Making the connections between South Africa and Israel–Palestine

Via: Pambazuka News.

The new apartheid
Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights

Israel’s iniquitous treatment of Palestinian people has clear parallels with the discrimination suffered by ‘non-white’ people under apartheid South Africa, argues the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights. The Israeli state has continued to flout international law in its efforts to annex further territory and marginalise Palestinian people, the coalition argues, calling for the maintenance of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) until Israel ends its occupation.

Apartheid becomes official government policy

‘Apartheid’ is the Afrikaner word for ‘apartness’. It reflected the racist belief that certain people are less human than others. White colonial rulers in South Africa set aside 87 per cent of the best land for themselves. They wanted the labour of the majority indigenous black population, but viewed black Africans as a ‘demographic problem’ whose numbers and movements had to be strictly controlled.

In apartheid South Africa, people were classified as either ‘white’ or ‘non-white’ (‘black’, ‘coloured’ or ‘Asian’). This classification determined where people could live, what kind of jobs they could get, what schools they could attend and what kind of rights they would have. As under ‘Jim Crow’ segregation in the American South, the best of everything was reserved for ‘whites only.’

Apartheid consisted of hundreds of laws that allowed the ruling European minority to segregate, exploit and terrorise the vast majority. The system was maintained by military repression.

The state of Israel is established on the land of Palestine and ethnic-cleansing is made unofficial Zionist policy

In May 1948, the State of Israel was established on 78 per cent of what had been the land of Palestine. Zionist settlers wanted the land, but not the people. In March 1948, Zionist leaders decided to expel them. Within six months, more than 750,000 Palestinians – half of the indigenous population – had been forced to leave their homes, and some 500 Palestinian villages had been destroyed.

In the words of Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, ‘The story of 1948 … is a simple but horrific story of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, a crime against humanity that Israel has wanted to deny and cause the world to forget.’

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were again driven from their homes when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the 1967 Six Day War. It has maintained that occupation in defiance of the world community for more than 42 years.

Today, four and a half million Palestinians are registered as refugees with the United Nations. Many more are displaced persons and a million and a half still live in densely crowded refugee camps. Israel has defied international law and refused to allow them to return to their homes.

White settlers control the land and people

European settlers wanted the land of South Africa for themselves, but they needed the labour of the indigenous population. Black workers were forced to live in ‘townships’ or labour camps and earn only a fraction of the wages paid to white workers. The government controlled the movement of black people and eventually ‘coloureds’ by making them carry passes which determined where they could live, work and travel. If they were found in the ‘wrong place’, they would be arrested.

In the 1950s, laws divided the 13.6 per cent of the land that whites had reserved for black people into 10 African ‘homelands’ or Bantustans. A goal of the apartheid system was to deprive black Africans of South African citizenship and force them to be ‘citizens’ of these fragmented and impoverished ‘homelands’. More than four million black people were expelled from ‘white’ areas and made to live in the desperately poor Bantustans.

In 1976, South Africa declared that the Bantustans were now ‘independent states’. But the world refused to recognise them as such. In the eyes of the international community, the people who were forced to live there remained South Africans.

Zionists want the land but not the people

Like black South Africans, Palestinians were viewed as a ‘demographic problem’ by European colonisers. In Israel, there are two broad categories of ‘nationality’. ‘Jews’ and ‘non-Jews’ have different birth certificates, identity cards, residence requirements and very unequal access to land, education, employment and rights. Palestinians who remained within Israel were granted citizenship, but Israel is not a state for all its citizens. Palestinian Israelis face ongoing discrimination in all aspects of life.

When the World Zionist Organisation was founded in Switzerland in 1897, more than 500,000 people lived in the area of the Ottoman Empire known as Palestine. Only five per cent of them were Jewish. The slogan ‘a people without a land for a land without a people’ was a Zionist myth.

On 14 May 1948, acting Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel. He wrote in his diary on that day: ‘To maintain the status quo will not do. We have set up a dynamic state, bent upon creation and reform, building and expansion.’ The expansion was to be at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian population.

Israel has always been a state without official borders. During the 1967 war, it expanded into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Following the pattern established during the ethnic-cleansing of 1948, the Israeli army destroyed Palestinian villages, turned hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into refugees and seized more land.

From 1967 until today, Israel has continued to confiscate Palestinian land and dispossess the Palestinian people. Former South African Prime Minister Hendrick Verwoerdt saw close similarities between Israel and South Africa. In his words, ‘The Jews took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years. Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.’ (Rand Daily Mail, 23 November 1961)


Throughout the 20th century, black people fought for justice in South Africa. The African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912, used strategies of non-violent resistance to campaign for equality, citizenship and full democracy for 50 years.

In response, the apartheid government prohibited meetings, shot protesters, detained activists without trial and tortured many of them in prison. In 1960, after the government banned the ANC, its leader, Nelson Mandela, formed a military wing for armed resistance.

After Mandela and other leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964, the struggle against apartheid within South Africa was carried forward by all sectors of civil society, including women’s groups, trade unions and students.

While the world turned against apartheid, Israel remained a faithful ally of South Africa. As tourism to South Africa from the rest of the world declined, tourism from Israel kept growing. Israelis ran businesses and invested in and looked after security matters in the South African Bantustans. Through its close diplomatic, economic and military ties, Israel helped sustain the apartheid system.

This intimate collaboration was described by Israeli Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi as ‘a unique alliance … the most comprehensive and the most serious Israeli involvement anywhere in the world’.

An international Anti-Apartheid Movement had emerged in London in 1960 to work for the total isolation of the apartheid state by boycotting South African products, ending all academic, cultural and sports contacts, breaking all military and economic ties, and divesting from all companies operating in or investing in South Africa.

When over 1,000 South African students were killed and thousands arrested during the 1976 Soweto uprising, the world began to pay close attention to what was happening within South Africa. International support for boycotts, divestment and sanctions dramatically increased when South Africa proclaimed a ‘state of emergency’ in 1985 and intensified its already brutal repression. There was widespread censorship as tens of thousands of people were detained and many were subjected to torture.

South Africa and Palestine

By the late 1980s, connections were being made between repression in South Africa under the state of emergency, and the ‘force, might and beatings’ with which Israel responded to the unarmed Palestinian uprising of the entire population to throw off the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As the South African anti-apartheid leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu told a New York synagogue in 1989, ‘If you changed the names, the description of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank would be a description of what is happening in South Africa.’

Apartheid remains a ‘crime against humanity’

On 30 November 1973, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. It entered into force in 1976. Earlier in the same year, South African Prime Minister John Vorster, who had been imprisoned for pro-Nazi activities, paid an official state visit to Israel.

The convention emphasised that the ‘crime of apartheid’ – which it defined as a ‘crime against humanity’ – was not exclusive to South Africa. Instead, it applied to policies and practices ‘similar’ to those identified with the apartheid state of South Africa. The convention defined the crime of apartheid as ‘inhuman acts’ that were committed to establish and maintain domination by one racial group (what Israel calls a ‘demographic group’) over another group which was systematically oppressed.

Mass mobilisation against apartheid both within and outside South Africa finally led to the release in 1990 of Nelson Mandela and other leaders, and negotiations for a peaceful transformation. In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president of a democratic South Africa.

After apartheid ended in South Africa, the crime of apartheid was included as one of eleven recognised crimes against humanity in the 2002 Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court.

The ‘inhuman acts’ listed in the convention as constituting the crime of apartheid have long been inflicted on Palestinians. The following sections illustrate how the crime of apartheid applies to Israeli practices.

‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of Palestinians.’ President Nelson Mandela, December 1997

‘Denial of right to life and liberty of person’


Over the last quarter-century, Israel has used death squads, bombs and missile attacks in ‘targeted assassinations’. In the process, it has killed hundreds of bystanders, many of them children. More than 1,000 Palestinian children have been denied the ‘right to life’ since September 2000.

The Gaza Strip has been attacked with impunity, despite the fact that half of its residents are children. On 22 July 2002, the apartment building pictured here was flattened by a one-ton bomb as Israel attempted to kill a Hamas leader. Instead, 14 civilians were killed, including 9 children. Hundreds of children were among the dead during Israel’s three-week military attack beginning in December 2008.


In 1970, Amnesty International wrote a report about the systematic torture of Palestinians. The Sunday Times of London on 19 June 1977 reported that Israel used torture routinely to induce people to ‘confess’ and ‘to persuade Arabs in the occupied territories that it is least painful to behave passively’. In 1999, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem estimated that 85 per cent of Palestinians were tortured during interrogations. In that year, the Israeli High Court outlawed torture but permitted physical pressure for reasons of ‘necessity’. According to the Israeli Public Committee against Torture, the practice of torture is no longer routine, but it still occurs during some interrogations.

Arbitrary arrest

The Israeli Koteret Rachit reported on 25 February 1987 that one in three Palestinians had spent some time in an Israeli jail. Since 1967, more than 40 per cent of Palestinian adult males have been imprisoned on ‘security grounds’. Children as young as 13 have spent up to four years in prison for throwing stones.

Destruction of homes

Like black Africans under apartheid, Palestinians have faced the destruction of their homes and communities.

More than 20,000 homes have been demolished by Israeli authorities since the occupation began in 1967. When a house is destroyed, the land on which it stood often becomes ‘state land’ and the family cannot rebuild.

During the April 2002 invasion of Jenin refugee camp, 140 buildings were destroyed and 200 other houses made uninhabitable.

An Israeli bulldozer driver was quoted in Yediot Ahronoth on 31 May 2002: ‘For three days, I just destroyed and destroyed. They were warned by loudspeaker to get out of the house before I [would] come, but I gave no one a chance. I didn’t wait. I would just ram the house with full power, to bring it down as fast as possible. I wanted to get to the other houses. To get as many as possible…’

No freedom of movement

More than 500 army checkpoints and roadblocks have strangled the West Bank, preventing the flow of people, goods and ambulances. Students cannot get to their schools and people who are ill often cannot get to hospitals. Women have given birth at checkpoints and their new-born babies have died there. East Jerusalem, once the centre of West Bank life, is now off-limits to most Palestinians. Below is the ‘transit terminal’ at the entrance to the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

The Gaza Strip is an open-air prison, surrounded by walls, an electric fence and locked gates. Students cannot reach their West Bank universities or take up scholarships to study abroad, patients cannot get to well-equipped hospitals, farmers cannot export crops and economic life has ground to a halt. Since 2007, Israel has blocked all but a handful of basic necessities from entering the Gaza Strip.

‘Creation of separate reserves and ghettos’

In defiance of international law and hundreds of United Nations resolutions, Israel has appropriated and colonised more than half of the West Bank. It has fragmented the territory with Jewish-only bypass roads and more than 200 settlements and military bases. Palestinians are imprisoned in emerging Bantustans behind high walls, high-tech fences and hundreds of checkpoints and ‘transit terminals’.

Israel’s planned 450-mile long ‘Separation Barrier’ – which Palestinians call the apartheid wall – cuts deeply into the West Bank along more than 80 per cent of its route, taking the best land and water resources. It has separated Palestinians from their families, their fields, their schools, hospitals and jobs. More than a quarter of a million people are imprisoned in walled enclaves.

In July 2004, the International Criminal Court ruled that the wall was illegal where it was built on Palestinian land and ordered it to be dismantled. Backed by the US Congress, Israel immediately denounced the court’s ruling and has continued to build the wall.

‘The people within the West Bank and Gaza are literally imprisoned under the most unjust conditions, suffering hardships and methods of control that are far worse than anything our people faced during the most dreadful days of Apartheid. In fact any South African visiting what amounts to enclosed prison-ghettos – imposed by a Jewish people that tragically suffered the Nazi Holocaust – will find similarity with Apartheid immediately coming to mind… Israel is as guilty as the Apartheid Regime. Israel’s conquest and occupation, with the latest land grab caused by its monstrous Apartheid wall and continued construction of illegal settlements, has reduced the West Bank into several disconnected pockets amounting to 12 percent of former Palestine. No wonder that Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Tutu and others compare the situation to Apartheid and their infamous Bantustans – which gave 13 percent of land for South Africa’s indigenous population.’
Former South African freedom fighter Ronnie Kasrils addressing the South African Parliament on the 40th anniversary of the Israeli occupation, 6 June 2007

Denying ‘basic human rights and freedoms’

Palestinians, who are stateless, have been denied their most basic civil, political and human rights. They have not been permitted the right to leave, and return to, the land of their birth. Families have been denied the right to live together.

For decades, thousands of military decrees controlled every aspect of their lives. It was a crime to raise a Palestinian flag and express opposition to the occupation. In July 1989, a four-year-old child appeared in a Jerusalem court for the ‘crime of incitement’. He had raised his fingers in a V-sign.

In the mid-1990s, many Palestinians hoped that their lives would be improved by the ‘Oslo peace process’. But Israel used this time to seize more Palestinian land and double the number of its settlers. It offered Palestinians a ‘state’ consisting of disconnected islands of land resembling small Bantustans.

The Oslo process established a Palestinian authority with limited powers in a tiny fraction of occupied land. Israeli military orders remain supreme and the Israeli army frequently conducts raids in the areas governed by the Palestinian authority.

Under international law, Palestinians have the right to self-determination and the right to resist illegal military occupation. Terrorist acts – defined as acts of political violence directed against civilians – are not permitted under international law. States as well as individuals can be guilty of terrorism and occupying states are legally and morally obligated to refrain from collective punishment and violence against civilians.

While Palestinian suicide bombings and Gaza’s crude rockets have received world attention, less well-known are the daily acts of non-violent resistance which Palestinians engage in with their Israeli and international supporters.

The way forward…

In July 2005, 171 Palestinian civil society organisations called upon the international community ‘to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives’ against Israel similar to those applied to apartheid South Africa. Measures of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) should be maintained, they said, until Israel ends the occupation, dismantles the wall, recognises the fundamental rights of Israeli Palestinians and respects the rights of Palestinian refugees.

With South Africans in the lead, churches, trade unions, universities and other organisations in North America, Europe and around the world have responded to the Palestinian call.

‘If Apartheid ended, so can the occupation, but the moral force and international pressure will have to be just as determined.’
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, July 2002


* This article was produced by the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights.
* Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights © 2010
* Please send comments to or comment online at Pambazuka News.



More Apartheid News.


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