Grasp Israeli apartheid by the roots – decolonize!

The Amnesty report on Israel is a contribution to the liberation of Palestine – but we must go further


One of the greatest difficulties when speaking about Palestine/Israel in Germany is in the terminology. People socialized in Germany are regularly shocked at how we, who come from the country, casually talk about “the Jews” and “the Arabs” rather than “Israelis and Palestinians”. But that’s just the everyday speech in the region, both in Hebrew and Arabic. This terminological categorisation is based on real divisions. People are sorted above all into these two categories, and treated differently on that basis.

Unlike other modern nation-states, the State of Israel does not understand itself as a state of all its citizens – in Israel this phrase is seen as an extreme left provocation – and not even as a state of its Jewish citizens, but rather the state of the Jewish people as a whole. This means that non-citizens who are classified as Jewish officially enjoy significant rights which are not available to citizens categorised as non-Jewish.

The largest non-Jewish minority among Israeli citizens is the 20 per cent who are classified by the State as “Israeli Arabs”. On top of this there are the ca. 4½ million Palestinians living under the occupation, a separate (in)justice regime. In everyday Israeli life, this distinction is also a spatial separation; there are “Arab cities”, “Jewish cities” and “mixed cities”, in which there are in turn separate districts.

People rarely move into the other group’s area: the separation is consistently promoted by the State. Against the background of such systematic institutionalised separation between “Jews” and “Arabs” a further discussion about terminology comes about: can we call it Apartheid?

The new report from Amnesty International has come to a clear answer: yes, we can. The knee-jerk defensive reaction of representatives of the Israeli government was loud, even before the report appeared.

In Germany, many wanted to stifle the debate before it could begin: right from the start, the use of the term Apartheid in relation to Israel was dismissed as antisemitic. Conveniently, they can then avoid paying attention to the basis of these grave allegations.

Known Facts, Explosive Ramifications

The report presents the results of more than four years of collective research. It systematically addresses the question of whether Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians reach the threshold of the crime of Apartheid.

The report makes it clear that this is not about a direct comparison with South Africa, but about whether Israeli policies correspond to the legal meaning of “Apartheid”. According to Article II of the 1973 UN Convention against Apartheid , this would mean “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”.

The aggressive reactions to the report are not just because Amnesty agrees that the threshold has indeed been reached. Even though the evidence on which the report is based comes largely from previous research, e.g. from the reports from Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem, the report marks a development in a number of ways.

The first is that the scope of the analysis is broader than in most international reports. As has long been the case in the Palestinian narrative, the whole territory of the State of Israel is examined as a systematic whole. This includes the “core area” (including the annexed Golan Heights and East Jerusalem) together with the occupied Palestinian territories.

It is notable that the report identifies the roots of the system in the formation of the State in 1948, and discusses the treatment of Palestinian refugees and their descendants. The latter is a central issue for the Palestinian liberation movement, and is equally important for understanding Israeli actions.

The recommendations of the report are also explosive: the report calls upon the State of Israel to dismantle the Apartheid system. It also urges all countries and the UN to deploy all political and diplomatic tools to ensure that the Israeli authorities really do comply with this demand.

For example, Amnesty calls for an international criminal investigation of the State of Israel and many of its politicians. The report also points out that countries which have signed the anti-Apartheid Convention are obligated to promptly investigate suspected perpetrators of Apartheid in their territory and bring them to justice if necessary. This obligation applies to Germany as well.

We should also not overlook that the recommendations (including an arms embargo, sanctions, companies reviewing their investments, and a boycott of settlement products implemented by governments) represent limited forms of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Not Security But Demography

In Germany, even some “left wingers” condemn any accusation of Apartheid while refusing to address the evidence. There is a different discussion in the Israeli Left. It is accepted that Israel is practising Apartheid in the West Bank – that is obvious by now. The question is, though, whether the term also applies to the system inside “Israel proper”.

Some therefore accuse the report of ignoring the “Green Line” – the former border between Israel and the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. The opposite is true: one of the greatest strengths of the report is that it shows how different legal apparatuses on either side of the Green Line are part of one comprehensive system of Israeli control.

As the writer Nathan Thrall argues, this dividing line does not form the border between two different régimes, but merely between different variants of a single régime of separation. According to Thrall, the excuse of separate régimes allows liberal Zionists and foreign governments to energetically support Israel while ineffectively condemning the occupation. In this way, Apartheid and land seizure can proceed unabated.

The Amnesty report explicitly attacks the current legitimization of separation and land seizure. According to the report, “security requirements” could justify some of these measures, but not all of them, not by a long shot. This includes, for example, the segregation of residential areas and restrictions to family life, such as the law preventing Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens from moving across the Green Line to live with them.

The report brings out the basic organisational principles of the Israeli régime from behind the veil of “security requirements”: demographics and territorial control. Even the supposed killer argument used by Zionist propagandists – that there are Arabs in parliament – gets cut down to size: The political participation of Palestinians in every Israeli territory is restricted, although not in exactly the same way everywhere.

Even “Arab Israeli” (that is Palestinian) MPs are not allowed to question the definition of the country as a “Jewish State”, nor implicitly the 65 laws which legitimate their marginalisation and unequal treatment. Palestinians in the West Bank have as good as no right of assembly, while in the official State territory this right is systematically curtailed by aggressive police and public prosecutors.

Underlying Structure of Settler Colonialism

In the solidarity movement for Palestinian liberation, the report has been praised for recognising Apartheid for what it is. But it has also been rightly criticised for not naming the cause – settler colonialism. This weakness should worry not just Palestinians and us socialists on their side, but everyone who is honestly concerned with the antisemitic abuse of such accusations. Without naming the causes, one remains mystified as to why Israel carries out such cruel politics.

A materialist analysis, sensitive to (settler) colonial dynamics, demystifies the emergence of such a system and makes it clear that Apartheid is an expression of settler colonialism. Patrick Wolfe taught us it is “not an event, but a structure”, which wherever it exists, pursues a “logic of elimination of the native” in manifold ways.

As soon as people flee to a country in order to found a new society, the dynamic of settler colonialism takes hold. As a settler colonial structure, the State of Israel’s obsessive worry about control and demographics and its urge towards expansion are no exception, but the rule.

Indigenous people who do not submit to the settlers’ aims must be cleared away. In North America, Europeans were able to do this primarily through genocide. In Palestine, the ethnic cleansing of 1948 could not go so far. Instead, the remaining indigenous people were geographically restricted and controlled. In order to keep them and their inevitable resistance under control, a system of separation and oppression is required – in one word: Apartheid.

Decolonisation now!

Research and reports have interpreted the oppression of Palestinians in various ways. The point, however, is to end it. The Amnesty report can contribute to this. It gives a clear view of how the problem is structured, bringing together vast amounts of evidence in a legally relevant and reviewed context. This is helpful as a means for consciousness-raising, for legal struggles and for diplomacy.

But the demand that the State of Israel dismantle its Apartheid system verges on senselessness. The diagnosis contained in the report makes it clear that Israeli Apartheid cannot be separated from the Israeli political system. If we take these findings seriously, we must conclude that what is needed is decolonisation. This is also the demand of the Palestinian liberation movement. The bourgeois pressure recommended by Amnesty is a contribution towards such a revolutionary change – but on its own, it is insufficient.

The decisive actors in a decolonial struggle are above all the colonised people. But the Palestinians currently lack the united, determined leadership which has the broad, organised support of all parts of the Palestinian people, efficiently fragmented by Israeli rule.

On the other hand, overcoming settler colonialism means – unlike the national liberation from classical exploitation colonialism – a reconstitution of the political community, including every settler prepared to live together with indigenous people on the basis of equal rights for all.

This implies an important role for Israelis. Unfortunately, only a vanishing minority among the Israeli Left is prepared to accept this role. The liberal Israeli forces known as the “(Zionist) Left” aspire towards a less brutal régime of separation and oppression, for sustainable Zionist control in Palestine.

But a successful decolonisation only requires a small minority of the settler society. This minority will surely grow when a united Palestinian leadership shows the way forwards. Both require active solidarity from internationalist socialists around the world. Our task is to apply pressure so that our own imperialist countries no longer enable the support of settler colonialism in Palestine!

Michael Sappir is an Israeli writer and organizer based in Leipzig. He currently studies philosophy and organizes with Jewish-Israeli Dissent (JID Leipzig) and Die Linke.SDS. This article originally appeared in German in Lower Class Magazine. Translation: Phil Butland. Reproduced with permission.