By Susan de Muth
(Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide. Ben White, Pluto Press, 144 pages.)
“Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide” by Ben White is a new, updated and expanded edition of his hard-hitting study of how Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians resembles the now-extinct South African apartheid system.
White’s premise is simple: if Israel is, indeed, practicing a form of apartheid, why doesn’t the international community respond with the same abhorrence it exhibited for the Pretorian prototype? Diplomatic pressure, sanctions and boycotts ultimately saw that system collapse and the establishment of one state for all South Africa’s citizens, whatever their skin color.
White was prompted to revisit his subject six years on, not only because “the situation on the ground is even worse” but also in response to an awakening of Western sympathies in regard to the plight of the Palestinians, despite the best efforts of Israel’s vigorous propaganda machine.
Former American president Jimmy Carter was ahead of the pack with his 2006 book “Peace Not Apartheid” which brought the debate into the mainstream and challenged the moral integrity of the Hebrew state. Israel’s 2008-09 “Operation Cast Lead” onslaught on Gaza which killed 1400 Palestinians, many of them women and children, gave the general public more reason to be concerned. Prominent Israelis, including former prime minister Ehud Olmert, warned that Tel Aviv’s violent and racist actions were putting the country at risk of becoming a pariah state.
White reminds readers that Israel’s association with apartheid South Africa was longstanding. Both emerged in 1948, and the South African Jewish community heavily funded the Hebrew state in its infancy. In 1961, then South African prime minister and architect of apartheid, Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, observed that “Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state”. The two states maintained a close political and military relationship, with Israel enabling South Africa to become a nuclear power following a secret 1975 military co-operation agreement signed by Shimon Peres and P.W. Botha.
White’s book achieves the aims it sets out in the preface — to “highlight the key issues” and be “readable” — but does the author convince that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is indeed akin to apartheid?
White begins with the legal framework. Apartheid was first defined — in UN General Assembly Resolution 3068 (1973) — as a crime, producing “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”.
This definition is now enshrined in international law, and White’s book is structured around the three main groups of the “inhuman acts” it cites.
The first group concerns “measures designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos … [and] the expropriation of land and property”. Clearly, Israel’s ongoing construction of a 400-mile (644-kilometre) “separation” wall does what it says on the tin, and has been grabbing some extra Palestinian land too.
Israel’s relentless building of colonies in the Occupied Territories is intended to expropriate Palestinian land and also fragment it. Special roads for the exclusive use of more than half a million Jewish colonisers achieve a similar purpose.
The next group of “inhuman acts” cites “measures calculated to prevent a racial group from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country… [including] the right to leave and return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence.” Again, Israel’s oppressive measures tick all the boxes and White is thorough in listing his evidence. There is no space here to detail his persuasive picture of “ethnic cleansing” in an Israel which defines itself as a “Jewish” state, which perceives the birth of Arab children as a “demographic threat”, which impedes freedom of movement with checkpoints, gates and barriers, and seeks to impose the maximum cruelty, humiliation and hardship on the beleaguered Palestinians with grinding, daily, regularity.
The final group concerns impeding “the right to life and liberty”. White shows that nearly a million Palestinians have been imprisoned by Israel — among them, every year, up to 700 children — and that torture is commonplace.
In a period of three years, 67 Palestinian mothers were forced to give birth at Israeli checkpoints when they were not allowed through to get to hospital; 38 newborn babies died as a result. White quotes an Israeli activist who describes the situation in Gaza as “the imprisonment of an entire people”.
White intersperses his text with shocking first-person Palestinian testimonies — that of an elderly lady, for example, who not only suffered the trauma and indignity of Israeli bulldozers razing her home, but was presented with the bill afterwards.
White’s thesis is well researched, well argued and copiously referenced (there are some 30 pages of notes). Inevitable criticisms that the book fails to represent the Israeli viewpoint are to some extent offset by a “Frequently Asked Questions” section. Here, White responds to the charge that it is “anti-Semitic” to criticize Israel, and offers an excellent philosophical refutation (courtesy of Sharif Elmusa) of the claim that “Jews are entitled to a state of their own just as the French have France”: “If Israel is the state of all the Jews, all Jewish people are by definition citizens of Israel; and all citizens of Israel are … Jews. The third part of the proposition is clearly empirically wrong; thus the assertion that Israel is as Jewish as France is French cannot be sustained.”
White concludes that Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians is not only comparable to apartheid South Africa, but worse. Where Israel seeks to destroy the Palestinians’ social, political and economic infrastructure, the Pretoria regime “promoted a pretense of equal treatment, and built houses, schools, universities and businesses … it sought to advance the material welfare of black people while denying political rights”.
In the final section of the book, White considers what can be done and urges the international community to build on the present momentum the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement has gained.
Surely, there can be no chance for lasting peace until the various elements of Israel’s apartheid regime are dismantled, and a solution for the benefit of both Palestinian Arabs and Jews is genuinely sought.
– Susan de Muth is a London-based journalist who focuses on the Middle East, contributing regularly to specialist publications. (This review was originally published in Gulf News, and is reprinted in PalestineChronicle.com with permission from the author.)