/ 17 April 2019

South Africa must strengthen solidarity with Palestine

Palestinian and peace activist demonstrators are hosed by a water cannon during a protest against Israel's controversial barrier near the West Bank village of Bilin.
Palestinian and peace activist demonstrators are hosed by a water cannon during a protest against Israel's controversial barrier near the West Bank village of Bilin. (Reuters/Gil Cohen Magen)


Few people are as well positioned to discuss the Israel apartheid analogy as John Dugard. A highly regarded legal scholar and human rights activist, Dugard played an important role in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Between 2001 and 2009 he acted as a United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967. Frequent field visits and extensive investigations made him a renowned authority on the subject.

His experience in fighting apartheid in both countries, as well as in former South West Africa, is captured in his recent book Confronting Apartheid (Jacana, 2018). In the book, he outlines the conditions that led him to define the 1967 occupation regime as a form of apartheid: the dual legal system that grants Israeli-Jewish settlers legal rights and privileged access to resources and services while denying the same to the indigenous Arab residents of the territories, placing severe restrictions on the ability of Palestinians to move freely, express themselves politically, work and trade, and generally control their own lives.

A policy of systematic land confiscations for the benefit of the Israeli state, its military forces and civilian settlers has resulted in the dispossession of people, house demolitions, arrests (800 000 Palestinians have spent time in Israeli prisons over the years), and denial of human, civil and political rights.

Dugard makes a strong case for regarding the Israeli occupation as an apartheid regime. The only argument Israel and its allies overseas can raise against it is the supposedly temporary nature of the occupation, in place only until a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians is reached.

Yet after 52 years of increasingly entrenched military and civilian control, this is nothing but a lame disguise for permanent domination. But Dugard is careful not to extend this definition to the Israeli state itself beyond the 1967 territories.

Is this a correct position? Yes, because his mandate was restricted to the 1967 occupation. But there are two reasons why the answer is “no”.

The first concerns Palestinian citizens of Israel who reside within the Green Line (the pre-1967 boundaries). They can vote in elections, but are denied equality and membership in the national community.

Just three weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote: “Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people — and its alone.”

He added that if his (Jewish) opponents were form a government with the support of Arab parties, that would destabilise the security of the state and its citizens. Those opponents have rejected, though, any intention to enter into co-operation with those same Arab parties.

The 2018 Nation-State Law enshrines Israel as an exclusionary Jewish state with regard to its ethos, symbols, language and mission: to encourage Jewish immigration and settlement, and to reserve the right to national self-determination to Jews alone. It is entirely about Jewish identity and ownership of the country. The only right accorded to non-Jews is informally keeping their own days of rest and holidays.

The 2018 law merely entrenches long-held practices that have seen the state of Israel confiscating 90% of the land that Palestinian citizens held in 1948, constructing hundreds of settlements for Jews and none for Arabs, subjecting Palestinians to military rule until 1966, and subtler forms of political restriction after that, and allocating resources in a sharply unequal manner, benefiting Jewish citizens and municipalities in access to grants, services and facilities in the fields of health, education, employment and infrastructure.

The second reason a focus on the 1967 occupation is not enough concerns another group that serves as a constant reminder of the price paid by the establishment of Israel at the expense of indigenous people: these are the 1948 refugees who were subject to an ethnic cleansing campaign known as the Nakba. It expelled or forced 725 000 people (more than half of the Palestinian-Arab population at the time) to flee across the border into neighbouring countries, prohibited from returning to their homes, land and homeland.

These refugees, by now living through a fourth generation in exile, experience dispossession unknown under apartheid in South Africa. The Great March of Return in Gaza, which started a year ago, represents their plight and aspirations after decades of remaining in the shadow of the ongoing fight against the occupation.

For a complete picture of the Israeli state as an apartheid regime all three dimensions must be combined: the 1948 Nakba, the 1967 occupation (on which Dugard focuses) and the marginalised status of Palestinian citizens.

But what is to be done?

Palestinians face Israel and demand their rights on all these fronts, but their position is not strong enough to succeed by using their own resources alone. They need support and solidarity from the outside, marches in the streets, educational awareness campaigns, legal strategies in international forums, economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime from other states.

Africans — South Africans in particular — having been subjected to similar forms of oppression and having waged similar campaigns for their own liberation, could help in all these respects. The Israel Apartheid Week of 2019 was an opportunity for taking stock of the situation and intensifying solidarity efforts in this direction.

Ran Greenstein is an associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand