Police or soldiers fire live ammunition at unarmed protesters demanding equal rights, killing or seriously injuring many: Sharpeville, South Africa, 21 March 1960; Soweto, South Africa, 16 June 1976; Gaza, Israeli-controlled Palestinian Territory, 14 May 2018.
Similar violence, similar system?
The premise of the growing, international BDS (Boycott, Divestments, Sanctions) movement is that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people is comparable to the apartheid regime that existed in South Africa from 1948 to 1991 and therefore justifies comparable measures. Is this true, as a black South African, Desmond Tutu, has said for many years? Or is it a “false and malicious” “slander”, as a Jewish white South African, Richard Goldstone, has claimed?
The core of apartheid (separateness) is racial discrimination in access to citizenship and the right to vote in a particular territory (among groups with comparable connections to the territory).
Historically, it developed when European settlers were outnumbered by the indigenous people(s). It was avoided or ended in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand because the (mainly) Christian-European settlers reduced the indigenous people(s) to small minorities (and outnumbered the descendants of Africans kidnapped and forced into slavery). But in South Africa in May 1948, the Christian-European settlers faced a black majority. And in Palestine in May 1948, the Jewish-European settlers faced an Arab majority.
Two different methods were chosen to respond to this common dilemma and resist the post-1945 trend against racial discrimination and the push for one-person-one-vote democracy. Wishing to keep black labour in the country to exploit it, South Africa chose “self-declared (and unapologetic) apartheid”. Black people would never be equal citizens and would never have the right to vote.
Wishing to appear to be a democracy with a Jewish majority, Israel chose “disguised (and vigorously denied) apartheid”. By expelling over 700,000 Arab residents from what became its territory (their UN-recognised right to return was denied on the racial ground that they were not ethnically Jewish), Israel magically converted what would have been a new country with an Arab majority of around 55 percent into one with a Jewish majority of over 80 percent. As South African scholar Daryl Glaser, observed, “[i]t is difficult to see how achieving a majority by expulsion and flight is morally superior to obtaining one by the simple disenfranchisement of people [in the country]”.
The majority of the Palestinians living under very harsh conditions in Gaza today were themselves expelled from Israel in 1948 or a later year, or are the children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren of expelled Palestinians.
When they gather near the line between Gaza and 1949-67 Israel to discuss a “Great March of Return”, they are proposing to challenge the apartheid system that excluded them from Israel, and that now asserts the right to use force to prevent their return. International human rights law (including judgments of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to expelled persons in Cyprus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) supports their right to return as close as possible to the areas in which their villages were located.
Most Jewish-Israelis consider return unthinkable because it would produce a Palestinian majority in 1949-67 Israel. But why should a Jewish majority created by illegitimate means in 1948 be maintained?
Israel’s apartheid system was extended to the whole of historical Palestine in 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. Although a genuinely temporary military occupation would justify not granting Israeli citizenship to residents of the West Bank and Gaza (not previously expelled from Israel), Israel’s occupation has lasted over 50 years, compared with 46 years for South Africa’s apartheid government.