By Ran Greenstein, Israeli Occupation Archive – 20 Nov 2011
Step one: But they have the vote
Start with fragmentation. When talking about Israel refer to a mythical state that existed between November 1966 and June 1967, the only period during which the majority of Palestinians living under Israeli control were NOT subject to military rule. Focus on the fact that Palestinians who became Israeli citizens have the right to vote. Not quite a right to vote for any party of their choice (various radical lists were disqualified over the years) but still, a right to participate in the elections.
In the process, ignore the 80% of the original inhabitants of the territories that became part of Israel in 1948, who have been physically excluded from exercising any civil and political rights in their homeland. Ignore all those who live under military occupation in the 1967 territories, with no right to vote in Israel and no say in the way their territories are governed by Israel (their own government has no power over land, water, roads, housing, development, population registration, and virtually everything else that is relevant to their lives).
Go back to those citizens (about 15% of all Palestinians) and assert how fortunate they are. Do not bother to read, convey, and consider their own feelings, words, analyses, politics. They have a very different opinion on the applicability of the notion of apartheid to their own situation, but why listen? Who is better qualified to speak on their behalf than you?
Step two: But they started it
If you really have to, talk about the refugees (remember those 80% mentioned above, who have been excluded from any presence in Israel?). They have themselves to blame for their situation. They started the war in 1948 and suffered the consequences, so what do they want from you now?
In the process avoid paying attention to inconvenient facts: that long before the 1948 war, all Palestinians residing on land bought by official Jewish agencies had to leave their homes. That no tenants living on land owned by official Zionist agencies were allowed to stay (not even on a small part of their land) once the land transaction was completed. That well before 1948, dozens of towns and hundreds of rural settlements were established by and for Jewish immigrants, and that not a single one of them allowed Palestinians to reside within their boundaries, or even find employment within them, let alone become full members of the community.
In other words, ignore the ever-expanding zone of exclusion that was created by the Zionist movement and its settlement agencies since the beginning of the 20th century, from which all Palestinians were barred. Pretend the whole thing started in 1948, and they were responsible for it. Ignore the Palestinian refugees, all of whom, regardless of their personal involvement in military affairs and political intentions, were equally barred from returning to Israel after 1948. If you also manage to ‘forget’ the massive evidence of ethnic cleansing that took place during that war, so much the better.
And remember: there are two important tasks to be performed here: erase all traces of the exclusion of the majority of Palestinians from their land (if they are not there, by definition they cannot be subject to apartheid), and pre-emptively deny any subsequent claims (if they lost their citizenship they cannot make any claim to voting and other rights).
Step three: But we are not alone
As a fallback option, admit that the situation is not perfect, but you are not the only one practicing some form of discrimination or exclusion. If everyone practices apartheid, then the specific accusation against Israel is no longer meaningful. Use whatever examples can bolster your case: Kurds in Turkey, Basques in Spain, Tibetans in China (and for the more advanced, Saharawis in Morocco), allow you to turn the tables against critics: why do they not protest first against all these other oppressive regimes? The answer may be that these are indeed situations in which minority groups are denied their right to independence. Yet, they are granted equality and the possibility of full assimilation if they so desire. Palestinians, in contrast, have neither independence nor the option of assimilation and equality, but why worry about such petty nuances?
Try another tack: what about the African/Muslim/Caribbean immigrants in Europe, subject to various restrictions on immigration, jobs, residence and political rights? Of course, they are immigrants rejected by the indigenous majority in foreign countries, while Palestinians are indigenous people denied rights in their own homeland by recently-arrived immigrants, but so what?
Or, take the legal precedent route: invoke the right of states to give preferential treatment to their ‘ethnic kin’ in the diaspora, recognised by many European countries. But, do not stop to consider that the very definition of Israel as a state of the Jewish people (but not of its indigenous Palestinians) is the source of the conflict. And that in no European country do the rights of ethnic kin come at the expense of the indigenous ethnic groups that do not form part of the ‘kin’.
Invoke other cases where ethnic and religious symbols are employed by European states, in their flag, anthem, crest and so on. That these states (UK, Greece, Sweden and others) offer all their citizens equal rights, regardless of their ethnic or religious origins, and that none of them allows differential access to resources based on ethnic or religious identity is best left out of the discussion. Rather, raise the problem that Jews and Muslims cannot become UK monarchs, never mind that 99.9% of Anglicans, who are not of royal stock, are equally deprived of that privilege.
Brutal honesty is another useful strategy, especially when you can go back to the classics: the Turks did it to the Greeks, and the Greeks did it to the Turks. The Indians did it to the Muslims, and the Pakistanis to the Hindus, the Czechs and the Poles to the Germans, and the Germans, before them, to everybody else. And keep up to date: the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians have done it to each other. And, you have not even mentioned yet the great massacres and millions of deaths from enslavement, forced labour, dislocation, and diseases, which afflicted colonized populations in Africa and the Americas. Why single Israel out, then? Why are Israelis the only ones who have to meet the charges of apartheid?
In those cases above (Turkey-Greece, India-Pakistan, and so on), only a few percent of the respective populations were affected, while in 1948 Palestine 60% of the original indigenous population (of the entire country) became refugees; in those cases above, the bulk of the respective population remained rooted in their own territories, and retained their independence, while in the case of 1948 Palestine the entire society was dislocated and lost its ability to rule itself. But these are mere technicalities, so avoid them at will.
More importantly, in all those cases, the acts of dispossession, eviction, expulsion, dislocation, confiscation, were once-off events, even if their impact was of a long duration. Historical tragedies and great injustices they were indeed, no doubt, but life gradually returned to normal after that. Not so in Israel/Palestine: the government, parliament, political parties, military authorities, construction companies, various religious and social movements, and media organisations, continue relentlessly to re-enact the historical dispossession on a regular basis. It is not just the Nakba of 1948 that matters: an ongoing onslaught on Palestinians’ land, rights and demographic presence is the central issue in Israeli politics today (and has been for decades though not always with the same intensity). Literally, not a day passes without a new initiative, bill, law, regulation, and campaign to restrict, marginalise, exclude, silence and oppress Palestinians and any others (including Jews) who try to defend them and what remains of Israeli democracy.
But we digress. All this can be easily explained away by the ultimate weapon: security!
Step four: But we need security
And if all else fails, invoke the magic word, security. You are only in it for security. All you care about is survival. You build a security fence (on and through other people’s land), you have security settlements (on other people’s property), you strive to secure your existence, your boundaries, your demographic balance, your power, your rights.
You maintain the occupation because of security fears (even if you were far more secure before it), you neither annex the occupied territories (because their residents would endanger your security) nor do you leave them (because to do so would constitute a threat to your security), you establish settlements because of security reasons (even if most settlers openly deny that), you let Jews move freely in and out of the country and burden Palestinians with dozens of laws, hundreds of road blocks, thousands of military regulations, all because of security. You maintain a dual legal system (due to security), different roads (for security reasons), differential access to land and water (needless to say why), and different education systems (the s-word is responsible again). What does all that have to do with apartheid?
Ran Greenstein is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.