Describing injustice

We were very pleased to have speakers from two Israeli human rights organisations at this year’s Jewish Socialists’ Group conference: Roy Yellin, director of public advocacy of B’Tselem, whose report this year named Israel’s regime as apartheid, and Rachel Beitarie, director of Zochrot, which works to promote acknowledgement and accountability for the ongoing injustices of the Nakba. Here are edited versions of their speeches.

ROY YELLIN argues that to describe the situation in Israel/Palestine as apartheid is not only an accurate description of reality but strategically significant for campaigners for social justice

I will start with a description of Israel as a regime that perpetuates Jewish supremacy in the entire region under its control, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and talk a bit about the decades-long strategy behind it. Human rights organisations like B’Tselem have been struggling to describe the reality in Israel/Palestine for a very long time. The most common description among international community bodies, including most western governments, is that Israel is a democracy within the boundaries of 1948, and that what we have in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which Israel annexed in 1967, is an occupation or “temporary belligerent occupation”, as it’s described in humanitarian and international law.
Occupation is supposed to be temporary but there is nothing to suggest that Israel deems it to be, because, from the very beginning in 1967, Israel has violated one of the most basic tenets of international law – forbidding an occupying power from transferring its own population into an occupied area. For the past 15 or 20 years we have talked in euphemisms – about illegal occupation, one-state reality – that sidestep the actual situation. So we decided to examine it, and came to the conclusion that the most accurate word to describe this type of regime is “apartheid”.
This term no longer applies just to South Africa, and we’re not making an analogy with it. It’s a term in international law and in social and political science. It refers to a regime in which one group is trying to cement and perpetuate its domination over another, using the broadest definition of race as suggested by the UN Treaty against Racism. This looks at race as a social construct, dividing people into groups and later attributing to those groups certain rights and characteristics. This gave a better picture of what we’re seeing in Israel/Palestine, and we analysed the way Jewish supremacy is working in four major fields.
Israel’s most popular claim is that it doesn’t discriminate against its citizens: that we have Arab citizens, and they can sit in the Supreme Court of Justice and be members of parliament; and that now, for the first time in over 70 years, we even have an Arab party as a member of the Israeli coalition. But our analysis shows that this doesn’t actually matter. In South Africa the main component of Apartheid was the Grand Apartheid – dividing the different types of Blacks into supposedly independent Bantu states and taking the bigger chunk of land for the white people. And there was also Petty Apartheid which referred to Black people when they live in white areas. It was things like the separate benches on public transport or in parks labelled “Whites only” which most shocked us, because we were more in the white spaces than in the Bantu states.
In Israel we are seeing something similar. Israel has demographically and politically engineered this space, and put chunks of the Palestinian people under its control into different areas and given a different set of rights to each group. So, within Israel, Palestinians can be citizens of Israel. It’s true that they can be elected, but systemic racism prevents them from being equal. And Israel’s
recent Nation State Law has worsened their situation and made discrimination against them a constitutional principle.
In fact, there is a consensus amongst the Israeli Jewish population that Israel is a Jewish state. I don’t think there is a Jewish – or even leftist – party within Israel that would say it is against Israel as a Jewish state. As a result, it doesn’t need to prevent Palestinian citizens from participating in the political system because it has made their political participation ineffective. Fewer than 25% of Palestinian people who live under Israeli control can actually vote in elections, so 75% don’t have a political voice.
There are four main areas in which the regime expresses subjugation of the Palestinians. The first is land. Israel is striving to Judaise the area. What we’re seeing in Sheikh Jarrah is part of this attempt to Judaise East Jerusalem, to achieve a slow-paced clearing or cleansing of Palestinian people. This is true both within Israel’s 1948 borders and beyond those sovereign boundaries.
The second is immigration. Every Jew in the world – including their children, grandchildren and spouses – can come to Israel and get citizenship, whereas Palestinians, even if they are the children of people who were born here, cannot.
The third form of subjugation concerns freedom of movement. Israelis can move freely between the West Bank and East Jerusalem and to the outside world. Palestinians need Israeli permission to do so. This is not true for Palestinian citizens of Israel but it is true for Gazans, whose freedom of movement is essentially non-existent. They are blocked into the largest open air prison. Israeli Arabs can move around, but if people from East Jerusalem leave the country for an extended period, they lose their residency status so they may have problems getting back. West Bank residents need permission to go in and out of the country and to go into Israel. Settlers, though, can move freely without boundaries or roadblocks.
The last and most critical area of inequality is political participation. Israeli citizens, whether Jewish or Palestinian, can participate in national politics, including voting and running for office. But this is consistently undermined, and the legitimacy of Palestinian participation within Israeli politics is contested. In fact, the members of this newly formed coalition are all protected now by the security services because there is a threat to their lives, and this is because they might be supported by Arab votes which is considered by a huge chunk of the political map as illegitimate.
The biggest chunk of Palestinian people who are living under Israeli jurisdiction are totally ignored. About five million Palestinians living in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, cannot participate in the political system that determines their government. What the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government can actually decide upon are minor municipal issues, such as how to run the schools and who will clean the streets, but they really have no jurisdiction over the bigger things. They are also relegated to very small, confined enclaves, so the options for economic development are rather small.
In addition, Israel has forbidden any sort of natural rights in terms of freedom of expression, organising or working for social change. If Palestinians want to protest, it is deemed by Israel an illegal activity and the participants will be treated with violence. We’re seeing this today in Sheikh Jarrah where political leaders of the protests are arrested or treated violently.
I want to finish by explaining why it is important to see change in our struggle. Israel, unlike other non-democracies, enjoys the benefits of being labelled as a democracy. So it participates and receives all the perks and financial advantages of being a member of the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and an associate member of the European Union, as well as being a strong ally of the United States, getting weapons to perpetuate the domination of Jews over Palestinians. We think that unless we crack this façade of democracy and reveal the regime for what it is, it will never change.
It’s not enough simply to say that what happens in the West Bank is bad, because people can still say, “Yes, but Tel Aviv is fantastic. It feels liberal; it has a beautiful beach; the cafés are open and everything is fine – and let’s not look in the backyard. The fact is that Tel Aviv is fantastic but it’s very nice to live in because we’re exploiting other people; it’s done at their expense. Also, we have a captive market to which we’re selling electricity, water and health services, and that’s just not fair. We will all have a better future if we divide the resources equally and treat each other as equal human beings.
This will not change if we continue with this lie of having two separate regimes. Last year, when we started to discuss this issue, a very nice colleague, also a human rights activist, who objected to our description of the regime, said: “Well the UK could potentially have a democracy within its own boundaries and then have a colony in which it had an apartheid regime.” Our answer is that that’s not a good description of reality because if Britain had a colony, then it would be a colonial power, so it cannot be considered a democracy. This is exactly the crack that we need in order to bring change.
We’re not making an analogy or comparing Israel to South Africa. We’re referring to the definition of apartheid. It’s relevant because it’s a crime against humanity, but we were not trying to write a legal document: we wanted to write something more approachable and accessible to the wider public. Apartheid is a specific type of settler colonialism – a particular way of running this type of regime. We don’t need to develop a new, specific language for Israel/Palestine, and I don’t think our Palestinian colleagues would like that because they don’t have another 30 years to wait before they get their freedom.
We don’t believe that people will just give up privileges of their own volition. It needs international pressure, and this international pressure will never be mounted on a country that is deemed to be a democracy, western, part of the enlightened side of the globe – which of course Israel is not.
This paradigm of apartheid is useful because the struggle against it succeeded. People still remember that; they know apartheid is wrong, so you don’t need to elaborate or make a lot of explanations. It also provides a model for successful struggle – of international pressure that brings about change.

Photo: Al Khalil Hebron

RACHEL BEITARIE looks at the foundations of the current situation of the Palestinians, which were being established long before 1948, and the implications of this for challenging the separation policies today

I completely agree with Roy Yellin’s outline of the legal framework and I want to add some historical context to the conversation. But before that I want to look at what apartheid means for campaigners and for what we should do. To remind all of us: the Palestinians have described what is happening in Israel/Palestine as apartheid for decades. It took a while for us to get there but I think one of the most important things is to centre Palestinian voices. It’s important to listen to Israeli voices too, but we need to listen more to Palestinians.  
South African apartheid was a specific example of settler colonialism, and I think what has happened in Palestine since 1948, or even before that, is an ongoing Nakba brought about and perpetuated by a settler colonial regime. I know this is harsh and I want to spend a few minutes explaining the definition.
The Nakba – “great disaster” in Arabic – refers to the events of 1947-1949: the UN embrace of the Partition Plan and the founding of the state of Israel, during which about 80% or almost 800,000 Palestinians from what became the state of Israel were expelled or forced to leave and became refugees. It involved occurrences of massacre – Deir Yassin is the most widely known; instances of rape; marching of refugees, for example from Lydd to Ramallah in scorching heat, during which unknown numbers of people died. This was documented by both Palestinians and by Israeli soldiers. It also involved organised looting of Palestinian properties, and Palestinian land becoming state administration land under Israeli law.
Zochrot, the organisation that I work for, means “remembering” in Hebrew. It was established to remember the Nakba, to bring about acknowledge­ment and accountability for those crimes within Israeli society. But the Nakba is not just a historical event. It did not end in 1948 or ’49. By now it’s clear that we should see it as an ongoing process rather than a historical event.
Why is this? Very, very few of the expelled Palestinians were allowed to return. Most of them and their descendants are still stateless, living in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan or Syria, as well as the West Bank and Gaza. I want to linger on the situation in Gaza in particular, because we’ve recently heard a lot about it, and the situation cannot be understood without an awareness of the fact that about 70% of the two million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip are refugees from what is now the state of Israel within the ’48 borders. Some of them were transferred to Gaza, not even during a fight or a war, but long after the Armistice was signed, like, for example, the 2,500 residents of al-Majdal Asqalan, who were forcibly moved to Gaza in 1950 to make way for the city of Ashkelon.
Under Egyptian control until 1947, Gaza, like the West Bank and East Jerusalem, came under Israeli control 54 years ago, almost to the day, during the Six-Day War. So refugees in Gaza became refugees under military occupation, subject to the different structures in the separation policy of Israel that Roy has described.
Many of them were again removed from their homes and land. Gazans, for years, were employed as cheap day labourers building the very towns and cities, like Ashkelon and Ashdod, from which they and their parents had been ethnically cleansed. Of course, now they can’t even do this because after exercising the right to vote for the first time in 2005, all Gazans were locked down inside the Strip, with no way out. Israel exercises control over any goods that come in or out of Gaza; people who wish to visit the West Bank, even for medical treatment, need special permits that are extremely difficult to get, and periodically they suffer bombing of targets with no regard for civilian casualties.
When wThe modern city of Ashkelone look at the issue of Gaza now, and consider whether or not Hamas rockets are a form of legitimate resistance, we cannot ignore the context of Gaza being made up mostly of refugees who were ethnically cleansed from what became Israel, and of the Nakba, and what created this situation.
If you look at Sheikh Jarrah as well, which is one of the hotspots of the current situation, there, too, Palestinian residents face eviction and suffer endless harassment and abuse, both from settlers and Israeli security forces. This is another example, because the people facing eviction in Sheikh Jarrah are not actually from Jerusalem; they are mostly the families of refugees who were expelled from Jaffa and Haifa in 1948 and were resettled in Sheikh Jarrah by the Jordanian government in the early ’60s. Those same families now face the loss of their homes again, in some cases for the third or even fourth time.
In Sheikh Jarrah, the claim of the settlers to the houses in the neighbourhood is based on the fact that some of them were built by Jewish charities in the 19th century, and were inhabited by Jews until 1948, which is true. Soon after the occupation of Jerusalem, the State of Israel passed a very interesting law which requires the return of Jewish property, such as in Sheikh Jarrah, to Jewish hands. At the same time, the Absentee Property Law from the 1950s claims that all property belonging to Palestinians who left their homes, or were absent, or were regarded as absent (even though they weren’t) between 1947 and 1950, is Israeli state property. This includes, of course, the original houses in Jaffa and Haifa belonging to the Palestinian families who now live in Sheikh Jarrah!
This is a stark example of apartheid, of two completely different sets of laws, one for Jews and another for non-Jews. There are over 60 examples of such Israeli laws that in effect distinguish between the lives of Jews and non-Jews. We can count the new Nation State Law among them, as well as the much older Law of Return – the granting of automatic citizenship to anyone with Jewish ancestry. Together these laws constitute a codex – simply different sets of laws for groups of people who live in the same area. That is the very definition of apartheid.
I call it settler colonialism. This is because, if you look at the development of the Zionist movement even before the Nakba, from at least 1917 and the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, that movement relied on colonial forces, especially on the British Empire, while dispossessing the indigenous Palestinians. A colonial mindset is still evident in Israeli policymaking, academia and the media today.
To emphasise this point, I also want to look at the so-called “mixed cities” within Israel, which have recently come under the spotlight. I live in such a city – in Jaffa. In these cities there are both Arab and Jewish communities, but the term “mixed cities” is misleading, and when you think about it, it’s nonsensical. By nature, by definition, cities everywhere are heterogeneous and consist of different communities, classes and so on. As Palestinian scholar, Dr Fatma Kassem explains, in Israel a “mixed city” really means a city whose ethnic cleansing wasn’t complete in 1948. This is true for Jaffa, for Lydd (Lod), Ramle, Haifa and Akka. In Jaffa, for example, only about 10% of the Palestinian population remained after the 1948 war, and they were put, in a sense, into a ghetto (you may think I’m exaggerating but this is what it was called by the Israeli army at the time), and they were not allowed to leave for several years. This is how the current Jaffa Palestinian community was established.
Similar things happened in Haifa and Lod and Ramle. Today, Palestinians in these towns are marginalised; most of them live in poverty, having lost their former property through the Absentee Property Law. And there is an effort from religious Jewish groups, but also from the state, to Judaise these cities, just as they’re trying to do with Sheikh Jarrah or the South Hebron Hills or the Jordan Valley.
So we see a direct line between those practices all over Palestine, regardless of citizenship status. Palestinians in these cities are seen as an abnormality that should be fixed by an influx of more Jewish people, and this is the background of the violence we have seen lately in those places – actual mob violence as well as extreme police violence followed by a countrywide campaign to intimidate Palestinian communities and suppress protests under the pretence of law and order. In this case we are really talking about the so-called Palestinian citizens of Israel. Those groups are sometimes referred to as Israeli Arabs, but I would like to stress that Israel, as an ethno-state, has no real concept of citizenship at all, for anyone. The law as well as the media and public opinion, make distinctions between groups within the population. It’s evident even in the political scene, because although Palestinians who hold Israeli ID can vote, for many Israelis their votes don’t really count – or they count as enemies, which is commonly heard in Israel.
This is not just true of the current situation, with Netanyahu and his replacement; the reliance of Rabin’s 1992 government on Palestinian Arab votes was part of the background that led to his assassination. All of this together comprises a Jewish supremacist settler colonial regime. I am sad to say it, but it’s true. Human rights groups like B’Tselem are rightly describing it as apartheid, and I recommend their comprehensive and very courageous report. Human Rights Watch as well.
In this context, new forms of resistance are arising in which Palestinians are transcending their differences to challenge the separation walls and separation policy. We should support this in any way we can.
I will finish by saying that, despite the sharp right-wing turn in Israeli public opinion and media perspective, more Israelis are seeing the situation clearly and are more ready to act on it – as evidenced by a recent open letter signed by nearly 1,000 Israeli Jews calling on the international community to end Israeli apartheid. It’s very important that we support all these efforts, not only by Palestinians but also by Israelis who oppose the Israeli apartheid regime.

Photo: The modern city of Ashkelon

Further information

B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories strives to end Israel’s occupation, recognizing that this is the only way to achieve a future that ensures human rights, democracy, liberty and equality to all people, Palestinian and Israeli alike, living on the bit of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
B’Tselem’s report, A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid is available at

Zochrot ("remembering" in Hebrew) works to promote acknowledgement and accountability for the ongoing injustices of the Nakba, and the reconceptualization of the Return as the imperative redress of the Nakba and a chance for a better life for all the country's inhabitants.

Posted: 3 August 2021  |  Published in: Jewish Socialist No 75