The following article I wrote was printed in The Chicago Maroon on March
2, 2001.

Ali Abunimah


The Chicago Maroon
March 2, 2001

Apartheid and Israel: similarities

Ali Abunimah

Can observers of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict learn from the
experience of apartheid-era South Africa and its transition to
democracy? Does a nascent student movement for divestment from Israel
indicate that Israel's policies towards Palestinians may be the next
target for activism inspired by that which helped end apartheid?

There are many similarities between the Israeli and South African
cases which make the comparison compelling.

Israel, like apartheid-era South Africa, grants rights to individuals based not on their
citizenship, but rather on their membership in a specific ethnic
group. Israel classifies people at birth according to their ethnicity,
and their rights and responsibilities towards the state vary based on
this classification. In apartheid-era South Africa, only whites had
full rights. In Israel, Palestinian citizens enjoy some rights, such
as the ability to vote and be elected, but only Jews have full rights
allowing them to obtain land, to receive the benefits of military
veteran status and to benefit from the "Law of Return."

There are similarities between the ideologies of Afrikanerdom and
Zionism, which portray the ruling groups in each case as an outcast
people who, escaping oppression, found freedom in a promised land. The
resistance of indigenous peoples is viewed ideologically as being
merely an extension of the oppression which had driven the settlers to
come to their promised land in the first place, thus justifying almost
any measures the ruling group saw fit to take against them.

Israel and apartheid-era South Africa also expressed their affinity
for each other throughout the 1980's with extensive economic and
military ties. The South African air force and navy, used primarily to
attack the African National Congress (ANC), and to intervene in
neighboring states, were largely armed and trained by Israel. Israeli
military advisers helped South Africa to develop military strategies
to use in Namibia and Angola, and there is strong evidence of joint
Israeli-South African development of atomic weapons.

(This history is well documented from public sources in Benjamin
Beit-Hallahmi's book The Israeli Connection [New York: Pantheon Books,

In the late 1970's, hoping to forestall the end of white rule, South
Africa began to create "bantustans." These were nominally
"independent" homelands to which all of South Africa's blacks were
eventually supposed to be transferred. The end result, so the
apartheid rulers hoped, would be a strong white South Africa with few
or no black citizens, surrounded by a constellation of poor, weak
black states which it could easily control and exploit as a source of
cheap labor. Recognizing that this was merely an effort to continue
apartheid in another form, the ANC and the entire international
community refused to recognize the four bantustans that South Africa
created. These "independent states" were abolished when South Africa
moved towards democracy.

Israel, like many other states, accords privileges to one group while
abusing the rights of minorities. It is much easier to sustain and
perpetuate such discrimination if the privileged group is a majority.
Once the disenfranchised minority becomes too numerous, a state can no
longer claim to be both ethno-nationally defined and equitable and
democratic. It becomes a minority-ruled apartheid state. Recognizing
this, South Africa's ruling whites tried unsucessfully to transform an
overwhelming black majority into a minority through the legal fiction
of the bantustans.

Israel's dilemma is to prevent a large Palestinian minority from
reaching demographic parity with Israeli Jews. Parity would put Israel
in a situation similar to apartheid-era South Africa, and Israel would
have to face the choice of giving full citizenship to everyone or
adopting some form of formal apartheid. In order to forestall this day
of reckoning Israel has adopted several consistent strategies: first,
denying the right of Palestinian refugees who were expelled or fled
from their homes in what is now Israel to return.

Israel's second strategy has been to try to bring as many Jews as
possible to Israel, particularly from the former Soviet Union. Third,
Israel has sought to transfer responsibility for Palestinians in the
occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to someone else, while retaining as
much control of the land as possible. Hence, successive Israeli
goverments were in favor of annexing the occupied West Bank and Gaza
Strip to Israel, but did not do so because this would have left Israel
with the choice of either having to grant citizenship to the
Palestinians living there, or declare to the world that Israel was
prepared to rule over them forever while giving them no rights. A
minority of Israelis even supported solving the conundrum by simply
expelling the Palestinians. While none of these options were
palatable, Israel sought to maintain the status quo until the 1987-93
Palestinian uprising against military occupation made it untenable.
Hence, Israel signed up to the Oslo accords under which only 17.2
percent of the occupied West Bank ("Area A") is today even nominally
under the full control of the Palestinian Authority. 97 percent of
Palestinians in the West Bank live in this small area, which is broken
up into disconnected patches.

It is for these reasons that Palestinians increasingly ask whether the
Palestinian "state" which Israel has proposed -- which would be
criscrossed by settler-only roads, cut into pieces by Jewish
settlement blocks, required to allow Israel to occupy or lease large
swaths of its territory, and have no control over its external borders
-- is nothing more than a bantustan. The continuing growth of Israeli
settlements on their land makes Palestinians skeptical about Israel's

Demographic trends among Israelis and Palestinians suggest that within
only a few generations Israel will have parity between Jews and
non-Jews. At that point Israelis will have to decide whether they want
to maintain the "Jewish character" of their state at any price, or
move towards a state which grants rights to all its citizens on an
equal basis.

[To see a map of South Africa's bantustans, go to: ]