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The structural roots of Israeli Apartheid

Noura Erakat


Recent rulings by the Israeli high court have made a mockery of the concepts of equality, justice, and dignity for all.

October 28, 2013

Palestinian-Israeli negotiations have intensified in recent days. The talks, facilitated by US Secretary of State John Kerry, have resulted in 13 meetings between the two delegations to discuss issues of mutual concern. Yet in the midst of the current flurry of activity aimed at saving the two-state solution from the shelves of rich archival libraries, three-time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is insisting that the conflict is not a political one at all.

To the contrary, at a recent talk delivered at Bar Ilan University, Netanyahu explained that the conflict is about Palestinian hatred for Jews as a people. There is, he maintains, a cultural malaise inherent to Palestinians that is not connected to Israeli military and structural violence against a dispossessed and stateless people. His diagnosis leaves little in the way of possible remedies aside from cultural sensitivity trainings (for Palestinians mind you) or, more realistically, the indefinite subjugation of an entire people billed to US taxpayers.

The hawkish leader’s analysis is contingent on the belief that Palestinians are not rational actors, but emotional ones impervious to reason. Netanyahu’s analysis is fundamentally racist and flawed because it ascribes to Jewish immigration into Mandatory Palestine an innocuous character it has never possessed.

Israel’s establishment as a homeland for a Jewish majority in a land where a Palestinian-Arab majority existed has necessitated the on-going forced removal and subjugation of the non-Jewish Palestinian population - not simply in the Arab-Israeli War or the Six-Day War but into the present day.

Forced into gettoized communities

Today, there are 6.8 million Palestinian refugees. These are people who fled the war and the threat of harm in 1948 - the nakba - and 1967, and their descendants. Yet the travails of Palestinians are by no means finished. Israel’s present-day administrative practices in housing, residency, water distribution, urban planning, education, and taxation policies are herding Palestinians into ghettoised communities or forcing them from the territory altogether.

Within Israel, Palestinians are squeezed into designated areas or urban townships, as is the case with the 70,000 Palestinian bedouin in the Negev. Within the West Bank, Israeli policies are forcing Palestinians to search for opportunities in Area A, or a mere 16 percent of the occupied territory, severely constraining their movement. And the Gaza Strip, subject to a naval blockade and a comprehensive land siege, is the largest ghetto of all.

Surrounding the concentrated and disconnected West Bank population centres is an intricate network of Jewish settler colonies, with the attendant physical and economic infrastructure, and whose residents are subject to a different set of laws designated for Jewish persons only with the intention - and result - of privileging them legally, administratively, economically, and politically.

Still, this apartheid reality is not the worst-case scenario for Palestinians, many of whom insist that, come what may, they will never be forced out again.

Endorsing apartheid

Yet notwithstanding the courageous Palestinian determination to stay rooted to what land remains to them, Israel is pressuring thousands of Palestinians out of the territory and into forced exile along with those already removed since 1948. Between 1967 and 1994, Israel revoked the residency rights of approximately 140,000 Palestinians in the Occupied Territory through what can best be termed "silent deportation". The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics comments that were it not for Israel’s discriminatory policies, the Palestinian population would be greater by 14 percent.

Within Israel, the ban on family reunification has forced Palestinian citizens, constituting approximately 20 percent of Israel’s population, to build their families and lives outside of their place of birth if they marry a Palestinian from the Occupied Territory or a resident of an "enemy states". After the Israeli High Court upheld the discriminatory ban, Israeli Knesset member Yaakov Katz explained "… the State of Israel was saved from being flooded by 2-3 million Arab refugees".

The intended purpose of Israeli laws, policies, and decrees within the state as well as the Occupied Territory is to diminish the Palestinian population. Under international law, this policy amounts to forced population transfer. In common speech, it is ethnic cleansing - sometimes by Israeli military might and sometimes via the law.

It is in this context that Netanyahu proclaimed in his Bar Ilan address, "We will not be satisfied with recognition of the Israeli people or of some kind of bi-national state which will later be flooded by refugees."

Palestinians officially recognised the State of Israel in 1993. The demand for something more, namely recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and state of the Jews alone, began in the early 2000s. Such recognition is a way of sanctioning Jewish privilege and on-going Palestinian forced removal, dispossession, and exile.

Israeli vs Jewish

To date, a bifurcation between Israeli citizenship and Jewish nationality has facilitated both of these objectives. There is no such thing as an Israeli nationality under Israeli law. Israel recognises two basic bundles of rights one for Jewish nationals who are entitled to citizenship, housing and education subsidies, employment opportunities and one for Israeli citizens only.

In effect, a Jewish national as defined by Israeli law and residing in London with no relationship to the state is entitled to more state benefits and protections than is the Palestinian-Israeli citizen in Nazareth whose family lineage dates back centuries.

A group of Jewish-Israelis concerned with this structural discrimination recently filed a petition to the Israeli High Court of Justice seeking recognition for an Israeli people rather than a Jewish one. Despite the law’s discriminatory implications, the Court rejected the petition explaining that the issue of whether there is a "peoplehood ... common to all its residents and citizens, called 'Israeli' ... is a national-political-social question and it is not the court’s place to decide it."

Some Israelis, like those who comprise the NGO Zochrot, are intent on having this discussion among Jewish-Israelis. In late September, Zochrot organised a conference aimed at promoting acknowledgment and accountability among Jewish-Israelis for the on-going forced removal and exile of Palestinians. It explains that "realising the return of Palestinian refugees is a prerequisite for the country's decolonisation, ending the conflict, doing justice and creating an egalitarian civil society serving the interests of all its members."

The NGO Monitor, an Israeli organisation incensed by the proposition of equality, has launched a campaign against Zochrot by targeting its European government funders.

To an outside observer brought up on the merit of equal rights, the conditions to which Palestinians are subject are cause for indignation rather than the irrational hatred voiced by Netanyahu. Significantly, these conditions are the fruit of power, privilege, and politics and they can be remedied by affording equality, justice, and dignity for all. US taxpayers would be better off investing in these ideals rather then in an apartheid regime, which they are helping to make more durable.

Noura Erakat is a Palestinian human rights attorney and is currently an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.



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