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Robin Yassin-Kassab

“Israeli Apartheid – A Beginner’s Guide”

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settler graffitti in Hebron/al-Khalil

That there are striking parallels between white rule in apartheid South Africa and Zionist rule in Palestine – an analogy made by such mainstream figures as President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu – should no longer be controversial. But calling Israeli apartheid by its name will occasion the usual screams of anti-Semitism and ignorance from Zionist quarters, and for comprehensible reasons: the most politically inept American student knows that apartheid is a bad thing, a crime to be battled, not supported with weapons, vetoes in the Security Council and billions of dollars in ‘aid.’ Therefore the apartheid label must be vigorously resisted by Zionists and their fellow travellers.

Ben White’s “Israeli Apartheid – A Beginner’s Guide” begins by quoting Article II of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, UN General Assembly Resolution 3068, which defines the crime as “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 rest of White’s book leaves the reader in no doubt that the Zionist instance of apartheid fits the bill even better than the erstwhile South African version.

At the start of the twentieth century four percent of the population of Palestine was Jewish. Today all of Palestine is controlled by the Jewish state. Muslim and Christian Palestinians live behind wire, more than half of them outside the country. How did this happen?

Zionism was a 19th Century response to anti-Semitism which internalised many anti-Semitic assumptions – that the Jews were a race, for instance, and that a race must have a nation state – as well as the imperialist-racist discourse of the Europe it sprang from. Despite the opposition of Orthodox and integrated liberal Jews, Zionists were able to reach an understanding with the British Empire. Britain, which occupied Palestine between the world wars, viewed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” (the Balfour Declaration). Zionism would provide in return – in Herzl’s words – “a wall of defence for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilisation against barbarism.” Winston Churchill got the point immediately. Commenting on the dispossession of the Palestinians, he made this analogy: “I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

By 1947, after decades of rapid Jewish immigration, more than two thirds of the population remained Palestinian. Jews owned six percent of the land. The UN Partition Plan of that year, however, proposed the establishment of a Jewish state on 55% of the land. Even this was not enough; by Israel’s Independence Day in 1948, the Jewish state covered 78% of the now-ravaged country. 87% of Palestinians had been expelled, half of them before the war between Zionist, Palestinian and Arab forces began. Many civilians died in massacres or of exhaustion during forced marches. The majority of the Negev Beduin were driven out in waves after 1948. And after the bulldozer, cultural war. The Jewish National Fund set up a ‘Naming Committee’ to erase all memory of the Palestinian identity of the stolen villages and cities.

In 1967 Israel conquered the remaining 22% of Palestine. Another 300,000 people were hounded from the country. Hundreds of families were ethnically cleansed from Jerusalem when the 800-year-old Maghrabi quarter was razed to the ground (where the vast tourist plaza in front of the Wailing Wall now stands). The population of the Jordan valley collapsed by 88%.

The Palestinians who live in the section of the country captured in 1948 have Israeli citizenship but not nationality. Nationality is for Jews only, and for Jews anywhere in the world. Until 1966 Palestinian Israelis were ruled by martial law. Today half of their families struggle below the poverty line. The Land Ordinance has been employed to confiscate their land and to establish ‘look-out settlements’ of Jews in densely populated Arab areas. Many Palestinians live in ‘unrecognised’ villages, which means they receive no services and their houses are frequently demolished. Zionist media and politicians consider Palestinian Israelis primarily as a “demographic threat.”

The Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories captured in 1967 are ghettoised by Jews-only ‘bypass roads’, by checkpoints and barriers, by the Separation Wall (ruled illegal in 2004 by the International Court of Justice), and by a permit system for travel to rival or exceed the pass laws in apartheid South Africa. East Jerusalem has been separated from the West Bank. The city is considered part of Israel but the inhabitants are considered ‘residents’ whose residency can be revoked at any time. Over 1300 had their residency revoked in 2006 alone. Palestinians are not permitted to build in Jerusalem, so there is a dramatic housing shortage. Racist expropriations continue, and expressions of Palestinian culture are forbidden.

By 2000, the Special Rapporteur for the UN’s Commission on Human Rights estimated that 60% of the West Bank had been confiscated. Between 1990 and 1995 an area the size of London was confiscated annually. Now over half a million settlers occupy the OPT. 65% of West Bank water sources have been closed off by the Wall, and only 17% of the West Bank acquifer is allocated for Palestinian use. This is why Palestinians suffer shortages of drinking water when the hilltop settlers laze in their pools. The system is enforced by a comprehensive mechanism of repression which involves mass detentions and torture.

The parallels with South African apartheid were strengthened by the Oslo ‘peace’ process of the 1990s, which envisaged limited Palestinian autonomy on a ‘bantustan’ model. White quotes Israeli journalist Tanya Reinhart noting the similarities. “The power in each of these entities was bestowed to local flunkies, and a few Bantustans even had elections, Parliaments, and quasi-governmental institutions .. the Bantustans were allowed some symbols of sovereignty: a flag, postage stamps, passports and strong police force.

Yet there is an important difference between the two varieties of apartheid. White South Africa needed its black work force, but Zionist Israel wants the land without the native people. Israel therefore aims not only to exclude the Palestinians from power and prosperity, but to make their very existence impossible.

An even more important difference: while the West gradually mobilised to condemn and disengage from apartheid South Africa, it embraces, funds, arms, and swallows the lies of apartheid Israel. This is why it is essential that Ben White’s book be read as widely as possible, in the hope that more people here will recognise Zionism for what it is.

“Israeli Apartheid – A Beginner’s Guide” doesn’t deal with the seige of Gaza, and was written before last winter’s massacre there. It doesn’t take on internal Palestinian politics, the refugees abroad, Israel’s attacks on other countries, or the Zionist lobbies in the West. Its range is necessarily limited to the key facts of the Palestinian tragedy. The book is slim, smart and accessible, a beginner’s guide in the best sense. It’s also committed, again in the best sense. Its arguments are clear and evidenced, backed with notes and quotes. Insets to the text give Palestinian eyewitness testimonies. There’s a glossary and information on important groups which non-violently resist apartheid. It would make a useful gift for an interested friend or colleague. If I were a rich man I’d distribute a million copies.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 7, 2009 at 6:47 pm

Posted in book review, Palestine, Zionism

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3 Responses

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  1. [...] I could only choose five books, limited to Israel-Palestine so not including books on the Israel-Arab conflict. I tried to make them representative of broad areas. I could have also included Tanya Reinhart’s books, Edward Said’s The Question of Palestine, Norman Finkelstein’s Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (despite my disagreement with some of his current positions), and Ben White’s Israeli Apartheid – A Beginner’s Guide. [...]

  2. [...] plural Palestine-Israel built on equality. Does acting against the seige, the ethnic cleansing, the apartheid mean not seeing things through the eyes of those you disagree with? Atwood opposed South African [...]

  3. [...] plural Palestine-Israel built on equality. Does acting against the seige, the ethnic cleansing, the apartheid mean not seeing things through the eyes of those you disagree with? Atwood opposed South African [...]


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