Israeli apartheid by any other name still stinks

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As the annual Israeli Apartheid Week got underway this week in universities across Ontario and around the world, the denunciations are mounting. In the Ontario Legislature last week, MPPs from all parties supported a motion brought forward by Willowdale MPP Peter Shurman condemning the event and its use of the word "apartheid," which he called "hateful" and "odious." A similar motion is expected to be moved in parliament by the federal Conservatives this week.

Yet comparisons of Israel's occupation to South Africa's apartheid did not just fall off the turnip truck. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu have both described the situation as apartheid, and even two former Israeli prime ministers, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, have used the word in expressing their concerns for Israel's future.

Israelis do not use the word "apartheid" -- they have their own word, "hafrada," meaning separation -- but as it amounts to more or less the same thing, it makes little sense to use with the public a word most people are unfamiliar with. A few facts about "hafrada" highlight the striking similarities with apartheid.

Israel rules directly over approximately five million Palestinian Arabs and six million Jews, yet for over 40 years it has maintained two sets of laws: civil laws for Jews, and military laws for the roughly four million Palestinians in the occupied territories. Israeli settlements in the territories are garrisoned by Israeli military forces and are connected both to each other and to Israel proper by an elaborate set of roads that are reserved exclusively for Jewish settlers, who also get to vote in Israeli elections.

Palestinians in the West Bank, meanwhile, have their movement curtailed even within the territories by hundreds of checkpoints, including "flying checkpoints" that appear without warning or reason. Israel controls borders, airspace, and all movement. Israel also controls all water, which it diverts for its own use while keeping Palestinians on strict water quotas and prohibiting them from digging wells. It continues to confiscate farm land for settlements, many of which are built on hills, dumping sewage onto Palestinian lands below. Palestinians who engage in non-violent resistance routinely face arrest and, quite often, torture.

If this cannot be described as apartheid, what can?

Defenders of Israel against charges of apartheid tend to point to its 1.3 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. Certainly this is a difference between Israel and South Africa under apartheid. Yet "apartheid" has come to refer to a spectrum of mechanisms for separation, just as the term "genocide" encompasses a broad range of murderous actions, no two being exactly alike in every respect.

Indeed, there are ways in which Israel's "hafrada" is even worse than South African apartheid.

In the Gaza Strip, which Israel has held under siege since 2006, 1.5 million people live like caged animals. Despite a savage bombing campaign in 2009 that left the infrastructure in ruins and thousands of people homeless, the Israeli government has imposed on Gaza a complete embargo not only of concrete for rebuilding but also items such as crayons, musical instruments, hearing aid batteries, bed sheet, mattresses, blankets, candles, matches, and shoes.

Even within Israel proper, there are variations of apartheid.

Palestinian citizens of Israel, who lived under military rule until 1966, have Israeli passports and citizenship, yet they must carry identity cards identifying them as "Arab." Most are confined to specified "Arab" villages that are prohibited from expanding, despite desperate overcrowding, and they are chronically underserviced. Their schools receive only a fraction of the funding of Jewish schools, and their teachers are vetted and scrutinized by the Shin Bet (the secret service).

Palestinian citizens of Israel are barred from public service jobs. While they are permitted to vote, Israel's laws prohibit them from organizing politically to demand that the character of the "Jewish state" be modified to include them too. The political elite regard them as a fifth column, and they are routinely referred to as a "demographic threat." Israel's deputy prime minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has even spoken of resorting to "transfer" -- a polite word for expulsion.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Israeli Apartheid Week started in Toronto around the same time our elected leaders in Canada, without public consultation, began reorienting our foreign policy strongly in support of Israel. In the context of this imbalanced foreign policy, the use of the term "apartheid" does not shut down discussion and debate, as its critics charge; rather, its use in events like Israeli Apartheid Week represents an attempt at the popular level to restore discussion and debate that is missing at the political level.

Jason Kunin is a Toronto teacher and writer.


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