Much of the hysteria surrounding the support of Sydney’s Marrickville Council for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel has focused on the comparison made by the global BDS campaign with the former apartheid system in South Africa.
Pro-Israel politicians and propagandists are quite aware of the power of the comparison. By describing a system where one part of the population has democracy and another doesn’t, it takes away Israel’s claim to legitimacy as a “Jewish democracy”.
In fact, they have even invented a word for those who use the apartheid analogy — “delegitimisers”.
As in the pre-1994 “White” South Africa, democratic rights are held by settlers and their descendants. The Zionist movement, which created Israel, originated in late 19th century Europe. The context was the rise of anti-Semitism.
Christian Europe has a long history of persecuting Jews on the basis of their religion. Anti-Semitism combined this tradition of religious persecution with the racist ideologies that became dominant with the rise a global capitalist economy.
Anti-Semitism held that Jews were a separate race from Europeans. Jews were classified as anyone who was descended from Jews, regardless of their faith.
Zionism embraced this racialised definition of Jewishness. Despite being a secular, political movement, they used a literal interpretation of the Old Testament to claim that Palestine was the ancestral home of all Jews and should become a Jewish nation state.
Zionism would have remained a marginal ideology but for two things. The first was British policy after it conquered Palestine from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire in 1917.
Hoping to create a loyal caste to help perpetuate British rule over the Palestinian Arab population, it declared the country a “national home for the Jews” and began encouraging Zionist immigration.
The second was the rise to power of the virulently anti-Semitic Nazis in Germany and Nazi Germany’s conquest of most of Europe during World War II. This culminated in the murder about 6 million Jewish people.
Many of the traumatised survivors were left convinced that they were indeed a separate race — one that would never be accepted in Europe. A sharp increase in Jewish immigration in Palestine meant that by 1948, a third of the population was Jewish.
In 1948, after Britain abandoned its colony and Palestinians rejected a United Nations partition plan which would have given them just 40% of their country, the Zionists set about conquering their Jewish state.
To create a “Jewish democracy”, they needed a Jewish majority. As early as 1937, David Ben Gurion, who was to become Israel’s first Prime Minister, said: “We must expel Arabs and take their places.”
Ben Gurion and other Zionist leaders unleashed militias of traumatised young men who had grown up in Hitler’s death camps. The result was the Zionist conquest of 78% of Palestine and the violent expulsion of 80% of its non-Jewish population.
This is remembered by Israel as the “War of Independence” and by Palestinians as al-Nakba (the Catastrophe).
Those Palestinians who did not flee were given Israeli citizenship, but were subject to military law until 1966.
Since its violent foundation, Israel has remained a Western outpost in the Middle East. Huge amounts of military aid — averaging US$4 billion a year from the United States — has enabled it to help protect Western domination of the oil-rich Middle East.
This is why its legitimising myth of being an island of “civilised” democracy in a barbarous region is so important to Western imperialism as a whole.
The present contours of Israeli apartheid began to take shape after it conquered the remaining 22% of Palestine in 1967. These newly occupied territories — the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip — were simultaneously integrated into Israel and treated as a separate occupied country.
On the one hand, Jewish Israeli citizens were encouraged to settle in the territories. These illegal settlers have the same rights as other Israeli citizens. They also enjoy cheap housing and a range of government grants.
On the other hand, Palestinians in the same territories, living under military occupation in the West Bank and a crippling economic siege in Gaza, do not have Israeli citizenship —maintaining the Israeli state’s Jewish majority.
Initially, Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza were a major source of cheap labour for Israel. However, the first Palestinian intifada (“uprising”) in the late 1980s led to Israel sourcing cheap labour from further afield — guest workers from South East Asia and, more recently, refugees from Africa.
These migrant workers suffer extreme exploitation, while the Palestinians are increasingly “warehoused” — deliberately excluded from the economy.
It is in this respect that Israeli apartheid is least like its South African counterpart. The reliance of the South African apartheid system on the labour of the politically excluded Black majority was a big factor in its downfall.
The institutionalisation of Israeli apartheid has been greatly facilitated by the “peace process” that began with the 1993 Oslo Accords. This began with a huge compromise by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation when it accepted a “two-state” solution partitioning Palestine.
The initial two-state proposal involved Palestinians getting the 22% of original Palestine that had been occupied since 1967.
However — as revealed by documents leaked to WikiLeaks and Al Jazeera — Israel, an increasingly corrupted Palestinian leadership and the Israeli-allied Western powers conspired to turn the partition plan into the starting point from which the Palestinians were expected to make ever greater concessions.
As negotiations have dragged on, Israeli settlement in the occupied territories has continued — in violation of international law.
Israel has also pushed the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem, the creation of a Palestinian security apparatus subordinate to Israel, and the building of what Israel calls the “separation barrier” and Palestinians call the “Apartheid Wall”.
This wall cuts into the West Bank, dividing Palestinian communities and separating Palestinian farmers from their land. This enables the land to be expropriated by Jewish settlers.
In 2006, the first and only elections were held in the West Bank and Gaza. Disillusioned by the corruption and collaboration of their leadership, Palestinians voted for the more radical coalition led by the Islamic Hamas movement.
However, in 2007 a Western-backed coup overthrew Hamas (again proven by documents obtained by WikiLeaks). However, Hamas retained control of Gaza, which has been hermetically sealed from the outside world by Israel as punishment.
The reality of the Israel/Palestine conflict is a conflict between a state and the politically and economically excluded half of its population.
Apartheid affects the lives of all Palestinians. For the half of the Palestinian population that lives outside Israel’s borders, this is through the racist “law of return”.
Expelled Palestinians and their descendents are denied the right of return, but anyone from anywhere in the world who meets either the religious or racial definition of Jewish can migrate to Israel — and be paid to do so.
The 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza are confined to an open air prison. Israeli policy is to allow in the minimum amount of food to stop people from actually dying from starvation.
Documents obtained by WikiLeaks show that the minimum calorific requirements are meticulously calculated.
Exports are prohibited. So are imports of everything from building materials to materials needed to preserve the territories' archaeological heritage.
Gaza is also regularly bombarded and invaded by the Israeli military. Between late March and mid-April, 11 Palestinian resistance activists and nine civilians were killed. No Israelis have been killed by Palestinians during this period.
During Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” December 2008-January 2009 war on Gaza, 1400 Gaza residents, a third of them children, were killed in three weeks.
The 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank are only marginally better off, confined to shrinking areas surrounded by Jewish settlements, Jewish-only roads and the wall.
At best, they can leave their communities if they are willing to face numerous humiliating checkpoints. To travel even a short distances takes hours, and arbitrary checkpoint closures can make it impossible.
West Bank communities can also be subjected to Gaza-style invasions and blockades at any time. This is now the case in the community of Awarta, apparently as collective punishment for the murder of a settler family by unknown assailants.
Palestinians with Jerusalem residency permits have marginally more rights. But these permits are being increasingly revoked as Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, such as Silwan, are “Judaised”.
Even those Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are second-class citizens with inferior education and employment opportunities than Jewish Israelis.
There are many discriminatory laws. These include the World Zionist Organization-Jewish Agency “Status” Law (1952), the Jewish National Fund Law (1953), and Basic Law: Israel Lands (1960), which reserve the full rights of “nationals” in Israel to the state’s Jewish citizens.
They confer public status on Zionist institutions that work for exclusive Jewish benefit and facilitate confiscation of Palestinian land and its transfer to Jewish ownership.
Israeli citizens carry identity documents that denote whether or not they are Jewish and the Supreme Court has ruled that Israeli communities are allowed to exclude non-Jews.