We are Israel’s largest human rights group – and we are calling this apartheid

By Hagai El-Ad, Btselem, 12 January 2021. The systematic promotion of the supremacy of one group of
people over another is deeply immoral and must end. 
One cannot live a single day in
Israel-Palestine without the sense that this place is constantly being
engineered to privilege one people, and one people only: the Jewish people. Yet
half of those living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are
Palestinian. The chasm between these lived realities fills the air, bleeds, is
everywhere on this land.

I am not simply referring to official
statements spelling this out – and there are plenty, such as prime minister
Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion in 2019 that “Israel is not a state of all its citizens”, or the “nation state” basic law enshrining “the development of Jewish settlement as a national value”.
What I am trying to get at is a deeper sense of people as desirable or undesirable,
and an understanding about my country that I have been gradually exposed to
since the day I was born in Haifa. Now, it is a realisation that can no longer
be avoided.

Although there is demographic parity
between the two peoples living here, life is managed so that only one half
enjoy the vast majority of political power, land resources, rights, freedoms
and protections. It is quite a feat to maintain such disfranchisement. Even
more so, to successfully market it as a democracy (inside the “green line” – the 1949 armistice line), one to
which a temporary occupation is attached. In fact, one government rules
everyone and everything between the river and the sea, following the same
organising principle everywhere under its control, working to advance and
perpetuate the supremacy of one group of people – Jews – over another –
Palestinians. This is apartheid.

There is not a single square inch in the
territory Israel controls where a Palestinian and a Jew are equal. The only
first-class people here are Jewish citizens such as myself, and we enjoy this
status both inside the 1967 lines and beyond them, in the West Bank. Separated
by the different personal statuses allotted to them, and by the many variations
of inferiority Israel subjects them to, Palestinians living under Israel’s rule
are united by all being unequal.


Unlike South African apartheid, the
application of our version of it – apartheid 2.0, if you will – avoids certain
kinds of ugliness. You won’t find “whites only” signs on benches. Here,
“protecting the Jewish character” of a community – or of the state itself – is
one of the thinly veiled euphemisms deployed to try to obscure the truth. Yet
the essence is the same. That Israel’s definitions do not depend on skin colour
make no material difference: it is the supremacist reality which is the heart
of the matter – and which must be defeated.

Until the passage of the nation state law,
the key lesson Israel seemed to have learned from how South Africa’s apartheid
ended was to avoid too-explicit statements and laws. These can risk bringing
about moral judgments – and eventually, heaven forbid, real consequences.
Instead, the patient, quiet, and gradual accumulation of discriminatory
practices tends to prevent repercussions from the international community,
especially if one is willing to provide lip service to its norms and

This is how Jewish supremacy on both sides
of the green line is accomplished and applied.

We demographically engineer the
composition of the population by working to increase the number of Jews and
limit the number of Palestinians. We allow for Jewish migration – with
automatic citizenship – to anywhere Israel controls. For Palestinians, the
opposite is true: they cannot acquire personal status anywhere Israel controls
– even if their family is from here.

We engineer power through the allocation –
or denial – of political rights. All Jewish citizens get to vote (and all Jews
can become citizens), but less than a quarter of the Palestinians under
Israel’s rule have citizenship and can thus vote. On 23 March, when Israelis go and vote for
the fourth time in two years, it will not be a “celebration of democracy” – as
elections are often referred to. Rather, it will be yet another day in which
disfranchised Palestinians watch as their future is determined by others.

We engineer land control by
expropriating huge swaths of Palestinian land, keeping it off-limits
for their development – or using it to build Jewish towns, neighbourhoods, and
settlements. Inside the green line, we have been doing this since the state was
established in 1948. In East Jerusalem and the West Bank, we have been doing
this since the occupation began in 1967. The result is that Palestinian
communities – anywhere between the river and the sea – face a reality of
demolitions, displacement, impoverishment and overcrowding, while the same land
resources are allocated for new Jewish development.

And we engineer – or rather, restrict
– Palestinians’ movement. The majority, who are
neither citizens nor residents, depend on Israeli permits and checkpoints to
travel in and between one area and another, as well as to travel
internationally. For the two million in the Gaza Strip travel restrictions are
the most severe – this is not just a Bantustan, as Israel has
made it one of the largest open-air prisons on Earth.

Haifa, my birth city, was a binational
reality of demographic parity until 1948. Of some 70,000 Palestinians living in
Haifa before the Nakba, less than a 10th were left
afterwards. Almost 73 years have passed since then, and now Israel-Palestine is
a binational reality of demographic parity. I was born here. I want – I intend
– to stay. But I want – I demand – to live in a very different future.

The past is one of traumas and injustices. In the present, yet more
injustices are constantly reproduced. The future must be radically different –
a rejection of supremacy, built on a commitment to justice and our shared
humanity. Calling things by their proper name – apartheid – is not a moment of
despair: rather, it is a moment of moral clarity, a step on a long walk
inspired by hope. See the reality for what it is, name it without flinching –
and help bring about the realisation of a just future.