The Two Apartheids

What are the similarities and differences between South African apartheid and the Israeli system?

A sign during apartheid-era South Africa.

Momentum has been gaining for the international movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (known as BDS), in support of Palestinian national liberation. For a precedent with positive resonances, especially in the West, BDS activists cite the role the tactic played in delegitimizing the South African apartheid system. To mobilize public opinion for a repeat in Palestine, they are quick to make analogies between the situation of the black population in South Africa under apartheid and the situation of the Palestinians under Israeli rule.

But there are often blind spots in these comparisons, as when characteristics that distinguish Israel from South Africa aren’t acknowledged, or when little attention is paid to the fact that BDS was an auxiliary force in bringing down South African apartheid.

Perhaps the most striking difference at the moment is the disparity of forces on the ground: nothing in and around Palestine yet approximates the strength of the African National Congress and allied forces in and around apartheid South Africa. Palestinian liberation cries out for a fresh and renewed strategy.

The following article — first published in Arabic in the spring 2014 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies, written by Lebanese historian and activist Fawwaz Traboulsi, and now translated by political activist and Boston University professor Assaf Kfoury — takes up these issues.

The piece is an examination of this glossed-over background that explains the many similarities and differences between the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the anti-occupation struggle in Palestine. In doing so, he broaches several related topics — BDS, one-state versus two-state, the Palestinian right of return — without imposing a specific viewpoint or advocating a specific way of satisfying any of them.

Because Traboulsi’s target audience are Palestinian activists and their Arab supporters, his focus is on the implications of his analysis for a successful Arab movement in support of the Palestinian struggle. Nonetheless, he brings out many issues that are equally important for a Western readership.

Inevitably perhaps, he underplays a few implications that are emphasized by others who address a Western public. The Anglophone reader should take Traboulsi’s non-mention of Hezbollah or Syria in the context of his very strong support for the uprising in Syria. That context would be much better known to the audience of the Arabic-language version of the Journal of Palestine Studies.

As Noam Chomsky constantly reminds us, one thing apartheid South Africa and Israel have in common is the US connection. (This aspect is only peripherally taken up in Traboulsi’s article.) As long as apartheid South Africa could count on US backing, it could withstand external pressures and ignore the rest of the world. Once American support was withdrawn, along with the other factors mentioned in Traboulsi’s article, white-minority rule in South Africa collapsed.

And so it is with Israel. “Israeli aggression,” Glenn Greenwald wrote after last year’s assault on Gaza, “would be impossible without the constant, lavish support and protection of the US government, which is anything but a neutral, peace-brokering party in these attacks.”

This places a unique responsibility on American activists and, more generally, friends of Palestinian liberation in the West. In the US more than anywhere else, organizing, educating, and mobilizing public opinion against the government’s policies in the Middle East will affect the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Most who see the South African apartheid model as applicable to the Palestinian situation reject a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among their justifications, they most commonly cite the repeated failures of the on-again off-again Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as prime evidence that Israel has no real interest in withdrawing from the West Bank and allowing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Even if Israel were to accept an independent Palestinian state, they point out, it would be on about 22 percent of historic Palestine, a limited territory lacking the minimal requirements for a viable sovereign state, which would also negate a fundamental Palestinian right, by making them formally acquiesce to their permanent exclusion from the lands of pre-1967 Israel and forfeiting their claim to any right of return.

There is a background to these comparisons with South Africa. The final dismantling of apartheid occurred in the years 1990–93, which naturally raised hopes for repeats elsewhere and suggested to some a liberation model that could be applied to Palestine, but which also coincided with the post-Nasser period of increased Arab fragmentation and separate bilateral Arab-Israeli agreements that the Sadat government had initiated in the 1970s under American goading and patronage.

These agreements disconnected the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the wider Arab-Israeli conflict and set the two on different tracks — increasingly diverging over time and more so since the Oslo Accords of 1993-95.

The first of these tracks aimed at establishing a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, while the second focused on the return of lands in neighboring Arab countries that Israel had occupied in the 1967 War. By separating the two, Arab regimes, beholden to diminishing popular pressure, could then go on to distance themselves from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; they could take turns in appeasing Israel’s policies, or else in perfunctorily resisting them, sometimes eager to normalize relations in separate bilateral agreements and sometimes vying to act as intermediaries in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Although most activists inspired by the South African model sharply criticize the Oslo Accords and the two-state paradigm, the fact is that they are in harmony with the signal achievement of these accords and earlier bilateral agreements (the Camp David Accords with Egypt in 1978 and the Wadi Araba Treaty with Jordan in 1994). They agree with the logic of decoupling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, in effect accepting that the two can be resolved separately and independently of each other.

To be sure, this Palestinian retreat from the wider regional context is not limited to those who compare apartheid South Africa and Palestine. It reflects a widespread go-it-alone sentiment among Palestinian masses and political organizations. This sentiment is understandable, although detrimental in the long run if it stands in the way of reconnecting Palestinian national liberation with its Arab depth and support. It is understandable as a natural reaction to the setbacks and broken promises from Arab governments over many years, and to the oppression and discrimination long suffered by Palestinian refugees in their host countries.

The mirror image of the Palestinian go-it-alone sentiment has been a popular demobilization of the Palestinian cause in surrounding countries, which was most pronounced on the eve of the mass uprisings of 2011–12.

In the face of repeated Israeli aggression in preceding years — in the West Bank (the Jenin massacre of April 2002), in southern Lebanon (the war of July 2006), in Gaza (Operation Cast Lead in January 2009) — there was scant popular mobilization outside the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. As if, beyond expressions of anger and outrage on editorial pages at the wholesale killings of fellow Arabs, the popular mood was to wait for some decisive divine or magical victory over the ever more powerful Israeli military.[1]

For evidence of this Arab disengagement from the Palestinian struggle, it suffices to compare the few hundreds that demonstrated for Gaza in Tahrir Square in November 2012 (at the time of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense), outnumbered by the thousands from the Egyptian security forces surrounding them, and the hundreds of thousands who invaded the same square to topple the Mubarak regime.

The calls for “work, freedom, social justice, and dignity” had by now superseded, rather than supplemented, the calls for the liberation of Palestine; the former resonated throughout Tahrir Square and the world, the latter produced a barely audible din.[2]

Yet, against this backdrop of Arab divisions and fragmentation, international support for the Palestinians has grown in inverse measure to Arab disengagement. While international support is a source of some relief, it cannot compensate for the deep chasms within Arab popular ranks at a time when Israel continues its most extreme practices with total impunity — namely, the relentless pursuit of expansion and settlement in the occupied territories, the forcible expropriation of Arab lands, and the Judaization of whatever parts of pre-1967 Israel that still have an Arab majority.

Israel’s extreme practices against the Palestinians are now coupled with equally aggressive regional policies, constantly aided and abetted by the US. They aim at not only maintaining Israel’s hegemony in the Arab region, but also at making it the dominant power over the two Middle Eastern countries that could challenge it, Turkey and Iran, by undermining the latter’s economic, geopolitical, and military capabilities. Not least in that respect are the coordinated efforts by the US and its Western allies to keep Israel as the sole Middle Eastern state with a military nuclear option.

There are many similarities between the Zionist project in Palestine and the former regime of racial discrimination in South Africa. And there were many close ties between the two, including Israeli efforts to supply South Africa with nuclear weapons in the 1970s.

Their shared experience as settler-colonial regimes is particularly significant, both erected on a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing and the forcible displacement of the native population. From 1961 to 1983, some 3.5 million non-white South Africans were removed from their homes and forced into ten segregated enclaves, the infamous bantustans.

That said, it is important to point out what distinguishes the two systems, for precision as well as for spelling out the requirements of an effective Palestinian struggle.

Apartheid in South Africa was above all a system of economic exploitation, driven from the outset by the country’s exceptional mineral riches. Large capitalist conglomerates supported racial discrimination and political control by the white minority inasmuch as they needed to protect their economic interests and secure their profits.

That necessitated that the non-white majority of the population be deprived of political and civil rights, and that they be forcibly relocated into bantustans and other segregated areas, though still integrated into the economic system. For most of the white settlers and their descendants, they were not part of a movement to impose any particular European identity on the land and the country.

By contrast, the settler colonialism of Zionism was connected from the outset with the in-gathering of large numbers of Jewish immigrants, with the goal of changing the demographic character of Palestine, emptied of its native Arab population, and forming a new national identity. Economic exploitation of the country’s resources was a means to an end — the Judaization of the land and the country — not the end in itself.

It seems that, for those who take the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa as a model for Palestine, the plan is to transform the Palestinian liberation movement into one encompassing the whole of historic Palestine, with one of two end goals: either the establishment of a single bi-national state for two national groups, one Palestinian Arab and one Israeli Jewish; or else a movement for full equality (civil, legal, political) in the context of a single unitary state.

Either way, however, what is overlooked is Zionism’s formative goal of building a Jewish state in Palestine, that is, a state with a decisive and permanent Jewish majority (which is, as the saying went, “Jewish like England is English”).

This is the crucial difference with apartheid South Africa, which by contrast had a place, though a subordinate one, for the non-white population in its system. And it is the crucial difficulty in envisioning the means and conditions that could lead to the eventual reversal of the Zionist project and its replacement by a single state, whether bi-national or unitary, for both Palestinians and Israeli Jews.

Israel refrained from annexing outright the West Bank and Gaza after 1967. It simply calls them the “territories” (or “Judea and Samaria”) and refuses to consider them occupied lands. It openly flouts the Geneva Conventions that obligate an occupying power to assume responsibility for protecting civilian resources and properties, and to compensate for losses and damages resulting from the occupation. What’s more, it refuses to grant citizenship to the millions of Palestinians under occupation precisely in order not to upset the demographic makeup of Israeli society.

How else are we to understand Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians and, more generally, the Arabs recognize what he calls the “Jewishness” of the state of Israel? And what is the purpose of the repeated campaigns led by Israel’s right-wing parties, both secular and religious, to Judaize the parts that still have an Arab majority in the Negev and the Upper Galilee? And what to make of efforts to change the demographic character of Jerusalem, the refusal to discuss its status in any negotiation, and the rejection of any settlement that does not recognize the whole of it as Israel’s capital alone?

On these issues of Jewish exclusiveness and the Jewish identity of the state of Israel, it is important to note the convergence between the two main parties of the Zionist establishment, Labor and Likud, both vacillating between a faction in favor of a partial withdrawal in order to preserve a Jewish majority and an expansionist faction that aims at annexing more Palestinian lands even at the price of further evictions of the native population.

The natural question that comes up in these discussions is the Palestinian right of return. If the call for a two-state solution must be abandoned, because it is incompatible with the Right of Return, how is it that we can then conclude that a single unitary state will satisfy this right?

Or how are we to envision that Israel, having taken over the entire territory of historic Palestine, will be forced not only to accept transforming itself into a bi-national state, but also to accept a population with an Arab majority (if we add the Palestinians of the occupied territories, the Palestinians inside the Green Line, and the Palestinians returning from the diaspora)?

Will not the call for a one-state solution, bi-national or unitary and whatever it entails, then become something closer to a mental exercise in hypotheticals than to a framing of achievable goals in an undoubtedly long-term struggle?

And how can this be done without considering the necessary conditions for producing a radical change in the balance of forces — not all the way to the point of forcing Zionism and the state of Israel to commit suicide — but at least to the point of applying sufficient pressure on Israel’s American protector, and the “international community” behind it, to put a stop on unrestrained Israeli aggressions?

Most naive perhaps is the case that some (including officials of the Palestinian Authority) make for one state as a scare tactic to get Israel to be more flexible at the negotiating table for a two-state settlement. This kind of muddled thinking turns the whole matter into something of a pathetic farce, if we recall which of the two parties is threatening to use the tactic and which of the two has the actual means to scare the other.

But there are lessons to be drawn from the South African experience for Palestine. These have to do with the conditions on the ground that finally led to the dismantling of the apartheid system.

First and foremost, there were the popular uprisings, the labor strikes and work stoppages, and the armed struggle pursued by the African National Congress (led by the South African Communist Party) over a period of more than three decades.

Under pressure from these protracted struggles, backed up by an organized labor movement capable of paralyzing the entire economy, the large multinational corporations reached the point where the less costly course was to dissociate themselves from the system of racial discrimination that had previously allowed them to engage in intensive capitalist exploitation and to reap enormous profits from it.

The result was a new current within the white minority that was willing to sacrifice its monopoly on political power in order to preserve its control of the economy, an option eventually embraced by the majority of the white population.

The alternative would have been to follow the example of the European settlers in Algeria in the 1950s, backed by the French army, who had opted for a scorched-earth policy against a native population that rose up in armed revolt. Algeria’s European settlers were forced to uproot themselves and depart the country after Algerian independence.

There is no doubt that campaigns in Europe and North America calling for a cultural boycott and for economic sanctions also played an important role in mobilizing world public opinion against white-minority rule in South Africa and thus contributed to its eventual demise. The Scandinavian countries went as far as recognizing the ANC and providing it with aid (while the British prime minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, branded the ANC a terrorist organization and its leader, Nelson Mandela, a dangerous Marxist).

Last but not least, the apartheid system would not have been defeated were it not for radical changes in the neighboring “front-line states.” As the dominant country in the southern cone of Africa, economically and militarily, South Africa under the white-minority government could for a long time keep threats from neighboring countries at bay. At one point, South Africa had troops garrisoned on the territory of some of these countries and could count on the neutrality of the others by providing them with economic assistance or by threatening them militarily.

The regional balance of forces was finally upended after the national liberation movements in Namibia, Angola, and Mozambique, defeated the old colonialist presence and led these countries to independence. In Angola, the MPLA prevailed in leading the anti-colonial struggle because of a massive Cuban military intervention (1975–1991), and ultimately defeated its rival UNITA in the civil war despite the early military support (until 1991) that the latter received from white-dominated South Africa.

Effective advocacy in support of Palestinian liberation can follow the example of many successful actions of the earlier anti-apartheid struggle. In following the earlier as a model, such actions can include ways to address the “international community” and to prod it to pursue Israeli war criminals, the campaigns for the academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions, and the imposition of economic sanctions and trade embargoes.

Further, towards a historic compromise following the South African example, a “truth and reconciliation commission” can be set up, providing the framework through which an official Israeli recognition of the Nakba and official apology for the historic injustice suffered by the Palestinian people can be issued.

Important as they are, these advocacy actions cannot by themselves decisively turn the tide in favor of Palestinian liberation. The realization of an independent Palestinian state, let alone a single state of any kind, is a long sustained effort that will require a radical change in the balance of forces on the ground, within historic Palestine proper and in the immediately surrounding countries.

A major gap in these comparisons made between the South African case and the Palestinian case is their neglect of what it will take to change conditions in the neighboring Arab “front-line states” and make them provide the necessary means to buttress the long effort to contain and ultimately reverse the Zionist project.

This is precisely the most instructive lesson from the South African experience for Palestinian and Arab activists engaged in the Palestinian struggle. Looking ahead, it is now incumbent on them to critically review the South African experience and collectively draw from it the pertinent lessons for the Palestinian case.

Traboulsi’s article was published before the 2014 war, which saw considerable mobilization in Morocco as well as a hardening of anti-Israel sentiment within Tunisia.

It is worth noting that many of the activists who played crucial roles in the Egyptian insurrection have also been among the organizers who have worked the hardest on the Palestinian issue in the Egyptian context, cutting their teeth on work in support of the Palestinian people during the Second Intifada. Traboulsi’s article perhaps also underplays the incredibly dire straits in Egypt that now make organizing of any kind extremely difficult.