The leading Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, created furor among Israeli officials in January when it published a position paper on its website declaring Israel an apartheid state. “Apartheid is the organizing principle yet recognizing this does not mean giving up. On the contrary, it is a call for change,” the paper states. B’Tselem’s stance recognizes that the temporary terms utilized by the international community lack accuracy. “Prolonged occupation,” for example, does not recognize the colonialism which supports Israel’s military occupation of Palestine.
B’Tselem’s Executive Director Hagai El-Ad published an op-ed in The Guardian on the same day the report was released. The op-ed clarifies that Israel is no democracy, and that apartheid is practiced under a purportedly democratic veneer that has escaped the international community’s criticism. Of the Palestinians, El-Ad writes, “Separated by the different personal statuses allotted to them, and by the many variations of inferiority Israel subjects them to, Palestinians living under Israel’s rule are united by all being unequal.”
For the Palestinians, B’Tselem’s paper states nothing new in terms of facts. The apartheid description for Israel has been advanced by Palestinians who have been living its reality since the 1948 Nakba. What started out as ethnic cleansing was gradually modified to systematic dispossession, exclusion, and an erosion of rights, all supported by the infrastructure and legislation created by Israel to restrict free movement, land appropriation, and denial of political expression.
There is a valid argument in stating that the Palestinian narrative of apartheid was refused an international platform. With the Palestinian Authority’s inconsistency in disseminating the Palestinian political narrative, as well as its collaboration in Israeli human rights violations under the auspices of security coordination, it was left to Palestinian and international solidarity activists to put forth a discussion of Israel as an apartheid state.
A report by ESCWA in 2017 concluded that “Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.”
A report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in 2017 concluded that “Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.” Yet it failed to ignite a new discussion, given that the UN defends Israel’s colonial violence and control by employing the Israeli security narrative in its discourse. At the first public Israeli outcry and allegations of anti-Semitism, which the government levels against any criticism of its colonial and apartheid practices, the UN’s Spokesman Stephane Dujarric promptly countered the report by saying it was published without any consultation and not reflecting the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s viewpoint.
B’Tselem, of course, has not escaped the Israeli state’s scrutiny. In response to the organization’s statement, the Education Ministry announced it will be banning access to Israeli schools for entities that describe Israel as an apartheid state, or level any criticism against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
Already, the Principal of the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa has fallen foul of this directive, after defying the Education Ministry’s ban and hosting a talk for students by El-Ad over Zoom. According to the Ministry, El-Ad’s comments regarding Israel’s violence in the occupied Palestinian territories “stand in stark contrast to the goals of public education . . . and have a detrimental effect on students.”
Just as Israel depends upon its settler population for its presence, it also relies upon education to ensure an ongoing indoctrination of its colonial and apartheid character as purported democracy. B’Tselem’s clear admission that a change in the Israeli narrative is necessary was deemed dangerous enough by Israel to prompt it to take steps that would safeguard the education system from knowledge of realities that would undermine the state’s myths and, in turn, validate Palestinian history and memory.
It could be said, therefore, that B’Tselem’s admission has implications for Israeli society to consider.
Israel has invested in education in terms of selling its narrative through the curriculum.
Israel has invested in education in terms of selling its narrative through the curriculum. Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a leading Israeli academic, published research in 2010 detailing how Israeli education dehumanizes Palestinians through textbooks and describes the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, including massacres such as Deir Yassin, as necessary for the establishment of Israel. In the same year, Elhanan also referred to Israel as an apartheid state controlling Palestinians, while restricting the rights of Jews living in Israel who voice criticism against the state.
The Israeli military is another influential aspect in terms of education and society. Normalizing militarism in Israel is achieved through educational institutions; there is little distinction between the military and society, much in the same manner as the military influences the state. In Israel, there is no state without its military and violence, hence the IDF’s influence and complicity as part of Israel’s social fabric, as Haim Bresheeth Zabner’s recent book, “An Army Like No Other: How the Israeli Forces Made A Nation,” illustrates.
In addition to the impact the Israeli state exerts on the education system, B’Tselem’s apartheid reference comes at a time when the Abraham Accords, under which the Arab states’ normalization of relations with Israel was brokered, have altered the international community’s view of former US President Donald Trump’s policy on Palestine and Israel.
Under US President Joe Biden, normalization is set to continue and the suspension of Israel’s annexation plans remains a looming threat for the Palestinian people. The international community has repeatedly warned that annexation would sound the death knell for the two-state paradigm, despite the impossibility of implementing this facet of international diplomacy.
Under US President Joe Biden, normalization is set to continue and the suspension of Israel’s annexation plans remains a looming threat for the Palestinian people.
Palestinians have advocated for a one-state alternative, in which Palestinians and Israelis would live in a single democratic state with equal rights. However, with the UN insisting there is “no Plan B,” the concept of the one-state has largely been left to Israel. Passively unchecked by the international community—apart from the condemnations that have no political bearing over the human rights violations, the one-state is now defined from an Israeli colonial perspective, through annexation and apartheid practices, which the UN will ignore to promote the normalization of relations with Israel.
El-Ad described the current state of de-facto annexation thus: “We live in a one-state reality. And in this one-state reality, there’s one power – the government of the State of Israel that controls everyone and everything between the River and the Sea.”
B’Tselem has opened up an opportunity for Israelis to ponder apartheid as a derivative of Israel’s colonial inception and presence. Parallel to this challenge to the Israeli state, which it has deemed perilous enough to suppress its dissemination in schools, Palestinians are becoming increasingly politically marginalized.
The Palestinian people have always taken responsibility for their historical and political narratives, but corrupt leadership and international complicity in Israeli colonization has contributed to their deteriorating rights. In addition, Israel has successfully marketed its security narrative to prevent any sanctions or punitive measures for its actions. B’Tselem’s position paper is not ground-breaking from a Palestinian perspective, but Israelis now have a choice to deny or confront the ramifications of the state’s presence and politics in Palestine; including the question of settler culpability in apartheid, should Israel’s politics remain unchallenged from within.