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Is Israel an apartheid state?

By Ricky Browne

Is Israel an apartheid state – the inheritor of the system that died in South Africa about 30 years ago?

Many are of the opinion that Israel is an apartheid state, but does it really qualify?


Apartheid was a system which divided races within South Africa, denying certain rights to the majority of groups – blacks, tribal groups, Indians, coloured people and other non-whites, and gave more rights, including the right to vote in national elections, to the white minority. Most racial groups were broken into their smallest components – various black ethnic groups such as the Nguni and the Sotho were broken into smaller groups. So the Nguni people were broken into tribal grops such as the Zulu, Xhosa, Nbedele and Swazi — each with their own Bantustans.

Bantustans inside South Africa under apartheid — plus the truly independent states of Lesotho and eSwatini (previously Swaziland). CREDIT: Encyclopedia Britananica

In contrast, the two major white groups, although culturally very different and speaking different languages, were treated as one. So the Afrikaners of Dutch descent were basically grouped together with the whites of more recent British descent — to double the strength of the white group, although they actually disliked each other — sometimes intensely. Divide and rule 101.

The scattered and multiple Bantustans were supposed to be separate and independent states which were created within South Africa for various groups – but these states were not recognized by anyone else.

Not even the sign for non-white hospitals was of equal quality

There were also separate hospitals and schools for the deprived groups – and the best institutions were preserved for the white minority. The best neighbourhoods were saved for the white population, and blacks were forced to live in less than desirable townships such as the South West Township in Johannesburg, otherwise known as Soweto.

RIP South African apartheid

In other words, apartheid was a system that was enwrapped in law within the constitution, and which sought to separate the various groups and races, ruling over the other by force — so that a minority racial group could ‘legally’ control the majority.


If the system in Israel is not a part of the law system, then it cannot be considered the equivalent of apartheid, even if Arab citizens are discriminated against.

Maybe it can be successfully argued that Israel has imposed a kind of ‘apartheid lite’ regime over its Arab citizens. But because the discrimination that they may suffer, even from the state authorities, is not written into law – it cannot be considered the heir to South Africa’s original version.

Do the Gaza Strip and the West Bank equate to Bantustans?

That doesn’t mean that Arab Isralis are not discriminated against, and it doesn’t excuse that discrimination. It only means that the situation in Israel is not as warped as the situation used to be in South Africa, and that the patina of equality between groups still exists.

But there is still a lot of talk that Israel is an apartheid state, coming from humanitarian organisations like Human Rights Watch, and from the left wing of the Democratic Party in the United States.

In 1973, the United Nations declared that South Africa’s system of apartheid was a crime under international law. In 2002 the International Criminal Court said that apartheid was a “crime against humanity”, emphasizing that it was an “institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another racial group.”


Other countries that have been accused of apartheid include China, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar. But like Israel, when a country discriminates against its minorities, although potentially an international crime, its not quite the same as when a powerful minority discriminates against the majority population.

There may be laws against foreigners holding certain rights in Israel, in particular Palestinians. But that wouldn’t boil down to apartheid. It could only be considered apartheid if people of Arab descent who are also Israeli citizens, are not treated as the equals of Jewish Israelis by law. That doesn’t appear to be the case.

There is an argument though, that Palestinians from Gaza or the Western Bank, who are not treated as Israeli citizens, are being treated in the same way that South Africa treated the people who they banished to the so-called Bantustans, which were claimed to be independent countries.

The problem with that is that Gaza and the West Bank are considered to be an independent state by many countries, whereas the Bantustans were not. More than 135 United Nations member countries are said to recognize Palestine as an independent country – though two big exceptions are both Israel and the United States.


And because there is no discernible difference in the race of Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, the discrimination within Israel’s borders cannot be said to be racial. Even if Jewish people are believed by some to belong to their own distinct race, Arabs are not. So there is a problem with saying that whatever discrimination that exists is racial discrimination – which is the main component of the system of apartheid.

A view of Shuafat refugee camp is seen behind a section of Israel’s separation barrier in Jerusalem, June 19, 2020. 
PHOTO:Oded Balilty/AP

The way that Israel treats its Israeli Arabs may justly be considered wrong and illegal, without having to resort to equating it with the apartheid regime of South Africa up to the point when Nelson Mandela jointly governed the country with FW de Klerk. To do so, in a sense, weakens the severity of the crime of apartheid in South Africa, where for 50 years the majority of the population were denied equal rights and justice.

In fact, much of the reason for people calling Israel an apartheid state is linked more to its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories than how it treats its own Arab Israeli citizens in the state of Israel. But apartheid was about how a state treated its own people – not those in occupied territories, such as Namibia in the case of South Africa.

Israel may almost be an apartheid state, but it appears to be walking on a razor’s edge. The debate over whether it is or not will continue.



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