In the words of Wesleyan United with Israel, “You are going to hear a lot in the coming weeks. You are going to hear that Israel is an apartheid state.” This accusation is part of the message of Apartheid Week, a university-based movement that ‘seeks to raise awareness about Israel’s apartheid policies towards the Palestinians.’”
We, members of Wesleyan Students for Justice in Palestine, acknowledge that we must take care selecting the terms we use to discuss Israel’s faults. The word ‘apartheid’ does carry a lot of weight. In the case of Israel, it represents many of the realities for Palestinians living under illegal Israeli occupation, and although the situation in Israel/Palestine is not identical to that of South African Apartheid, this vocabulary provides us with a means of understanding the occupation and the wars on Gaza.
In the state of Israel, there are three faces to this system of apartheid: that experienced by Palestinian citizens of Israel, those under military occupation in the West Bank, and those living under siege in Gaza.
Twenty percent of the Israeli population is comprised of Palestinians who were absorbed into the state following its 1948 founding. Today, these Palestinians—labeled Israeli Arabs—are given a form of citizenship that while on paper seems identical to that of Israeli Jews, does not grant them equal rights. (https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/resources/briefing-papers/1230-israels-discrimination-against-its-arab-citizens). It has been well documented that Palestinian citizens of Israel are systematically discriminated against in regards to healthcare, higher education, housing, and employment. Access to these benefits is organized along racial lines. Many state benefits are only secured to those who serve in the IDF. Palestinians are denied these rights because they are not Jewish, and will not serve in the army of their occupiers.
Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza experience different forms of apartheid. The West Bank has been divided by a network of Jewish-only highways to service Jewish-only settlements, creating a series of non-contiguous Palestinian enclaves. The separation occurring in the West Bank is akin to the Bantustan system established by the apartheid state in South Africa. Bantustans were the ethnically homogenous “homelands” carved out for the African populations by the white minority government. These Bantustans were granted limited ‘autonomy’ much the way the West Bank under the Palestinian National Authority is allowed to govern its population. The South African government had vested interest in preserving this relationship, as they were dependent on non-white menial labor. This is where the South Africa/Israel parallel diverges. Due to an influx of African and Asian laborers to Israel, the Palestinians have been denied even the meager benefits of employment that black South Africans had under apartheid—so that in the ‘Bantustan’ of Gaza, nearly 50% of the population face unemployment. As has been made clear by incessant Israeli land annexation, the loss of economic opportunities, seizure and destruction of Palestinian farmland, and a military occupation intent on creating an uninhabitable living situation for Palestinians, the Israeli government has no interest in preserving Palestinian autonomy.
In the West Bank, two legal systems—one for Jews and one for non-Jews—prevail. Palestinian residents of the West Bank, although civilians, are tried under Israeli military law, while Jewish settlers living in the territory are subject to civilian law. These systems can in no way establish equal rights for Jews and non-Jews.
Not only does structural apartheid exist on a macro level, Palestinians deal with the reality of ‘petty’ apartheid in daily life. Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks between different Palestinian cities in the West Bank ensure restrictions of movement and access to education. Thousands of house raids, arrests, and degrading searches at gunpoint mean that Palestinians can at any moment be subject to Israeli state terror. With this in mind, one can see how apartheid is a useful and accurate term to describe the myriad mechanisms of oppression and separation employed by the Israeli state.
These realities are perhaps what have led ANC Chairperson, Baleka Mbete, to say that the Israeli regime is not only comparable to but is “far worse than Apartheid South Africa.” One extremely puzzling passage in Wes United with Israel’s article reads, “Referring to Israel as an apartheid state delegitimizes the struggle of blacks against the Apartheid South African government and undermines the plight of other groups that have faced genuine apartheid policies.” For one, Israel was a close ally of the apartheid regime in South Africa (as was the U.S for that matter), whereas black South Africans, starting with Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, have been among the strongest supporters of the Palestinian struggle for freedom. How bizarre that supporters of the Israeli occupation would now presume to speak on behalf of black South Africans and to deny their solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Wesleyan United with Israel also argues that using extreme terminology such as the word ‘apartheid’ to describe Israel, diverts attention from what they term “real, present day problems in the Middle East…and true human rights abuses.” They then refer to the Syrian government and ISIS. We certainly do not support the policies or actions of these groups. However, oppressive regimes, such as the state of Israel, have always pointed to some far worse atrocity to distract attention from their own barbarism. That does not excuse it.
The state of Israel was founded on the deliberate ethnic cleansing of Palestinian towns and villages either through massacre or expulsion. This was part of a three-pronged attempt to clear the Arab population from the land, from the history, and to stop them from ever returning. Today, Palestinian refugees are denied the right of return to their homes and those that were allowed to remain in the territory are systematically denied any expression of self-determination. Evoking symbols of Palestinian resistance is seen as undermining Israeli authority and has been criminalized by the state. Israel has also carried on a long project of erasure and appropriation of Palestinian culture—hence many students’ apprehension regarding Wes United with Israel’s cultural celebration: “Free Israeli Late Night event.”
Despite numerous attempts at “peace” deals over the years, Israel continues to build illegal Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank, denies the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and continues its inhumane blockade on the Gaza strip. Since 2007 an Israeli imposed blockade, has prevented everyday necessities from entering and Palestinians from leaving. From time to time, guised as counter-terrorism, the Israeli government launches wars against the population of Gaza. Despite the vastly superior targeting capabilities of Israeli weapons and the insistence that civilians were not targets, this summer left 872 Palestinian homes totally destroyed, and a civilian infrastructure crippled. Israel has also, in recent years, erected a 30-foot high concrete wall that snakes through the West Bank, annexing more Palestinian land, cutting farmers off from their farmland, and effectively separating the populations based on race.
We believe that dialogue on this campus about Palestine/Israel should not be “normalizing”—meaning we should not accept Israeli state actions as ‘normal’ or appropriate. As students, we should stand up against injustice and oppression in the U.S., in Palestine, and anywhere else. As U.S. taxpayers, we must also understand that we have an obligation to speak out, because our dollars are funding this occupation. The U.S. sends 3 billion dollars of aid to Israel every year. Whether demonstrating the inherently political nature of Israeli cultural events that serve Palestinian or Arab dishes, or erecting a mock separation wall in Olin, Wesleyan students are dedicated to voicing the silenced Palestinian narrative. This is healthy campus debate. Something is wrong when supposedly progressive students defend a military occupation and the actions of a settler colonial state.