Book Review: ‘Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide’ by Ben White
Below is a lengthy book review I wrote for Red Banner magazine a few months ago. As the new issue is now out, I think it’s okay to post this online now.
Book Review: Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide by Ben White
Red Banner, Issue 41, September 2010
“Supporters of Israel present Zionism as an ideology of liberation of the Jewish people, but for Palestinians, Zionism, as it has been practiced and as they have experienced it, has been precisely apartheid.”
This pithy quote from Mona Younis opens campaigning journalist Ben White’s debut book and sets the tone for the 130 pages that follow. While this quote expresses a viewpoint that many of us already share – indeed I’m sure many are asking “why should I read another book about Palestine?” – White’s book is a brilliantly succinct and systematic explanation and exposition of Israel’s apartheid system. He traces the roots of the policy and explores in layman’s terms how this system is enforced legally, militarily, economically and ideologically – both in the occupied Palestinian territories and within Israel itself. As White writes, “this book has been written in order to describe clearly and simply what Zionism has meant for the Palestinians, how Israeli apartheid has been implemented and maintained and suggestions for how it can be resisted”. This he achieves, admirably.
Defining apartheid – South Africa and Israel
White begins by quoting the international legal definitions of “the crime of apartheid” – in essence “inhuman acts” such as murder, torture, arbitrary detention, labour exploitation, land-theft and colony construction, social, economic and political exclusion, and denial of basic human rights for the purpose of “establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group [over any other racial group] and systematically oppressing them” (see http://bit.ly/aZ7AE for full legal definitions). Yet while – as we shall see – Israel is guilty of all of these abuses, White points out that the South African and the Israeli systems are not identical. The Zionist state has created its own version of apartheid – a version that many South African veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle regard as being worse than anything experienced in South Africa.
Zionism and the colonisation Palestine
The second section of the book is a brief overview of the events that led up to the creation of Israel as a Zionist colonialist state, first in the territories conquered in 1948 and later in the West Bank and Gaza. This is a history that is no doubt familiar to readers, and one that this review will not go into in any great detail, other than to say that “transfer” (what today we call ethnic cleansing) has always been at the very heart of the Zionist project. As Israel’s future first prime minister and Zionist ideologue David Ben Gurion wrote to his son in 1937, “[Jews] must expel Arabs and take their places”. Also in 1937, when speaking about the possibility of partitioning Palestine, future President Chaim Weizmann said, “we shall expand in the whole country in the course of time, [partition] is only an arrangement for the next 25 to 30 years”. Weizmann also once said that “there is a fundamental difference in quality between Jews and native”.
Any fair reading of history will show that such colonialist and racist sentiments formed the ideological basis of Zionist practices towards the indigenous Palestinian population long before, and after, the creation of the Israeli state in 1948. The forced expulsion of over 700,000 people from their homes in 1947/48 (al Nakba); the conquest of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967 (an Naksa); the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres and the invasion of Lebanon to crush the PLO; the mass murder and collective punishment during the first and second intifadas; and the devastation wrought upon Gaza during “Operation Cast Lead” are all testament to this. However, these are merely the most blatant crimes perpetrated against the Palestinian people. Underpinning all of these attacks is Israel’s own unique system of apartheid, and White masterfully dissects this system into its component parts, illuminates their interconnectedness and concisely unveils the true discriminatory nature, on both sides of the Green Line, of the “only democracy in the Middle East”.
Israeli apartheid deconstructed
After occupying the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel was faced with the problem of desiring the land, but not the Palestinians who lived there. Despite the expulsion of a further 300,000 people at this time, ethnic cleansing of 1947/48 proportions was by this stage diplomatically infeasible in terms of Israel’s international standing – the shadow of the Nazi Holocaust still hung over the “Jewish state” and it could and would not risk alienating the widespread Western sympathy it still enjoyed by engaging in another Nakba. “As a result”, White says, the “fall-back position was to implement an apartheid regime of exclusion and discrimination”, which is “overt and iron-fisted” in the OPT and “less explicit”, but equally insidious, inside Israel where “dispossession [has] been most effective”.
It is in this section of the book that White’s excellence as a writer is most noticeable; he distils and brings clarity to what can often seem like complex and esoteric issues. He begins by examining Israeli land theft (“the main characteristic of Israel’s rule in the OPT”) and colonial settlement building. Using the rhetoric of legal processes and “security concerns”, by the time of the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, Israel had confiscated some two-thirds of the West Bank and one-third of Gaza while East Jerusalem had been illegally annexed. It is a point often ignored that this land theft occurred during the Olso “peace process” years under the allegedly “dovish” Labour Party. It has of course continued apace for the past decade. The corollary to this theft has been the construction of illegal colonial settlements in the OPT. Notwithstanding the Israel “disengagement” from Gaza (which was no such thing) and the re-housing of around 8,000 settlers that were there, the current settler population of the OPT (including East Jerusalem) stands at about 500,000 in 135 state-sanctioned settlements and numerous “unofficial” outposts. Both the number of settlers and settlements continue to grow despite their illegality under international law.
Connecting these colonial zones is a largely segregated road network, the best roads reserved for the exclusive use of Jewish settlers (there are even different coloured number plates for Palestinians and Israelis). In total, these so-called “bypass roads” are over 540km long and occupy over 50 square km of the West Bank. Ostensibly maintained for “security purposes”, like all of Israel’s architecture of occupation, the road system plays an integral role in cementing Israeli apartheid; criss-crossing the West Bank like a deranged spider-web they severely restrict Palestinian freedom of movement, while their construction has seen the destruction of many homes and much agricultural land. As a 2004 Observer article noted, this road network was “creating a Palestinians state of enclaves” while the Guardian remarked that the purpose was the “total separation [of] the two populations”.
Palestinians not only face travel segregation, they also face constriction of movement and routine humiliation under the checkpoint regime. At any given time there are hundreds of Israeli military checkpoints in operation in the West Bank – the vast majority of them internal, that is to say not on the 1967 border. Some are permanent, some are random “flying checkpoints”, while others are literally physical objects dumped on roads. As a result, Palestinians are required to carry Israeli-issued ID cards to travel internally, and need difficult to obtain permits to work in East Jerusalem. Simply getting to work or school is a nightmare for Palestinians, often involving getting up at 4 or 5am to queue at checkpoints where they may or may not be granted passage. I have seen first hand people with legitimate permits being arbitrarily refused passage through checkpoints solely on the basis of the whims of occupation soldiers.
Accompanying the checkpoints is a regime of closure and curfew under which Palestinians can find access to their towns and villages denied, be told that areas are “closed military zones”, or that curfews have been imposed. As with virtually every aspect of the occupation, these practices are justified by Israel’s apologists on the basis of “security”, yet as White observes, between 1994 and 1999 (the “peace process” years), 499 days of closure were imposed by Israel.
White also explores various other aspects of Israel’s apartheid system; the well-documented brutality of the military occupation (over 6,300 killed and 30,000 injured since 2000); water apartheid (“the map of the settlements [looks] like a hydraulic map of the territories”); the ‘Judaisation’ of East Jerusalem; home demolitions (over 24,000 since 1967); and the detention and torture of Palestinian political prisoners of which there are at present over 6,500.
Finally, of course, is probably the most recognisable symbol of colonial supremacism in Palestine – the Apartheid Wall. Despite being declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004, construction continues on the 720km long barrier that features “a 25ft high wall, razor wire, trenches, sniper towers, electrified fences … and buffer zones of up to 100m in width”. The wall steals a further 10% of Palestinians land as it snakes through the West Bank, incorporating various settlements on the ‘Israeli’ side. As its architect stated, “[the government told me] to include as many Israelis inside the fence and leave as many Palestinians outside”. Once again, this egregious construction, is justified on grounds of “security” and we are told it has led to a cessation of suicide attacks within Israel. However the fact that thousands of Palestinians still enter Israel “illegally” every month would suggest that the end of such attacks has been a tactical choice on the part of militant resistance groups.
Ultimately, the wall is a visual representation of the whole process of Israeli apartheid in Palestine; it steals land and resources, it restricts movement; negatively impacts employment and commerce; ghettoises Palestinians into disconnected enclaves reminiscent of South African Bantustans (88% of which are less than 2 square km); and it is a stark and visceral message to Palestinians that they are the underclass and that Israel is the master.
Palestinians in the occupied territories live under a system of overt apartheid, but the 1.2m Palestinian citizens of Israel (over 20% of the population) also endure official and ‘unofficial’ discrimination at the hands of mainstream Israeli-Jewish society – what White calls a “veiled apartheid”. Israel has attempted to portray itself as a liberal democracy in the Western tradition, a bastion of tolerance in an “intolerant” region. However, this veneer becomes transparent if examined in any detail. For example, Israel defines itself as a “Jewish and democratic state. In practice it is a democracy for Zionist Jews only, for – while all citizens can vote – political parties that are “expressly or by implication” anti-Zionist are barred from running in elections. Furthermore, while any Jewish person in the world can become a citizen of Israel under the “Law of Return”, Palestinian refugee families that were expelled after 1948 cannot return to their homeland despite UN-GA Resolution 194 guaranteeing them the “Right of Return”.
These are mere examples, and White explores the many other facets of apartheid that lie under the façade of Israeli democracy, many of them relating to land ownership rights and legal discrimination. White does an excellent job of laying bare the grim reality of life as Palestinian in Israel, and for those interested in this often overlooked aspect of the Palestinian struggle, I would also recommend Susan Nathan’s fine book The Other Side of Israel (Harper, 2006). Unfortunately, since the publication of White’s book, internal discrimination, racism and repression have become even more blatant. For an exploration of this disturbing trend, see my article ‘Israel: A Racist Colonial Society Eating Itself from the Inside’ (http://bit.ly/aRMsvS). With regard to this, White is correct when he concludes that the “open racism faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel is simply a result of the central contradiction inherent in the idea of a ‘Jewish democratic’ state”.
Through his clinical analysis, White shows clearly that far from being some convenient rhetorical construct invented by solidarity activists, Israeli apartheid is a destructive and depressing reality and its ultimate aim is to make life so miserable for Palestinians that they will submit or, preferably, leave. Yet White does not end the book on a negative note; the final section is a message of hope and a call to resist. He provides a list of groups, Palestinian and Israeli, which actively fight apartheid, and suggestions as to what actions internationals can engage in to assist the Palestinian struggle. There is also a comprehensive Frequently Asked Questions section that rebuts the typical canards often vomited forth by apologists for Israeli apartheid.
As someone who has been involved in Palestine solidarity work for almost ten years, I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone with an interest in the subject. Indeed, its brevity, clarity and accessibility make it one of the best books I have ever read about Palestine, whether for a newcomer or a seasoned activist. I don’t believe I am engaging in hyperbole when I say that this book is an important theoretical weapon in the struggle for justice for the Palestinian people. Of course, we have other more practical weapons, yet weapons are redundant if not utilised. We must recall the significant role the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign played in isolating the apartheid regime in South Africa. Today BDS can play a similar role in hastening the fall of Israeli Apartheid. I, along with the author, encourage all those who wish to see Palestinians achieve their full human, civil, political and national rights to get involved in the BDS campaign in Ireland – an effective international non-violent campaign that, incidentally, Israel is now seeking to criminalise.