contrasts sharply with laws governing the Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem, who are allowed residency in Israel but not Israeli citizenship.


Meanwhile, the three million Palestinians living in the West Bank are also subject to different laws, depending upon whether they are under the legal jurisdiction of Israel or the Palestinian Authority (PA) – which is decided by geographic area. Palestinians in the West Bank have seen their land seized and used for Israeli settlements and infrastructure, not to mention destroyed as a form of collective punishment if someone in their family has been involved in a terrorist activity.


Physical Segregation

Along the West Bank, Israel has built a 439-foot separation barrier wall that physically separates the Palestinian territories from Israel. Within the West Bank, Israel has implemented a system of checkpoints and segregated roads that are separate for Palestinian and Israeli traffic, all to further restrict Palestinian movement. Many Palestinians face military checkpoints to travel through and out of the area. These restrictions on their freedom of movement, access to resources, and ability to build or develop their communities perpetuate a sense of division and inequality, reminiscent of apartheid-era South Africa.


Denial of Basic Rights

The denial of basic rights and freedoms can be summed up in one word: Gaza. While Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank may face legal disparities and limitations on their basic rights of movement and citizenship, the Palestinians in Gaza increasingly lack any rights or access to humanitarian care.


Israel may have pulled out of Gaza in 2005, but its 2023 war on the Palestinians in the enclave has resulted in pure destruction and human suffering. Its excessive response to the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, 2023, has led to a severe humanitarian crisis, depriving hundreds of thousands of Palestinians of food, essential health services, hygiene, clean water, and human rights. In many critics’ minds, this military action is worse than apartheid.


The Bottom LineThe debate over whether Israel is an apartheid state is emotionally complex and contentious. While some argue that Israel’s (mis)treatment of Palestinians meets the criteria of apartheid, others assert that given Israel’s commitment to democracy for all of its citizens and security concerns (especially after Oct 7, 2023), it’s unfair and inaccurate to be equated with the systematic racial oppression of apartheid South Africa. There is no simple answer. Whether you are pro or against, without acknowledging the complexities of both sides, you can’t really help either side. Where do you stand?

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