Can observers of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict learn from the experience of apartheid-era South Africa and its transition to democracy? Does a nascent student movement for divestment from Israel indicate that Israel’s policies towards Palestinians may be the next target for activism inspired by that which helped end apartheid?
There are many similarities between the Israeli and South African cases which make the comparison compelling. Israel, like apartheid-era South Africa, grants rights to individuals based not on their citizenship, but rather on their membership in a specific ethnic group. Israel classifies people at birth according to their ethnicity, and their rights and responsibilities towards the state vary based on this classification. In apartheid-era South Africa, only whites had full rights. In Israel, Palestinian citizens enjoy some rights, such as the ability to vote and be elected, but only Jews have full rights allowing them to obtain land, to receive the benefits of military veteran status and to benefit from the “Law of Return.”
There are similarities between the ideologies of Afrikanerdom and Zionism, which portray the ruling groups in each case as an outcast people who, escaping oppression, found freedom in a promised land. The resistance of indigenous peoples is viewed ideologically as being merely an extension of the oppression which had driven the settlers to come to their promised land in the first place, thus justifying almost any measures the ruling group saw fit to take against them.
Israel and apartheid-era South Africa also expressed their affinity for each other throughout the 1980’s with extensive economic and military ties. The South African air force and navy, used primarily to attack the African National Congress (ANC), and to intervene in neighboring states, were largely armed and trained by Israel. Israeli military advisers helped South Africa to develop military strategies to use in Namibia and Angola, and there is strong evidence of joint Israeli-South African development of atomic weapons.
(This history is well documented from public sources in Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi’s book The Israeli Connection [New York: Pantheon Books, 1987].)
In the late 1970’s, hoping to forestall the end of white rule, South Africa began to create “Bantustans.” These were nominally “independent” homelands to which all of South Africa’s blacks were eventually supposed to be transferred. The end result, so the apartheid rulers hoped, would be a strong white South Africa with few or no black citizens, surrounded by a constellation of poor, weak black states which it could easily control and exploit as a source of cheap labor. Recognizing that this was merely an effort to continue apartheid in another form, the ANC and the entire international community refused to recognize the four bantustans that South Africa created. These “independent states” were abolished when South Africa moved towards democracy.
Israel, like many other states, accords privileges to one group while abusing the rights of minorities. It is much easier to sustain and perpetuate such discrimination if the privileged group is a majority. Once the disenfranchised minority becomes too numerous, a state can no longer claim to be both ethno-nationally defined and equitable and democratic. It becomes a minority-ruled apartheid state. Recognizing this, South Africa’s ruling whites tried unsuccessfully to transform an overwhelming black majority into a minority through the legal fiction of the bantustans.
Israel’s dilemma is to prevent a large Palestinian minority from reaching demographic parity with Israeli Jews. Parity would put Israel in a situation similar to apartheid-era South Africa, and Israel would have to face the choice of giving full citizenship to everyone or adopting some form of formal apartheid. In order to forestall this day of reckoning Israel has adopted several consistent strategies: first, denying the right of Palestinian refugees who were expelled or fled from their homes in what is now Israel to return.
Israel’s second strategy has been to try to bring as many Jews as possible to Israel, particularly from the former Soviet Union. Third, Israel has sought to transfer responsibility for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to someone else, while retaining as much control of the land as possible. Hence, successive Israeli governments were in favor of annexing the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to Israel, but did not do so because this would have left Israel with the choice of either having to grant citizenship to the Palestinians living there, or declare to the world that Israel was prepared to rule over them forever while giving them no rights. A minority of Israelis even supported solving the conundrum by simply expelling the Palestinians. While none of these options were palatable, Israel sought to maintain the status quo until the 1987-93 Palestinian uprising against military occupation made it untenable. Hence, Israel signed up to the Oslo accords under which only 17.2 percent of the occupied West Bank (“Area A”) is today even nominally under the full control of the Palestinian Authority. 97 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank live in this small area, which is broken up into disconnected patches.
It is for these reasons that Palestinians increasingly ask whether the Palestinian “state” which Israel has proposed — which would be crisscrossed by settler-only roads, cut into pieces by Jewish settlement blocks, required to allow Israel to occupy or lease large swaths of its territory, and have no control over its external borders — is nothing more than a Bantustan. The continuing growth of Israeli settlements on their land makes Palestinians skeptical about Israel’s intentions.
Demographic trends among Israelis and Palestinians suggest that within only a few generations Israel will have parity between Jews and non-Jews. At that point Israelis will have to decide whether they want to maintain the “Jewish character” of their state at any price, or move towards a state which grants rights to all its citizens on an equal basis.