Among informed and honest observers

Should we call it apartheid?

By , June 11, 2012

Among informed and honest observers, there is no dispute that Israel is imposing a separate and grossly unequal system of ethnic discrimination on the Palestinians, most blatantly in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Setting aside the complex system of discrimination within Israel itself, one cannot look at the separate road systems in the OPT, the unequal distribution of water, the systematic denial of Palestinian building permits while Israel expands illegal settlements, and so on, and fail to see that that this is, indeed and by definition, apartheid. But there remains a dispute over the political and rhetorical utility of using the word “apartheid” to describe the system imposed by Israel on Palestinians in the OPT. When Jeffery Goldberg asked former U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell if he believed “apartheid-like conditions prevail” in the West Bank, Mitchell replied:

The issue and conflict is complex enough without the use of inflammatory words and phrases whose only result, I won’t say intention in every case, is to create aggravation and hostility. If you can say something two ways, and one way is bound to antagonize your opponent, and the other way can get your point across without antagonizing your opponent, why do you choose the inflammatory way if you really do want to accommodate their concerns and reach an agreement?

Here, Mitchell clearly acknowledges that the West Bank is ruled by Israel under apartheid-like conditions, but wants to steer clear of using the term because it is “inflammatory,” and is said to aggravate rather than help resolve the conflict. In a recent article, Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) took a similar position, describing “apartheid” as a “conversation stopper” in the United States. Because Americans do not know what life under occupation is like for Palestinians, he argues, when hearing the charge of apartheid they will “simply assume that they are being exposed to hyperbolic anti-Israel propaganda and stop listening before they hear the facts.”

He goes on to say:

It is infinitely more powerful to show rather than tell. Rather than leading with an announcement that Israel practices apartheid, it is much more effective to simply describe the realities: Every aspect of daily life in the occupied Palestinian territories for every individual is defined by whether the Israeli government categorizes them as an Israeli settler, and therefore a citizen of the state with all the rights and responsibilities accruing to citizenship, or a Palestinian noncitizen living under occupation. If you simply describe life under occupation, audiences will draw their own parallels between the occupation and apartheid in South Africa or Jim Crow laws in the segregationist American south.

While Ibish’s and Mitchell’s concerns are valid, they are hardly sufficient grounds to abandon the use of the term apartheid. This is indeed an inflammatory word, but one which accurately describes an inflammatory, intolerable and unsustainable reality. It is also true that it is of course, when possible, preferable to thoroughly describe Israel’s utterly discriminatory treatment of Palestinians. But in the media world of sound bites, and limited opportunities to grab people’s attention, there is typically not the time to explain these details.

In response to Israel’s false buzzwords that claim it stands for “freedom,” “peace,” and “democracy,” Palestinians are in need of compelling and truthful keywords that encapsulate life under Israeli rule, like “occupation” and “apartheid.” If using shorthand for describing Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians is really a “conversation stopper,” then we need to work on changing that by making the case for such terms, not abandoning them. Furthermore, many academic institutions divested from South Africa during the apartheid era, and some of them still have policies that forbid investing in any system of “apartheid.” If Israel’s policies in the OPT become widely and correctly identified as apartheid, then the potential increases dramatically for spreading the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign that’s aimed at ending Israel’s occupation of Palestine further into mainstream American discourse. Recently, Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) recommended resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by creating a single state in which Palestinians would have “limited voting power” (imagine how he would react if anyone suggested his own ethnic group be denied full voting rights). With American politicians now officially recommending what can only be described as apartheid as a long-term “solution” for Israel and the Palestinians, it is rather important to be blunt about what that exactly means. For all these reasons, our task is to mainstream the term “apartheid” in describing the reality in Israeli-occupied Palestine. This job is half-done for us already by  former American president Jimmy Carter, who wrote a book called Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Being categorically assertive in describing the ongoing injustice in Palestine in simple, straightforward terms is an essential component in our effort to end that injustice.

Omar Baddar is a political scientist, human rights activist, and New Media professional based in Washington, DC. or

Illustration by Carlos Latuff. or

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