B'Tselem, recently released a report concluding that Israel is an apartheid state, with a Jewish sovereignty system extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.

The report found that Israel fulfills the definition of apartheid under international law, which defines apartheid as "inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining the control of one ethnic group of persons over any other ethnic group of persons and systematically suppressing them."

Hegemony over the Palestinians

B'Tselem is not the first human rights organization to call Israel an apartheid regime. In 2009, Palestinian and South African researchers published a comprehensive report that determined that Israel was committing the crime of apartheid. Two Palestinian human rights organizations participated in this initiative, "Adalah" and "Al-Haq".

Two former UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights in Palestine reached a similar conclusion. In 2007, John Dugard stated that "elements of occupation constitute forms of colonialism and apartheid." A few years ago, Richard Falk co-authored a report that concluded that Israel had established "an apartheid regime that oppresses and controls the Palestinian people as a whole." The Secretary-General of the United Nations quickly distanced himself from the report, and ordered its removal from the UN website.

A model of Western racism, Israelis are seen as more reliable and respected, and their contributions are healthier than those of Palestinians who suffer from apartheid, colonialism and occupation every day. Nevertheless, the B'Tselem report is a welcome development. As academic Rafif Ziada points out, this comes "in the face of an organized silencing campaign, which is trying to prevent debate before it begins. In this sense, it is appropriate that an Israeli human rights organization mentioned what the Palestinians have been arguing for years."

While the use of the apartheid framework in relation to Israel is not new, it is gaining momentum amidst the one-state reality. While the occupation model is based on the false assumption of temporality and maintains the distinction between the territories of 1948 and 1967, the apartheid framework recognizes that Israel is the effective governing power between the river and the sea, as it enacts an apartheid regime.

A crime against humanity

Under international law, apartheid is a crime against humanity - the evidence clearly shows that Israel is an apartheid state. Throughout the area between the river and the sea, its political and legal systems are all geared towards ensuring Jewish racial supremacy and dominance. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel has refused to vaccinate millions of Palestinians living under its control, while it has vaccinated Israelis, including Jewish settlers, in the occupied West Bank.

But Palestine cannot be understood only from an apartheid perspective, as this provides only a limited and partial understanding of the situation. Israel is a settler colonial state that practices apartheid and permanent occupation.

The discourse that emerged in liberal circles about apartheid and Palestine failed to recognize settler colonialism as the overarching structure of the Israeli state. We saw such dynamics in Peter Beinart's recent call for a single binational state in which apartheid is recognized, but not Zionist / Israeli settler colonialism. Ethnic domination is treated as a stand-alone feature of the Israeli state, separate from the colonial settlement enterprise in Palestine. Even when apartheid is recognized, there is no account of Zionism as an ideology and racist movement.

The B'Tselem report is an excellent example of this new approach, which comes to the fore in progressive liberal criticism of Israel. The report did not mention colonialism or settler colonialism even once. Ironically, a member of B'Tselem’s board of directors commented, “Change of any kind begins with a correct reading of the reality that one seeks to change. To look at this reality with open eyes, and to name it by one’s own name.”

Apparently, for B'Tselem, settler colonialism is not part of this reality.

Limited understanding

The use of apartheid as the sole framework is consistent with increasing attempts to limit the understanding of the question of Palestine to strict legal categories. International law is important, and it must be used to our advantage. But it would be dangerous to leave international law alone to guide our understanding of the reality in Palestine or the nature of our political demands. The question of Palestine is a political issue and not just a legal issue.

It is true that settler colonialism is not illegal under international law - but that is no reason to risk our understanding of Palestine with international law alone. By limiting ourselves to international law, we run the risk of talking only about ethnic domination and ignoring colonial domination. We need to talk about both, and we have to realize that racial domination and Israeli apartheid are integral to colonial settlement control.

This does not mean that we should abandon the apartheid framework, but we must be wary of liberal readings of Israeli apartheid. Palestinians were using the analogy of apartheid long before it turned into a crime against humanity. Comparing Palestine with Apartheid South Africa is a long and radical history that precedes the "recent" discovery of apartheid by some Israelis. The Palestinians saw South Africa, like Palestine, as a racist, settler colonial state, and themselves were part of a larger global anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist movement.