In Israel, an apartheid system ensures the domination of the Jewish population over Palestinians. As Human Rights Watch notes in its recent report, “A threshold crossed: Israeli authorities and the crimes of apartheid and persecution”:
“Every day a person is born in Gaza into an open-air prison, in the West Bank without civil rights, in Israel with an inferior status by law, and in neighboring countries effectively condemned to lifelong refugee status, like their parents and grandparents before them, solely because they are Palestinian and not Jewish.”
To understand how Israeli apartheid operates, it is important to know that all territory between Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, whether legally part of Israel or part of the occupied Palestinian territories, is part of a single regime of Israeli control. As Yariv Levin, the speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, put it in 2014:
“The correct policy, from the point of view of Israeli interests regarding our political ability at the moment, is to combine the attempt to hold the maximum amount of territory and apply sovereignty over the maximum amount of territory while keeping the Arab population within it to a minimum.”
Apartheid is enforced in several ways in the pursuit of this goal.
There are discriminatory migration policies. After the mass expulsions of Palestinians with the foundation of Israel, the Knesset passed the Law of Return in 1950. This law bestows the right on all Jewish people, no matter where they were born, to migrate to Israel with full citizenship rights.
No such right of return is granted to non-Jewish Palestinians who were driven from the territory, or to their family members. In fact, the 2003 Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law explicitly denies citizenship or residency to inhabitants of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which would normally be available for those marrying an Israeli citizen.
Discriminatory migration policies aren’t enough, however—Israel faces what Zionists term the “demographic threat”. Palestinians make up around 20 percent of Israel’s citizens. But Palestinians are roughly half of the 14 million people living within the combined area making up the state of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. While Palestinian citizens of Israel face discrimination in health, housing and employment, they have at least some rights compared to Palestinians in the occupied territories, including the right to vote in Israel’s elections. To grant all Palestinians the same rights as Israelis would be an immediate threat to Jewish supremacy.
Officially, the occupied territories, seized in 1967 by Israel, are a temporary military occupation, whose final status is to be determined by future negotiations. But there is nothing temporary about an occupation that has lasted more than half a century.
Ostensibly, Israel shares authority over parts of the occupied territories with the Palestinian Authority, which engages in “security coordination” with Israel.
That is, the Palestinian Authority acts as a police force of the Israelis—in return, its leaders get to pretend that they lead a quasi-autonomous territory. But Israeli security forces have the right to act against whoever they want throughout the occupied territories; throughout most of the West Bank, they exercise sole authority. Israel also maintains control over the population registry, voting rights and borders of the territories.
While Israel doesn’t directly occupy the Gaza Strip, it maintains complete control over its borders and airspace. Israel decides who gets to enter and leave, and what can be imported and exported. The blockade that it has imposed since 2007 has been devastating. While Israel has the highest COVID-19 vaccination rate in the world, only 36,000 people in Gaza have been vaccinated out of a population of more than 2 million. During the 14 years of the blockade, Israel has regularly bombed the territory, but blocks the import of construction materials that would be required to rebuild.
The façade of a separation between Israel and the occupied territories enables Israeli sovereignty over the entire region while denying basic rights to the 5 million Palestinians who live within those territories.
In many instances, Israel maintains separate codes of law for Israeli Jews and non-Jewish Palestinians. Apart from East Jerusalem, Palestinians in the West Bank are under military rule. In East Jerusalem, which Israel has annexed, most Palestinians are defined as permanent residents, which grants them additional but still limited rights. But the more than 441,000 Jewish settlers throughout the occupied territories are given full rights as citizens of Israel and governed according to civil law.
So while Jewish settlers in the West Bank have full voting rights, none of the Palestinians living in the same area have the right to vote in Israel’s parliamentary elections, despite the power that Israel exercises over their lives, while permanent residents in East Jerusalem are limited to voting in municipal elections. In theory, most Palestinians in the occupied territories have the right to vote in elections for the Palestinian Authority, but the last such election was in 2006. Even if elections were to take place, the Palestinian Authority is in practice completely subordinate to the Israeli state.
The two codes of law, civil and military, which Jews and Palestinians live under in the West Bank, grant both groups dramatically different rights. Palestinians accused of crimes are tried in military courts with an almost 100 percent conviction rate. A 2014 report from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel found that “since the 1980s, all Israeli citizens brought to trial before the military courts were Arab citizens and residents of Israel”. Jewish settlers in the West Bank are tried in the regular Israeli court system.
Searching Jewish settlers requires a permit. Searching Palestinians does not. Jewish settlers, detained under Israeli law, must be brought before a judge within 24 or 96 hours, depending on the circumstances. Palestinians, detained under military law, can be held for up to eight days until they are required to be brought before a military judge. As citizens of Israel, Jewish settlers have rights to freedom of speech and assembly unless there is “near certainty” that it would harm security interests. Palestinians can be imprisoned for up to ten years for attempts to influence public opinion that “may” harm public peace.
Palestinians in East Jerusalem are governed under civil law as permanent residents. A pathway to citizenship exists, but it requires recognising the Israeli occupation as legitimate. Most Palestinians do not apply for it, but of those who have, the vast majority have not received it. Permanent residency, in contrast to citizenship, is conditional and insecure. It can be revoked at any time by the minister of the interior.
Israeli citizens can live and move freely throughout the territory Israel controls (except for the Gaza Strip). Palestinians from the West Bank are unable to enter Israel, East Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank without difficult-to-obtain permits. Movement within the West Bank is restricted by hundreds of armed checkpoints. Security forces at these checkpoints can stop Palestinians without reason or leave them waiting at gunpoint for hours before allowing them to continue.
Palestinians in the occupied territories require Israeli permission to travel internationally, a right they are routinely denied without explanation. While Israeli citizens can leave and re-enter the country at any time, residents of East Jerusalem who leave the city risk having their residency revoked. The minister of the interior has withdrawn residency from at least 14,701 Palestinians since 1967.
Throughout all the areas it controls, Israeli policies discriminate in favour of the Jewish population and ensure greater Jewish control over the land. Adalah, a Palestinian-run legal centre in Israel, has documented some 65 laws that explicitly discriminate against Palestinians living in Israel. Palestinian citizens face discrimination in health, housing and employment. Discriminatory planning policies within the Israeli state confine Palestinians in overcrowded towns. While Palestinian citizens make up 20 percent of the population, Palestinian municipalities make up less than 3 percent of the land. The creation of more than 900 Jewish localities has been approved since 1948. For Palestinians, there have been none.
According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Israel has demolished 7,591 Palestinian-owned structures in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 2009, displacing 11,408 people. It is extremely difficult for Palestinians to gain building permits throughout the territories. In East Jerusalem, a series of discriminatory laws enables settlers and settler organisations to evict Palestinians from their homes and transfer the latter to Jewish owners (as has occurred recently in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah).
Throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, at least 280 Jewish settlements have been established, home to more than 600,000 Jewish settlers. Discriminatory policies systematically favour Israeli settlers over Palestinians in these territories, including access to roads and water. The World Bank in 2009 found that Israelis in the West Bank consume four times more water than Palestinians.
That these interconnected regimes of oppression operate as a system of apartheid has long been recognised by Palestinian activists. As Palestinian writer Linah Alsaafin put it a decade ago in an article at the Electronic Intifada: “Apartheid is very much alive in occupied Palestine. It is our reality that we breathe through our congested lungs every minute of our waking lives”.
Recently, more mainstream human rights organisations have begun to catch up. In January this year, Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem released a position paper titled “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid”. Last month, Human Rights Watch released the substantial report quoted above. These documents provide substantial details of the oppression faced by Palestinians.
At the same time, we need to go beyond the human rights framework of these NGOs. The Human Rights Watch report ends with a series of recommendations. These are all directed to various nation-states, in particular the United States and the countries of the European Union, or to international organisations like the International Criminal Court. When it comes to the liberation of Palestinians, this gets things totally backwards.
It is not by accident that Western governments and their institutions so stridently back Israel. In the Middle East, a region with two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves, the alliance with Israel has been crucial for Western imperial strategy in the 20th and 21st centuries. As US President Joe Biden once put it, “If there were not an Israel, we would have to invent one to make sure our interests were preserved”.
Imperialist states will not be persuaded by moral cases, no matter how compelling. And justice for Palestine cannot be won through international courts. The dismantling of the Israeli apartheid state and liberation for Palestinians will be won only through independent revolutionary struggle in Palestine and across the Middle East.