Beyond South Africa: Understanding Israeli Apartheid

Al-Shabaka Policy Brief


Much analysis of Israeli apartheid focuses on comparisons with South Africa. Al-Shabaka Policy Advisor Samer Abdelnour argues that the specific characteristics of Israel’s unique brand of apartheid need to be better understood in order to successfully dismantle it. He identifies three inter-locking dimensions of Israeli apartheid: physical, architecture, and ideological. Examining apartheid through these dimensions, he reveals Israeli apartheid to be far more sophisticated than that of South Africa and suggests directions for thinking and action to overcome Israel apartheid.

The Colonial Roots of Apartheid

“Israeli Apartheid” is a commonly used term to describe the racial violence and segregation enshrined in Israel’s institutions.1 Though Israel’s most ardent supporters will continue to resist the rhetoric of apartheid, the reality of apartheid in Israel is unmistakable. But, what exactly is apartheid? And how might we understand Israel’s apartheid system?

Apartheid is a complex system of racial violence, segregation, and dispossession. The roots of apartheid are colonial; Europeans have long used apartheid practices to devastate the indigenous peoples they colonized and Europe’s “undesirables” alike. Modern apartheid systems, like South Africa and Israel, evolved from historical practices of mobility restriction and internment. Just as Afrikaners learned from Canada's reservation system in the early 1900s2, Israel implements practices reminiscent of apartheid-era South Africa.

Given Israel’s strong support to apartheid-era South Africa and stark similarities between South Africa’s apartheid policies3 and Israeli practices today, it is understandable that South Africa’s experience grounds analysis of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Similarly, anti-apartheid activists replicate tactics reminiscent of those used to pressure the South African apartheid regime, most significant being strategies of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).

Though similarities and shared histories between Israel and South Africa certainly exist, overreliance on comparisons may prevent a full appreciation of Israeli apartheid. Notable differences include the role and agency of indigenous labor. For example, South Africa was and continues to be dependent on black labor in sectors such as mining, which at times enabled meaningful mobilization in opposition to state practices. Today, although Israel is overall less dependent on Palestinian labor, settlement construction continues to be a significant employer of Palestinians. However, because settlements do not constitute a key generator of Israeli income (rather, they are highly subsidized by the state) it is difficult to envision how settlement-related labor mobilization might pose a threat to Israel. Similarly, Palestinians are captive markets for Israeli goods and produce, not the other way around.

Another difference relates to many political dialogues and agreements between Afrikaners and anti-apartheid leaders that concluded with an end to apartheid policies.4 In the case of Palestine, the clear outcome of agreements has been the advancement of segregation and Palestinian dispossession. More seriously, the Palestinian Authority has become an important player in apartheid, as indicated by Israeli-Palestinian “security” coordination and recent threats made by President Abbas that he will hand the “keys” of the West Bank back to Israel. Though Abbas’ intent is to force Israel to face its responsibilities as an occupying power, it does imply that in absence of a genuine process of national independence the Palestinian Authority holds a central administrative position within Israel’s apartheid system.

Further, in the case of South Africa the international community eventually came to exert extreme pressure to end racial segregation within a one-state solution. In Palestine, the international community appears ready to support “statehood” without any serious contestation of Israeli apartheid. The “constructive engagement” mantra and the two-state solution are distracting myths that permit continued colonization and ethnic cleansing in Palestine. They also allow the U.S., EU, and Canada to continually reaffirm their support for apartheid through political rhetoric, military subsidies and contracts, trade agreements with Israel, and corporate profiting from colonization and occupation. Moreover, under apartheid in South Africa, Bantustans were established as the means to confine Africans to “homeland” areas. Regardless of their spatial similarities, Palestinians today are actively denied homeland; doing so would go against the very ideologies of Zionism and circumvent Jewish colonial-settler expansion.