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Beneath the illusion of a temporary occupation lies apartheid

By claiming that its control over Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is temporary, despite lasting longer than South African Apartheid by any measure, Israel is able to justify a regime that denies one group political and civil rights while privileging another.

By Fady Khoury

Border police officer stands in front of Palestinian as they wait to cross from Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, West Bank, into Jerusalem to attend the Ramadan Friday Prayer in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, July 26, 2013. Photo by: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org

Israeli Border Police officers hold back Palestinians as they wait to cross from Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, West Bank, into Jerusalem. (Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

The so-called temporary nature of Israel’s control over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has for too long served as a justification for not extending them full political and civil rights.

The Oslo peace process entailed a Palestinian acceptance of “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security,” while in return Israel only recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization as “the representative of the Palestinian people.” Israel has never recognized Palestine or the Palestinians’ right to an independent state in the occupied territories. To this day, Israel has never formally recognized the Palestinian people’s right to independence in any internationally binding document.

Beginning in the first half of the 1990s, the Oslo process allowed all parties — including the international community, which has never recognized any Israeli sovereignty beyond the Green Line, including in East Jerusalem — to invest themselves in the idea of formal separation between Israel and the Palestinians. This support, however, never dictated any rigid or substantial limitations on Israeli expansionism in the occupied territories; settlement growth continued unabated even in the post-Oslo period.

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In fact, Oslo facilitated the transfer of many functions that were previously fulfilled by the Israeli occupation’s authorities to the newly established Palestinian Authority — mainly in the civilian management of the Palestinians in the West Bank’s major population centers. Meanwhile, any development in the fields of economy, infrastructure, municipal services, and natural resources are subject to authorization from the Israeli army, which acts as an extension of the Israeli government, and whose considerations exceeded matters of security as mandated by international law.

Today, Israel continues to operate, at least outwardly, with the same political logic it used in the 1990s. The internal balance, however, had changed: sticking to a vague idea of separation, which is neither informed by the Green Line as an agreed-upon border, nor by the notion of full Palestinian independence. According to this view, Israel’s internationally recognized borders are not final, and thus are subject to any future changes that both parties consent to in order to end the conflict.

This view, which subjects everything to future negotiations, allows Israel to continue its expansionist policies in the occupied territories while still maintaining an outward commitment to the Oslo paradigm. The Palestinians also remain committed to the same paradigm, albeit with a different view regarding its core questions, mainly concerning the settlements, East Jerusalem, refugees, and the degree of independence from Israeli intervention and control. The diverging visions on these issues between Israeli and Palestinians are incompatible and do not allow the realization of a mutually agreed upon solution under the Oslo paradigm.

It may be the case that Israel’s commitment to the Oslo paradigm, at least in the international sphere, is insincere, constituting just one strategy in the “management of the conflict” as a means of securing international legitimacy. But even if its commitment is sincere, the diverging and contradictory views vis-à-vis its realization create an insurmountable hurdle and entrench the current state of affairs as an equilibrium — one that cannot be disrupted through peaceful negotiations.

Whatever the truth about Israel’s commitment, this equilibrium, often called the “status quo,” is fairly stable. It allows Israel to maintain the existing state of affairs so long as it serves its interests, and as long as there are no demands that force it to deviate from the status quo or make meaningful concessions.

Palestinian laborers at the Sha’ar Ephraim checkpoint separating the West Bank and Israel, December 22, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Palestinians wait to pass through the Israeli army’s Sha’ar Ephraim checkpoint separating the West Bank and Israel. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

More importantly, the status quo allows Israel to explain and justify the current state of affairs by invoking its provisionally temporal nature. It should be no surprise then that those who reject the classification of Israeli control over Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as apartheid often invoke that element of temporality.

On the one hand, the Green Line acts as a distinguisher that justifies the exclusion of Palestinians residing beyond it from the political and civil rights afforded to those residing within the “legitimate” boundaries of the State of Israel. On the other hand, the formal citizenship status of Israelis who reside beyond these “legitimate” borders in the occupied territories, acts as a legitimate distinguisher to justify the difference in treatment of the local Palestinian population from the settler population.

However, if we examine the entire area that Israel effectively controls, which stretches over the whole territory from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, and subtract the element of temporality, we are left with is an apartheid regime that grants different rights and protections based on the ethnic identities of its residents.

In the West Bank and Gaza, this regime manifests in the two separate legal systems applied to persons based on their ethnicity, to which “citizenship status” acts as a proxy. Within the recognized borders of Israel, it is expressed through an ethno-democratic regime, constituted and maintained through “demographic gerrymandering” and substantial limitations on political mobilization by Palestinian citizens of Israel.

This temporary state of affairs allows Israel to simultaneously deny Palestinian independence and justify the privileging of the Jewish population in each and every one of the sub-territories under its effective control. However, if one considers that the South African Apartheid regime lasted for 43 years (from 1948 to 1991), it becomes clear that the so called temporary nature of the apartheid regime to which all Palestinians are subject has become permanent, having been in place in one form or another from 1948 to this day.

If facts on the ground, created by Israel, led President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — without extending a similar recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine — then perhaps it is time to inform our vision of the future with the full set of facts on the ground. Maybe it’s time to transform the paradigm from one of dividing the indivisible space to one were we, Palestinians and Jews, share it equally.

Fady Khoury is a human rights lawyer and a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School.


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    1. JitKunDo

      “The Palestinians also remain committed to the same paradigm, albeit with a different view regarding its core questions, mainly concerning the settlements, East Jerusalem, refugees, and the degree of independence from Israeli intervention and control. The diverging visions on these issues between Israeli and Palestinians are incompatible and do not allow the realization of a mutually agreed upon solution under the Oslo paradigm.”

      It sounds like the Palestinians are the ones that are getting the short end of the stick. One would feel pity or sympathy for them if it wasn’t for the fact that they doggedly insist on the continuation of the current situation. If the Palestinians wish to have a different outcome perhaps they should start by reconsidering their positions on the core questions. Otherwise I can only conclude that they are perfectly fine with the status quo if it means that they can continue to maintain the illusion that they will eventually overcome and destroy the State of Israel. The idea of “a shared state” is just one more example of the Palestinian insistence on the elimination of Israel repackaged and resold under a different packaging. Given that the two sides can’t agree on the core issues within the framework of having a state each, the idea of any possible viable agreement to share a state is laughable. It is just another repackaging of the age-old Palestinian demand to eliminate the Jewish state and replace it with a Palestinian Arab Muslim country.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @JitKunDo: If you’ve been paying attention you may have noticed that the word “apartheid” is starting to creep into the mainstream American media when discussions of Israel come up.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “…they should start by reconsidering their positions on the core questions…”

        This is just more sneakiness and prevaricating and euphemism-cloaking. Israel never does anything honest when it comes to the occupation. It sneaks around in the middle of the night like the thief it knows it is. The behavior doesn’t lie. As Fady Khoury convincingly argues, the end result, the state of affairs produced by this behavior, is apartheid.

        Reply to Comment
        • JitKunDo

          The end result will be the Palestinians accepting the idea that they can’t destroy the Jewish state and that they will need to be its good neighbors. No other option is really available. The only reason why the Palestinians don’t have a state right now is because they still can’t bring themselves to accept the idea that they have permanently failed to destroy Israel. It is hard for anyone to accept failure, but facts are facts and the Palestinians lost this war. They can rescue the situation by accepting changing their positions on core issues or they can continue to stew in their juices. In the meantime we are going to do whatever we need to do in order to ensure our security and to improve our negotiating positions going forward.

          The Palestinians can go around and scream “apartheid” until they are blue in the face. The only thing they are going to get out of that is more pressure on them to accept what Israel is offering. They can declare that it is a “humanitarian catastrophe” or anything else and the only thing they will get is pressure to accept what Israel is offering. They can resort to violence and still they will just get more pressure to accept what Israel is offering. The game is over. They lost.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            No one believes the “security” ruse. No one has believed it for a long, long time now. As a hypothesis it does not have even minimal face validity. No one thinks you are offering anything but surrender. The Palestinians have nothing left to give. No one doubts either that you will entertain these self serving delusions of yours until reality forces you to give them up. Cults and organized crime outfits are like that. The South Africans went through the same process. Yes, it is apartheid. You are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts.

            Reply to Comment
          • Mark

            Apart from the international community, it’s not helpful that there is not a single party advocating such a solution. Just as well elections are so infrequent.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Reality Check

      Sadly the writer is correct in stating there will be no paradigm shift on the Palestinian side. Over the past century they have made three fatal errors:
      1. They started a civil war.
      2. They lost the war.
      3. Given their belief system regarding their inherent superiority over the Kufar, and particularly the Jews, they could not live with the shame of defeat and convinced themselves of delusional victories. As victors they believed they could dictate terms to the inferior Jews and when the Jews refuse to accept their dictates they revert to 1 and repeat the process.
      Trump’s declaration, termed by some “Second Balfour Declaration”, serves to force them to recognize reality, even for just a moment, and hence the hysteria which might sadly push them into another round of the exact same paradigm.
      Time has come for that paradigm change for their own benefit.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben\

        This flies in the face of actual reality, Reality Check. I can as easily rewrite this to adumbrate the mistakes of “the Jews” as you put it:

        1. They had at least a 50% hand in provoking war.

        2. They won decisively one phase of an ongoing war and insist that that be recognized as the end of the war but in plain reality it’s not. That’s what the conflict is about, and if the war were truly over “the Jews” would have no trouble simply declaring it and annexing all the territories, river to sea, but they haven’t and that tells you what is the actual reality; so delusions of total victory notwithstanding, they still have a huge problem to solve, by reaching out to the other side, which has evolved, instead of remaining stuck and unevolved as “the Jews” are in their maximalist nationalistic land grab phase.

        3. Given their belief system regarding their inherent superiority they insist now on their patented brand of ‘victor’s justice’ and when the Palestinians refuse to accept their dictates, and because “the Jews” know that the rest of the world won’t go along with rapid ethnic cleansing, “the Jews” resort to “managing” this impasse by dragging out a belligerent, cruel occupation for 50 years, aka an attempt at slow ethnic cleansing and colonizing, flagrantly violating the GC IV, doing nothing honestly and everything deviously and in bad faith.
        Trump’s so-called declaration is an incoherent, empty departure from 60 years of US policy, driven by the most cynical and selfish domestic political considerations, and in denial of the obvious reality on the ground in East Jerusalem, and was just bluntly spurned by the adults in the room, the Europeans. Said declaration only serves to help the Israelis avoid reality, even for just a moment, and hence the overconfidence which might sadly push them into another round of the exact same paradigm.
        Time has come for that paradigm change for their own benefit and everyone else’s.

        Reply to Comment
    3. jannie

      And if it is apartheid – so what? Look what’s happened to South Africa since 1991. Do Jews want this for Israel?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        The funny part about this callousness and this coming clean by ‘Jannie,’ is that for years now the right wing has remonstrated:

        “It’s not apartheid! We are not anything like South Africa! There is no apartheid but South African Apartheid! We are totally different!”

        Now, when the jig is up, and it’s impossible to deny that it is apartheid, then what does the right wing do:

        “So what? It’s apartheid. Look at South Africa!! We are exactly like South Africa!! That is what we must and will become!! Aaaaauuughh!!!”

        Too funny.

        Reply to Comment