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Searching for a genuine anti-apartheid struggle in Israel/Palestine

While Palestinians and their leaders historically took their cues from anti-colonial resistance in Vietnam, Cuba and Algeria, their struggle has, over time, become similar to the fight against apartheid in South Africa. With the failure of the Oslo Accords, new, often overlapping approaches have proliferated, leading Ran Greenstein to find out what a genuine anti-apartheid model would look like in our time.

By Ran Greenstein

Palestinians, accompanied by international and Israeli solidarity activists, march to commemorate seven years of popular resistance in the West Bank village of Al Ma’sara, October 25, 2013. The weekly demonstration protests the construction of the Israeli separation wall on village land, which would cut off access to agricultural areas. (Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

How can we define and understand the essence of the struggle against political oppression in Israel/Palestine? On the face of it the answer is simple: the target is the Israeli regime and its practices. But, is there a common principle in whose name the struggle is being waged?

Various ways of defining the issue have been presented historically: as a struggle of the Palestinian national movement for independence and self-determination, a campaign of a colonized population to get rid of foreign rule, a quest for political equality in the face of an apartheid-like regime, a rights-oriented effort to remove legal obstacles and extend the same entitlements and rights to all residents, and so on.

These definitions are not mutually exclusive and may overlap to an extent. They all regard the Israeli regime (and before it the Zionist settlement project) as the main problem. And yet, each identifies the relevant population and draws the boundaries of political inclusion and exclusion somewhat differently. This results in a tension between different conceptualizations and their political implications. Which segments in the population are part of the problem, and which – at least potentially – part of the solution, is a question that remains open. Each definition is not merely theoretical in nature, but implies a strategy of organization and resistance, and could lead to different kinds of political mobilization.

To understand why that is the case, let’s take a look at the South African anti-apartheid struggle. It was guided, in the main, by the 1955 Freedom Charter and its notion that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.” The charter was produced by the Congress of the People, joining four organizations representing respective racial groups. The contradiction between the goal of a unified non-racial country, and a struggle on a racial basis was resolved gradually. The Umkhonto we Sizwe (abbreviated as “MK”) served as the armed wing of the ANC, which formed in 1961 (as part of an initiative between the ANC and the Communist Party) and included black and white commanders and cadres. In 1969 the ANC started accepting members from all groups, and by 1985 all members could assume leadership positions. Despite resistance to such steps on the part of African nationalists (the PAC), Black Consciousness activists, as well as some reluctance among grassroots activists, non-racialism acquired a hegemonic status, playing a major role in the struggle from the 1976 Soweto uprising to the demise of apartheid.

Consequently, the struggle was not defined as racial (pitting a black movement against white people), nor as a national struggle of indigenous people against settlers, but rather as a campaign of all democratic forces against a white supremacist regime. Thus, progressive whites became part of the solution and white people became potential partners in building a new society. Although only a few of them joined the struggle while many stayed on the sidelines, the united white front was shattered. The key role of class discourse – a tribute to the centrality of black workers and their trade unions – helped redefine the campaign as social in nature, open to all those seeking the regime’s demise, regardless of ethnic or racial origins. Dissent from this model was not uncommon, but it never managed to offer a serious challenge to the non-racial paradigm.

Is this ‘ideal type’ model of the anti-apartheid movement valid for the Palestinian struggle?

Historically the answer is clearly “no.” Before and after 1948, the Palestinian political thrust was nationalist and anti-colonial in essence. It was based on the notion of Palestinian-Arab national identity and the definition of Israel as a colonial entity, imposed on Palestinians by imperial powers with the use of force, depriving them of their national rights. Jewish settlers were foreign in origin and – as a group – had no valid claim to the country, which remained Arab in terms of its history, population and the region surrounding it.

Whether settlers had rights as individuals was a matter rarely discussed after 1948. Operating from a position of marginalization, with no consolidated leadership and unified social basis, living in exile and dispersed throughout the region, it was unrealistic to expect Palestinians to be concerned in particular with this question. Their movements, by definition, were restricted to one ethnic-national group, seeking to reclaim its territory from another group. This was a common thread running through the programs of the Arab Nationalists Movement, the PLO, Fatah, the Popular Front, al-Ard and other movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Only towards the end of that period did a debate of a more conceptual nature open up – one that dealt with models of colonialism and strategies to fight it. Two related discussions, regarding the presence of Israeli Jews and models of struggle suitable to the Palestinian case, also emerged.

Interestingly, from today’s perspective, the South African struggle hardly played a role in those days. The preferred models were Algeria, Cuba, and Vietnam, which were seen as successful anti-colonial and anti-imperial liberation struggles. Such analogies, however, were always problematic.

The Cuban campaign was waged from within, mobilizing peasants in support of armed fighters against government forces. The militants came from the outside initially, but their constituency was the majority in the country. In Algeria, the rebel movement was based outside but managed to gain a foothold inside the country and recruit the locals to its campaign. Again, they were the undisputed majority although they had to contend with a substantial minority of settlers backed by overseas French forces. Vietnam was similar to Cuba: the Vietcong was a local group fighting an unpopular government backed by US troops. Working together with forces from across the northern border provided strategic depth and increased the cost to the enemy. Even the anti-apartheid movement, which was directed at that period from across the borders of South Africa, was a re-located local movement, forced temporarily into exile. Once the internal front came alive in the mid-1970s, the focus of struggle shifted back inside the country, away from the exiles and their military campaigns.

The case of Palestine was different. It was not only armed militants and leaders who were in exile but the bulk of their popular constituency. This was not a temporary situation but rather a semi-permanent one, the only case in modern history of people fighting to liberate their country from colonial conquest, forced to operate from beyond its borders. Palestinian strategists usually acknowledged these unique conditions but operated as if these could be overcome with revolutionary rhetoric combined with external support. But reality inexorably asserted itself, and gradually the focus shifted to a conventional anti-colonial struggle against the 1967 occupation, especially after the 1973 October war. This did not mean an automatic change of model; a gap opened between the resilience of the original conceptualization and the practical adaptation of strategy. It was necessitated by the failure of the armed resistance organizations to make inroads into Israeli-controlled territory, and their defeats first in Jordan and then in Lebanon. Their removal to Arab countries away from the Israel/Palestine arena finally doomed the prospects for change directed from outside the country.

During that time, attitudes towards Israeli Jews changed as well. From an initial rejection of those who arrived in the country after 1917, and Ahmad Shuqeiri’s notorious rhetoric, the PLO moved to accept Jews as legitimate, first only if they renounced Zionism and later without ideological preconditions, when the slogan of a ‘secular democratic Palestine’ was raised. This approximated an anti-apartheid model where Israeli Jews were seen as a religious group – not a nationality as they define themselves – within the framework of an Arab Palestine.

By the late mid-1970s the secular democratic state had been relegated to the sidelines, replaced by a focus on gaining independence for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. This implied a straightforward, anti-colonial, anti-occupation, model for part of the country. The bulk of the Palestinian national effort for the next three decades aimed to secure that goal. But despite apparent progress with the First Intifada and the Oslo Accords it has led nowhere. New approaches have been floating around since the failure of the Oslo process became evident, frequently conflating different paradigms (one-state solution with bi-nationalism, for example), with or without explicit recognition of national differences, with or without explicit support for the refugees’ right of return, with or without the removal of settlers from the West Bank.

To what extent do these new approaches approximate a genuine anti-apartheid model? What would such a model look like in our current context?

– It would involve abandoning the notion that Palestine is an Arab country in a political or legal sense (although people should be free to practice their cultural distinctness)

– It would embrace the entire population as a potential constituency, not just those of Palestinian-Arab background (although overcoming the historical dispossession of Palestinians would remain the most crucial political task).

– It would transcend the distinctions between indigenous people and settlers insofar as it implies different entitlements and rights, while at the same time redressing the historical consequences of this distinction).

– It would require a shift from organizing on a ethnic-national basis to mobilizing people on the basis of a social, economic and rights-oriented agenda, regardless of origins. This means recognizing the different structural positions of segments of the population, which may give rise to shifting alliances based on variations in locations, interests, priorities, capacities.

– In other words, it means overcoming boundaries of separation while, at the same time, insisting on the need to fight the legacies of colonial settlement and dispossession in a differentiated manner.

No Palestinian or Israeli movement has adopted such a model quite yet. There is no doubt that Israeli Jews would resist a move in this direction. Radical activists have taken steps towards it, but usually accompanied by a reassertion of the indigenous-settler divide. Thus, the legacy of separate nationalist organizations remains dominant.

The benefits of a full shift to a new paradigm are not obvious. Is it realistic to expect activists to transcend nationalism altogether, given its deeply entrenched position for the last century? This issue requires further reflection.

It may be argued that if we agree on concrete tasks – terminating the occupation, removing obstacles to democracy and political equality, resisting and reversing dispossession – then such conceptual models are of little relevance. This may be true in the short run, but the long-term development of alternative politics requires exploring the implications of different approaches. This means going beyond taken-for-granted categories – Jews and Arabs, Palestinians on this or the other side of the Green line, different Jewish ethnic groups – while recognizing that historical developments have led to the segmentation of the population, with real consequences for organization and consciousness. How exactly this can be done is a matter for ongoing conceptual and political debate.

Ran Greenstein is an Israeli-born associate professor in the sociology department at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

If this isn’t apartheid, then what is it?
What can we learn from the Israel apartheid analogy?

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    1. Tony Riley

      Ran, you’re fooling yourself, but nobody else. The movement against Apartheid in South Africa didn’t hate whites and didn’t practice Apartheid against whites. The Anti-Israeli movement in “Palestine” hates Jews and practices Apartheid against non-Muslims.

      Reply to Comment
      • Matty Groves

        “The Anti-Israeli movement in “Palestine” hates Jews and practices Apartheid against non-Muslims” – Tony Riley

        So you ‘claim’ yet you fail to give any examples or cite any provable facts from independent sources.

        Reply to Comment
        • Tony Riley

          In Gaza, Christians are forced to convert to Islam, and anybody wearing visible signs of their Christianity is attacked. Jews are banned. The Hamas Charter calls for the murder of all Jews.

          Reply to Comment
          • Matty Groves

            You initially claimed that: “The Anti-Israeli movement in “Palestine” hates Jews and practices Apartheid against non-Muslims” – Tony Riley

            Your additional claims (which you again provide no provable facts from independent sources) that “Christians are forced to convert to Islam”, “anybody wearing visible signs of their Christianity is attacked” and “The Hamas Charter calls for the murder of all Jews” have *nothing* to do with your claims of ‘apartheid’.

            I can only assume that you do not understand the definition of ‘apartheid’.

            As for your mention of ‘Jews are banned’ from Gaza, the fact is that the Israel Defense Forces has barred Israelis citizens from entering Palestinian-controlled areas since late 2000 following the outbreak of the second intifada.

            For example: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/idf-mulls-lifting-ban-on-israelis-entering-palestinian-controlled-west-bank-1.302689

            Clearly you cannot provide any substance to support your claims.

            Reply to Comment
          • Tony Riley

            Would it kill you to read a newspaper? Abbas has said that no Jew will be allowed into Palestine after the peace treaty is signed. Many of the 2,000 Christians who remain in Gaza have complained of being attacked in the street for the crime of wearing crucifixes and women are forced to wear Hijabs. In Bethlehem, the Christian population has now shrunk to a small minority in the last 10 years. And I bet you still haven’t read the Hamas Charter.

            Reply to Comment
          • andrew r

            Depends on the paper. Abbas said “no Israeli” – in response to a question about the IDF remaining in Palestine post independence. In any case, removing Israeli nationals from the West Bank is not “Judenrein”. The UN partition plan Israel’s apologists claim was accepted would have prohibited cross migration for Arabs/Jews and taking citizenship in the other state, though both states had to grant citizenship to everyone resident in its territory. When not-anytime-soon finally gets here and the IDF completely pulls out from the West Bank, the most likely scenario is a repeat of Namibia or Zimbabwe where the settlers still disproportionately hold the best land.


            According to several surveys (links in the AJ article), a small minority of Christians blame exclusively religious extremism for their departure from the West Bank, while the rest blame the Israeli occupation (A larger minority cited both factors). The geder hahafrada cutting off the greater Bethlehem region is one facet of the occupation that contributes.


            By the way, the Christian population of Jerusalem has decreased since 1967, and you can’t begin to blame the PA for that one.

            Reply to Comment
          • Matty Groves

            “Abbas has said that no Jew will be allowed into Palestine after the peace treaty is signed”

            Given that a peace treaty has not been signed and the fact that currently many Jews live in Palestine you cannot cite this as an example of ‘apartheid’.

            “Many of the 2,000 Christians who remain in Gaza have complained of being attacked in the street for the crime of wearing crucifixes and women are forced to wear Hijabs” – Tony Riley

            This is not ‘apartheid’.

            “In Bethlehem, the Christian population has now shrunk to a small minority in the last 10 years”

            Again this is not ‘apartheid’.

            I draw your attention back to your original claim, ie: “The Anti-Israeli movement in “Palestine” hates Jews and practices Apartheid against non-Muslims” – Tony Riley

            To date you have failed to cite a single example of “Apartheid against non-Muslims” and you have utterly failed to give any provable facts from independent sources.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      I’ve thought about this before. The conceptual problem is that were the Palestinians to accept the legitimacy of the presence of Jews and of a Jewish collective in Israel they would have a very hard time arguing against the legitimacy of partition and of Jewish sovereignty in areas where Jews are predominant if the majority of the residents of those areas were to demand as much. At best it would almost inevitably spill over into support for a confederation or a two state solution.

      Some people make attempts to thread the needle (Sand, Abunimah and fellow travelers) by clinging on to an axiom that Jews are not a people/nation/whatever and so have no collective rights, but it is very difficult to sustain this position when faced with a cohesive national group (Israeli Jews) that quite apparently thinks otherwise, managed to build a country already and has an incredibly long tradition (historical and religious) of sticking to that opinion. Any ‘common’ struggle based on such a view is not likely to be very common.

      It is also important to point out that the underlying ideological basis according to which common struggle in South Africa was possible, that is communism, is dead and discredited. What made the common struggle possible was a belief in an end goal – communism as a total system – that bridged the divide and bypassed the issues of race. There is nothing on the horizon that could serve this purpose here. More importantly there is no significant international sponsor that would be willing to consistently pour hundreds of millions of dollars into such a project or provide political backing as the Soviet Union did with the SACP/ANC.

      No ‘anti-apartheid’ struggle is really possible here because there is no apartheid here. There are two national groups here that both believe themselves to be indigenous fighting for control of territory. Partition, economic and political, has already taken place (several times actually) and the only thing that is left is a process to permanently formalize it (though both sides are doing a decent job enshrining it informally). Struggling against this is like trying to put Humpty together again with pieces that have long ago been reshaped, reused elsewhere, were never part of Humpty in the first place, or were lost.

      Reply to Comment
      • Aaron Gross

        I think one solution to the conceptual problem you mention is to deny that the Jews are a nation, which is what Palestinian ideology has always done. If the Jews are not a nation, then they have no national right to sovereignty or other political self-determination. The idea here is that only certain kinds of groups – nations – have a “right” to statehood or self-determination. But that’s a weak solution, because even many anti-Zionists concede that the Jews (or at least Israeli Jews) are a nation.

        I think the real conceptual problem is the mirror image of that one. To adopt the anti-apartheid model, Palestinians would have to renounce the so-called rights that they themselves are claiming now. Nationalists like Fatah would have to renounce their supposed national right to a Palestinian nation-state. Islamists like Hamas would have to renounce the right of Muslim sovereignty over the wakf of Palestine (good luck getting them to do that, by the way). So they’d really be burning their bridges: they can’t switch strategy later and say, “We changed our mind, we’re claiming our national right to self-determination or our God-given right to Muslim rule again.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Yep. The ‘anti-apartheid’ model requires a unilateral ethnic disarmament on the part of the Palestinians. Only they have nothing to replace it with that would allow them to continue the ‘struggle’ rather than accepting something very similar to a formalized status quo, which appears to be unacceptable for most Palestinians.

          I think Sari Nusseibeh came to the same conclusion and it led him to propose that the Palestinians insist on an inferior status within Israel for the time being. Basically his solution is for the Palestinians to demand to be Israelis and not just in terms of citizenship. In practice he proposes a solution that would grant the Palestinians legal status within an enlarged Israel while ensuring Jews that they would continue to rule, at least for some transitional period. Basically he proposes that the Palestinians insist on a formal apartheid regime. Eventually this would lead to a single state dominated by the Palestinians, which in Nusseibeh’s mind (or rhetoric anyway) at least would be a democratic state where Jews would be secure.

          The trap for them is that on the way to any of these sorts of solutions the Palestinians would have to effectively disarm themselves ideologically and then gamble/hope/pray that the Jews take the “daring” choice of accepting them as fellow citizens (even inferior ones). I feel that those that believe that the Jews would choose this (and eventual loss of power) rather than seeking to impose partition on the newly docile Palestinian population need to do more research on the underlying ideological goals of Zionism and its modi operandi.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Tomer

      End the Apartheid….by expelling the defeated Jordanians of the 6 day war back to Jordan.
      Problem solved!!

      Reply to Comment
    4. Since self defined Israeli security requires immunity for encroachment into any “Palestinian” area, partition reduces to either bantu clients offering no effective resistance to Israel or full expulsion of the Palestinian population; at least people like Tomer, above, are frank about favoring the latter.

      “National rights” may then be realized for only one side; yet these “rights” can be used to suppress individual rights, within Israel via the Boycott, Nakba and Community Laws, and now the reaction to Bedouin transfer; and within the PA as measures to sustain the Palestinian “people,” which I suspect is often more about keeping one’s privileged place in a restricted economy.

      A confederation with Israeli security hegemony seems the more honest and hopeful frame, if residents had right to court redress on economic issues and, ultimately, wrongs of the State. (Two Palestinian teens were shot last week, one dead, neither an apparent security threat, yet this means nothing to the Israeli security side.) National rights rhetoric leads to individual rights as a real guard action.

      A rule of law frame does not solve the day. A refugee right of return was always a fantasy within Israel proper and dubious even in a growing Oslo Palestinian State. What remains is how to change given coexistence with people one does not like; that is what the law is for. Israel is going to wins its West Bank, leaving a fight over the rule of law and judicial power. If you read what the national rightests say, they have no interest in either, except for Jews. So apartheid is not over peoples but over application of law. Which is how things went in South Africa as well.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Richard Witty

      To end as democracy, and not the imposition of a vanguard elite minority, any solution will require the consent of a super-majority of those residents from river to sea.

      “Struggle” is already the language of a cul-de-sac.

      Therefore a long delay.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Aaron Gross

      I really liked this article, thanks.

      I think this phrase is enough to show that Arabs will not accept an anti-apartheid model: “it means overcoming boundaries of separation.” Think about what that means in a territory with a large population committed to settling the land. Think about what it means in Hebron, for instance, or in Jerusalem. Try selling that to Palestinian Arabs. Good luck.

      Reply to Comment
    7. James Ron

      One of the more interesting reflections of this kind I have seen.

      Reply to Comment
    8. andrew wirth

      This article nicely summarises the complex and competing perspectives on I/P. The final few paragraphs in particular bring into sharp focus key questions that could almost serve as a litmus test: how one answers those questions in some ways distinguishes “Liberal Zionist” two state camp from those who espouse “radical” human rights based solutions which are blind to considerations of national identity. Both camps “agree on concrete tasks – terminating the occupation, removing obstacles to democracy and political equality, resisting and reversing dispossession”. But in answer to the question ” Is it realistic to expect activists to transcend nationalism altogether, given its deeply entrenched position for the last century?” “one staters” presumably would answer yes, while most “Liberal Zionists” assume “no”. The latter seems a sensible position while waiting for the “ongoing conceptual and political debate” to provided viable answers to the important questions Ran has raised.

      Reply to Comment