Palestine: From accord to Apartheid
A large sign over an alleyway in the conservative Jewish neighbourhood of Mea Shearim in inner Jerusalem beseeches entrants to the area, in bold Hebrew and English, to refrain from immodest attire or other practices that might offend residents’ Orthodox precepts. Two large Palestinian flags have been painted on the stone walls on either side of the notice. The images are a silent but unignorable reminder of the existence of an indigenous population whom many of Mea Shearim’s locals and other citizens of Israel will go their whole lives without encountering.
Less than two kilometres away, in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, an elderly Palestinian woman has just been issued with an official Israeli order to demolish the home she was born into in 1952 in order to make way for Jewish settlers. Though her family has lived in the area since before Israel itself was founded, their 25-year battle with the authorities has been quashed by a court ruling, on the pretext that the site was Jewish property prior to 1948. ‘We will not leave, no matter what happens,’ she insists, ‘this home is our whole life, with all our memories.’ Nonetheless, her house is likely to join the some 1,000 structures destroyed each year in East Jerusalem and the West Bank for these purposes – part of a population transfer by the Israeli state that UN special rapporteurs recently branded an illegal and ‘deliberate intention to colonize the territory it occupies.’
These quotidian events in the contested capital point to the inherent contradictions, historical revisions and material force that have underpinned the state of Israel in its efforts to subjugate – or altogether eliminate – the Palestinian people since its foundation in 1948. Across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), these efforts are appearing in ever more stark and violent forms which a growing number of voices are branding apartheid. The outset of 2023 marked the bloodiest start to a year in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in two decades, with over 150 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, including more than 20 minors. As Israel commemorates the 75th anniversary of its declaration of independence, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heralding the ‘miracles’ of its modern history to a divided nation, the fissures in Israeli statehood look increasing difficult to mask.
Narrating a nation
The renowned Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said once wrote: ‘history is written by those who win and those who dominate’. But much of the national history Netanyahu sought to evoke in his 75th anniversary speech is characterised by erasures.
Such sabotaging of history has been a feature of Israeli political and ideological discourse since its outset – but has been put on steroids following the formation in late 2022 of what has been deemed the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu.
The months since have seen repeated public claims that, as Israel’s notorious new finance minister Bezalel Smotrich put it: ‘there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people’. As Israeli authorities step up their efforts to control the region’s history – including blocking access to official archives – Palestinians struggle to keep alive their own story and identity that has weathered a century of attacks. Its defining moment is the Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, of 1948: the years 1947 to 1949 saw over 750,000 Palestinians – three-quarters of the population – driven from their homes by Zionist militias and the new Israeli army during the state’s establishment. More than 500 villages were destroyed and some 15,000 Palestinians killed, including brutal massacres like that of Deir Yassin.
The genesis of catastrophe
The roots of Palestinian displacement extend back to the inception of the Zionist mission: the project of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It was, after all, far beyond the shores of Palestine – purportedly with a British clergyman in the mid-1800s – that the notion of ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ originated, developing into a mantra of Zionism over the following century.
By the late 1800s, the population of so-called historic Palestine – the area now encompassing modern-day Israel, the West Bank and Gaza – was estimated by its Ottoman rulers at around 47,000. This comprised approximately 87 per cent Muslims, 9 per cent Christians and 3 per cent Palestinian Jews, alongside a small number of foreign-born Jewish immigrants.
It is commonly recounted that delegates of the 1897 Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland were dispatched to Palestine, sending a cable back reporting: ‘the bride is beautiful but she is married to another man’. Nonetheless, two decades later, a letter from Britain’s then foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour to a figurehead of the British Jewish community – the 1917 ‘Balfour Declaration’– pledged Britain’s support for the establishment of ‘a national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine.
Authored in the final years of World War One, the statement included the terms of Britain’s post-war rule in Palestine under the colonial mandate system set up by the Allied Powers. The declaration marked the beginning of Britain’s efforts to facilitate immigration to Palestine by European Jews, against warnings by leading Palestinian and Arab intellectuals. Their fears grew, culminating in the 1936 launch of a large-scale uprising against the British. This ‘Arab Revolt’ endured for three years before it was quashed by colonial forces. 2,000 Palestinian homes were destroyed, 9,000 interned in camps and 200 Palestinian nationalist leaders deported.
A deepening displacement
Britain’s subsequent efforts to temper Jewish immigration during the years of the Holocaust were met with hostility – including paramilitary attacks – by Zionist armed forces. Depleted by the war, Britain in 1947 announced that Palestine would be handed over to the United Nations. Later that year, the body adopted a resolution recommending division into Jewish and Arab states, with 56 per cent allocated to the former.
The proposal was rejected outright by Palestinians, while Zionist leaders, on the face of things, accepted the plan. But intentions were different. As Israel’s soon-to-be first Prime Minister Ben Gurion told the Zionist executive, ‘after the formation of a large army in the wake of the establishment of the state, we will abolish partition and expand to the whole of Palestine.’ The demographic realities that stood in the way of this aim gave rise to the Zionist tactics of forced mass expulsion and ethnic cleansing that came to define the Nakba. Nor did Israel’s 1948 declaration of statehood bring an end to atrocities. The invasion of armies from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq led to a conflict that endured into 1949, when warring parties eventually signed an Armistice agreement, dividing territories between Israel and the Egyptian-occupied Gaza Strip and Jordanian-annexed West Bank: creating the so-called ‘Green Line’.
The catastrophic losses of the Nakba were compounded in 1967 during the Six Day War, known among Palestinians as the ‘Naksa’, or setback. Sparked by residual hostilities between Israel and Egypt’s pan-Arab nationalist leadership, within a week Israeli forces captured and occupied the remaining Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, as well as the Syrian Golan Heights. A further 400,000 Palestinians were made refugees, many for a second time.
The memory of these violations was carried with the displaced – to camps in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Syria and beyond, and by those within Israel and the occupied territories who were prevented from returning to their villages. Today, the global Palestinian population is estimated at 14 million, around 6.4 million of whom are registered as refugees. Their conviction in their right to return is symbolized in the keys to lost homes that so many Palestinian families have inherited.
Resistance to rapprochement
‘Welcome to the Qalandiya Crossing,’ declares the concrete façade of the massive terminal at Israel’s main checkpoint leading to Jerusalem from the West Bank. It is the final hour before sunset will end the Ramadan fast, and many of the some 9,000 Palestinians who cross daily are hurrying amid pelting rain. They queue to pass through remote-controlled metal turnstiles, halted erratically by adolescent Israeli soldiers who bark orders over the intercom from glass booths, before scanning biometric IDs and then filing up a labyrinthine series of ramps and staircases.
Infamous for its degrading conditions and frequent demonstrations, Palestinians must cross the Qalandiya checkpoint to enter Israel for purposes of work, study, medical treatment or otherwise. Israel’s convoluted permit system obliges Palestinians to seek approval to move between parts of the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and Israel for any of more than 100 reasons. However around half a million Palestinians are blacklisted by the Israeli authorities: altogether banned from leaving the occupied West Bank or Gaza.
Qalandiya is the largest of 593 roadblocks and checkpoints scattered throughout the West Bank, punctuating the 70 km of Israel’s so-called ‘Separation Barrier’. Constructed from 2002, during the Second Intifada, the wall was purportedly intended to prevent Palestinians without permits from entering Israel. Around 85 per cent of its course deviates from the Green Line, penetrating into the West Bank where it severs and sometimes altogether encloses Palestinian villages and lands.
Looking on at the architectural spectacle of control that is Qalandiya, it is hard not to recall the words of Yasser Arafat, the former leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and first President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), half a century ago. Three years into the expanded Israeli occupation, in 1970, Arafat made it clear that Palestinians would not limit their struggle to a return to 1967 borders, declaring: ‘Our basic aim is to liberate the land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River… The Palestinian revolution’s basic concern is the uprooting of the Zionist entity from our land and liberating it.’
This characterises the spirit of Palestinian resistance that unfolded during the first two decades of occupation, culminating in the First Intifada, or ‘uprising’, from 1987.
Subject to wide-ranging mechanisms of control – checkpoints, curfews, housing demolitions, restrictions on agriculture and commerce, arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention for minor acts of subversion – the lives of the Palestinians living under Israeli military control in the OPT were pervaded at all levels by the occupation. They had become second-class citizens, looking on as growing numbers of Israeli settlers (64,000 by 1988) moved freely, often armed, on their lands. Widespread indignation began to express itself through organized and spontaneous acts of mass defiance. ‘It became more clear to me,’ says Gaza-born activist Naila Ayesh, whose childhood home had been demolished by the Israeli army in 1969: ‘the occupation would not end if we were submissive and stayed at home.’
Ending an intifada
Unlike the resistance from abroad by leaders like Arafat, who had founded the PLO and paramilitary organization Fatah, this intifada was more organic. Sparked by the 1987 killing of four Palestinians in a collision with an Israeli military lorry, it drew in all facets of Palestinian society across the OPT, under new local organisations. The uprising’s unified demands centred on the right of return and self-determination through the building of an independent Palestinian state, with strategies ranging from non-violent demonstrations, mass boycotts and strikes to the iconic stone-throwing and attacks with Molotov cocktails and firearms. Despite the disproportionate violence of Israel’s ‘Iron Fist’ policy response and threats that the more Palestinians resisted the more they would suffer, it was an optimistic struggle.
But amid the uncontainable local momentum and emergence of more extreme armed tactics, the exiled Palestinian leadership was drawn down a more pragmatic path. In 1988, at the US’s behest, Arafat won their backing for a decision to recognise Israel’s right to exist, accept UN resolutions dating back to 1947 and adopt the principle of a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as Palestinian capital. Arafat reiterated this position in a speech to the UN: renouncing terrorism and calling for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories and joint negotiations. This catalyzed the process that culminated in the Oslo Accords, with the iconic handshake between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in 1993.
Under the agreements, Israel accepted the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians, and the PLO, under Arafat’s leadership, recognised Israel’s right to exist. An interim Palestinian self-government would be established to oversee the West Bank and Gaza Strip over a five-year period, after which permanent status talks would be held on issues of borders, refugees and East Jerusalem. But many issues were left unaddressed, including the nature of the post-Oslo Palestinian self-government’s responsibilities, the status of Palestinians living inside Israel and settlement-building in the OPT.
The accords marked the end of the First Intifada, whose bloody toll had reached 160 Israelis and 1,200 Palestinians, around a quarter of them children. (A later investigation revealed that the bodies of these so-called Palestinian ‘martyrs’ – typically young men – were often returned with their organs missing, harvested by Israeli medical establishments.)
As such, many received Oslo with a spirit of genuine hope. But other commentators, including Said, were scathing, insisting that the deal signified only ‘perpetual subservience to Israel’. Rather, they said, any semblance of parity was illusory: the accords represented a mere meeting of the maximum the oppressor was willing to concede with the minimum the oppressed was willing to accept.
Occupation after Oslo
An owner of a textile stall in the ancient bazaar of Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, shakes his head as he tells me: ‘we have two governments here now – one wants land and one wants money’. He is referring to the Israeli forces who control the majority of the West Bank and the PA, who many have come to see as a mere handmaiden to the occupation.
Before the First Intifada, he tells me, 70 busloads would come to the city daily, tourists from all over the world visiting one of the most sacred sites of the three Abrahamic faiths: the Ibrahimi mosque. Now, he and fellow traders spend their days sitting smoking shisha, scarcely seeing a passer-by.
This is unsurprising given the fortress the UNESCO-listed old city’s marketplace has become: guarded at either end by Israeli-policed turnstiles and shielded overhead with mesh to keep out the stones, bags of urine and other refuse rained on its Palestinian occupants by its 800-odd Israeli settlers.
The only West Bank town with settlers living inside the city centre, Hebron reflects the sharpest end of the occupation: a living template for apartheid. In 1994, following a massacre by an Israeli-American extremist who opened fire on Muslim worshippers at the Ibrahimi mosque, killing 29, Israel seized control of parts of the city centre. Hebron was divided into two zones: one under the control of the PA (H1), and the area encompassing most of the old town which was expropriated by the Israeli military (H2), for the purposes of safeguarding the growing settler population.
34,000 Palestinians living in H2 now find themselves subject to a system of legal and physical segregation. Their movement is controlled by more than 21 Israeli checkpoints, patrolled by curfews and CCTV, while their main streets have been annexed as settler-only zones, their commerce strangled by enforced closures. Violent assaults by settlers and Israeli soldiers are routine.
Most families originally living here have left, their existence having become socially, economically and physically unviable. Those who have remained subsist largely on foreign aid. ‘This is their strategy: they don’t evict you directly from your house, but they make it impossible to stay,’ says local human rights activist Issa Amro, sitting on the balcony of his home and base of the Youth Against Settlements group on a hilltop in H2. ‘They cut off access to services – you cannot get an electrician or even an ambulance. Most of all, they cut off your social life.’
Amro has just returned from giving testimony to the UN Commission of Inquiry on the OPT and Israel, in Geneva. We look down at the deserted H2 main street where in February Amro was violently assaulted by an Israeli soldier while escorting a prominent American journalist around the city. The attack was filmed and received more than seven million views. ‘What happened to me is the case of every Palestinian now,’ he says. ‘They beat you up, they shoot you, they arrest and detain you, they harass you – with no response from anybody.’
He gestures toward a hill on the outskirts of Hebron: a small settlement complex, home to Israel’s far-right security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir – who Amro jokes is boosting his public profile by regularly denouncing him on Twitter. The expansive neighbouring settlement, Kiryat Arba, is one of the largest and oldest in the OPT. Established in 1969, it is, like all Israeli settlements in the West Bank, considered illegal under international law – specifically, the fourth Geneva Convention which states that ‘the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies’.
Settlements are nonetheless sustained through legal authorization and infrastructural support from Israel, which holds full administrative control over the majority of the West Bank – territory known as ‘Area C’. Under the Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided into three zones: 18 per cent of the territory was designated Area A, where the PA administers civil and security matters; 22 per cent comprised Area B, where the PA has only civil responsibility; and the remaining 60 per cent Area C, under full Israeli control. The latter is home to an estimated 180,000-300,000 Palestinians and more than 325,500 settlers. These ‘facts on the ground’, as former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon described them, testify more powerfully to Israel’s plans than any purported peace process.
Israeli historian Ilan Pappé describes the Oslo Accords as a ‘geography of disaster’: a mechanism enabling Israel to expand its reach further into historic Palestine while partitioning Palestinians into enclaves. He argues that they acted as the extension of an unfinished project of ethnic cleansing.
A state of delusion
Those in Hebron have long been aware of the mirage of the so-called ‘peace process’. ‘Where is the two-state solution?’ says Amro. ‘It exists only on paper – or only online!’ The untampered extremism of current Israeli discourse and policy has only confirmed to many that the project of ethnic cleansing remains alive in the Israeli mainstream. ‘We’ve gone backwards to the 1960s,’ says Amro: ‘when Gurion was saying “who are the Palestinians?”, but now with more settlements, more walls, more violations – and more knowledge in the world about what is going on.’
Meanwhile, the model of apartheid and collective punishment in force in Hebron is being reproduced across other parts of the OPT and inside Israeli borders, as underscored by recent deadly raids on refugee camps in the northern West Bank town of Jenin. Amro recounts a recent phonecall with a friend in the town of Huwara – a site Smotrich recently claimed should be ‘wiped out’ from the map. ‘The first thing they said they needed for donations there was strong doors and bars for their windows,’ he says, gesturing to the fortifications on his own home. ‘We did this a long time ago.’
Increasingly, Palestinians can be heard lamenting the corruption and oppression of their own government too. ‘The PA smears activists, suppresses non-violent activity, and threatens families not to work with us,’ says Amro, who has been repeatedly detained for his vocal opposition to the occupation and PA repression, noting that the authority has not held elections since 2006. ‘They are a sub-contractor of the occupation, protected by Israel, and supported by the EU and US on the grounds of how well they serve Israel.’
Amro’s own brother lives in the Ukrainian frontline city of Kharkiv. While the international community rushes to support the right of Ukrainians to self-defence, including through military aid, Amro points out that here in Palestine, it is the offender who receives unqualified foreign backing. ‘Violent resistance is not allowed, BDS is not allowed and non-violent resistance is not allowed,’ he says. ‘When Palestinians try to defend themselves, they are always terrorists.’
An architecture of supremacy
It’s a warm March morning and the streets outside the Israeli parliament (or Knesset) in Jerusalem are a sea of thousands of blue and white flags. The almost carnivalesque atmosphere of the demonstration, one of dozens unfolding across Israel, belies the gravity of the subject of the protests: a series of judicial and other reforms by Netanyahu’s government that many liken to a descent into fascism itself.
‘We are now facing a government so far to the right they have lost the plot as far as democracy is concerned,’ a former Israeli ambassador tells me in the crowd. ‘This is a government of extreme rightists that has no policy of appeasement or rapprochement with the Palestinians, which is crucial for both our future and the Palestinians.’
The concern for justice here, however, seems largely domestic. As one young woman wearing a ‘Democracy for All’ t-shirt explains when I note the total absence of Palestinian flags: ‘It is easy to ignore issues of human rights violations until they arrive at your door.’
It is a hard truth that a small number of Israelis are willing to speak. A placard being held up by an Israeli-American woman with a hand-drawn Palestinian flag declares: ‘We were blind to the occupation and we got dictatorship.’ A member of a small activist group called Looking the Occupation in the Eye, she points to the Netanyahu government’s mooted plans to annex parts of the West Bank as part of a deal with far-right coalition members. ‘This is only possible with apartheid,’ she says. ‘It is all interconnected – the occupation is the basis of our loss of democracy.’
She says minority views like her own are gradually spreading among Israelis. ‘The only way we can become a majority is for Jews and Arabs to work together with a message connecting the occupation with the dictatorship we are heading to,’ she says.
It is a view that is echoed by voices from Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem. ‘You cannot oppress another people and expect to get away with it,’ Roy Yellin, its outreach director, tells me. ‘In order to extend and perpetuate its colonial project, Israel has to shrink own liberal space. People are not worried about Palestinian rights – they are afraid of their own rights being deprived in order to make Israel’s project logical in the long-run.’
In 2021, B’Tselem released a report documenting the Israeli state’s apartheid practices, one of the most critical accounts of this system to date – although a series of major international human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have since defined the Israeli regime in these terms.
‘Palestinians claimed it was apartheid for years before, but we in Israel looked the other way,’ says Yellin, detailing the shifts which led B’Tselem too to call it out. ‘B’Tselem’s contribution was to state that there is one regime between the Mediterranean and Jordan River: a regime of Jewish supremacy.’
Their conclusion identified four key methods deployed to advance Jewish dominion over Palestinians. The first is immigration. Where Jewish people anywhere in the world are permitted to immigrate to Israel and receive Israeli citizenship, the legal status of non-Jews in Israel gives them no such right for family members to join them. Indeed, the majority of Palestinians, in exile and within the OPT, never have their right to reside in or even visit their ancestral homeland recognized.
The second strategy centres on taking over, or ‘Judaizing’, the land itself. ‘It is a situation of constant violence and the aim is very clear,’ says Yellin. ‘Keep taking land from Palestinians and giving it to Jews.’ Seeded before 1948, this strategy has continued under occupation through the expansion of settlements and annexation of nominally sovereign Palestinian territory, and other practices that give Jewish citizens priority access to land. International law defines occupation as a temporary circumstance and therefore forbids the transfer of another population into occupied territory. But as Yellin points out, there is nothing more permanent than building a village and making your home in land belonging to someone else.
The third pillar of Israeli apartheid is reflected in the restrictions on freedom of movement that strictly curtail the local and international mobility of all but Israeli-passport-holding Palestinians.
Finally, B’Tselem identifies Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights of political participation in the system that governs their lives. Like Jews, Palestinian citizens of Israel have, formally, the right to vote, run for office and serve on the judiciary. Nonetheless, they too are disenfranchised.
Not only are Arab citizens of Israel subject to racism and public vilification, their status as citizens masks a more systemic oppression. In 2019, a firm with links to Netanyahu’s Likud party deployed hidden cameras in Arab polling stations for voter suppression. Arab Israelis’ freedom of expression is severely limited, with laws against boycott calls and even the commemoration of the Nakba; in the OPT the regime is stricter still, with almost any political statement putting Palestinians at risk of being hauled before Israeli military courts. In annexed East Jerusalem, residents are only able to vote in municipal elections – Israel has also placed barriers to their participation in elections to the PA. The millions of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories get no vote whatsoever over Israel’s government, despite its hegemony over almost every aspect of their lives.
This political disenfranchisement comes alongside socioeconomic inequalities and discrimination. Half of the poorest families in Israel are Arab. As Yellin notes: ‘In denying apartheid, Israel says: “we have Arab judges, we don’t have separate benches for Palestinians, and Arab Israelis can travel freely”; but Israel is just giving more rights to a Palestinian fraction then using them as a tool to deny rights in the West Bank and Gaza.’
Israel’s current authoritarian turn, as Yellin sees it, is the inevitable consequence of its efforts to enshrine Jewish supremacy. ‘The undemocratic tools that are part and parcel of controlling Palestinians will also now become part and parcel of controlling Israeli Jews.’
Up against apartheid
It is today’s young Palestinians whose lives have been shaped most powerfully by the constraint, brutality and degradation of these forces. They have no memory of the fleeting optimism of the First Intifada or fledgling peace process. They have grown up witnessing the unrestrained bloodshed of multiple wars on Gaza, demolitions of homes and lands, violent raids on their holiest sites, corrupt governance by their own leaders and everyday brutality. For many in the West Bank and Gaza, the only Israeli they encounter will be a soldier or settler. The frustration and disillusion of these experiences is now coalescing in small-scale acts of violent defiance that many commentators are speculating are the seeds of a third intifada.
It is these young Palestinians who embody an enduring spirit of agency and resistance. Alongside spontaneous acts of defiance, these energies are fuelling widespread youth organization on local levels, within the limits of Israeli force and territorial fragmentation. This power is perhaps best reflected in the words of Ahed Tamimi, the teenager from Hebron who became an international icon in late 2017 after a video of her slapping an Israeli soldier went viral.
As she told journalists at the time: ‘I’m not the victim of the occupation. The Jew or the settler child who carries a rifle at the age of 15, they are the victims of the occupation. For me, I am capable of distinguishing between right and wrong… I am a freedom fighter.’
Action and INFO
- B’Tselem: Israeli human-rights organization documenting apartheid, settlements and other violations
- Al-Haq: Palestinian human-rights organization, publishing news, statistics and testimonials.
- Amnesty International: ‘Report on Israel’s Apartheid against Palestinians’
- Human Rights Watch: ‘A Threshold Crossed’ – report on apartheid
- Settlement Watch – Peace Now
- Al-Shabaka – The Palestinian Policy Network: News, podcast and policy analysis
- Who Profits – The Israeli Occupation Industry Research on private sector contributions to Israeli occupation
- Boycott Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) Movement: Boycott targets and strategies bdsmovement.net
- Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT): UK campaign against and report on arms sales to Israel
- Stop the Wall Campaign: Grassroots campaign against apartheid
- Palestine Solidarity Campaign UK Information on UK and global solidarity campaigns
- US Campaign for Palestinian Rights: Resources and campaigns for US-based Palestinian solidarity
- Visit Palestine! See for yourself and spread the word.