Israeli Illusionary Democracy: Beyond Apartheid

By Noura Khouri – Article from 2007

The saying that occupation exists best in the dark explains one reason for the controversy surrounding the use of the term Apartheid to describe the Israeli system. It also explains why what is a clear and simple fact to those intimately acquainted with the reality on the ground has caused so much confusion or strife among those who are not.

Generally speaking, there are three sides to the debate about the use of the term to describe Israel’s political system and its comparison with South African Apartheid. Staunch Zionist defenders are completely against the use of the term, charging it as ‘anti-Semitic’, with no thoughtful discussion of the issues. By dismissing the criticism as a personal attack, they fail to account for the basic facts and reality on the ground and reveal their limitations in understanding or wanting to know the severe injustices, committed in their name. Then there are activists, academic and legal experts who support the use of the term.

As a matter of convenience, they borrow the term from the oppressive South African regime, which most people know to be reprehensible, in order to strengthen the Palestinian case. They argue that although the term may not be entirely representative of the situation – the underlying racism and discrimination are the same. They would add that, due to the advances made in South Africa in ending oppression, it is useful to leverage the parallels and draw on the successes of the anti-Apartheid movement, as a means for building the boycott-Israel campaign. Finally, even amongst Palestinians and solidarity activists, there are internal disagreements about the use of the term. Critics say, that because the term “Apartheid” is borrowed from South Africa, it fails to portray the complexity of the Israeli system and in fact, causes more confusion rather than understanding.

Most well intentioned people however, would agree that the only way to end the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to first engage in honest analysis of the situation. Still, generalities are made, distinctions are muddled and people with the best of intentions are often left alone to interpret meanings, or worse, completely confused by the insidious details of the system at work.

Jimmy Carter’s well intended book titled, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, is an example which in fact feeds into these misconceptions. He asserts that Apartheid is found in the West Bank and Gaza Strip but ignores the regime existing inside Israel, thereby implying that the situation there is fine. Yet, inside Israel the comparison with Apartheid is more accurate; the case can be made from the basic laws alone, and the result is cultural genocide(1) of the Palestinian identity within Israel.

The system of domination and militarized control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is actually, more accurately described as one on the path of ethnocide.(2) Although the means of the Zionist settler project may vary within Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT), the goals are the same and should be analyzed as such: its demographic objectives and colonization of all of historic Palestine (“Eretz” Israel) translate into the dispossession and transfer of Palestinians.

Still, Zionist leaders know that to the outside world they must walk the fine line and uphold the appearance of a democracy while maintaining the Jewish state. As both Israel and the Palestinian people are extremely dependent – economically, politically and in the realm of public relations – the conflict ultimately becomes a war of public opinion. Perhaps this is why Israel’s main success lies in its public relations campaign. Indeed, over the years, Zionist leaders have engaged in the world’s most brilliant and cunning PR campaign. Adding to the complexity, confusion and profound misunderstanding of the state of Israel is perhaps the fact that Israel is one of the most multi-cultural places on earth. In South Africa racist practice was identified much more easily; it manifested itself in separate laws for “Whites”, and “non-Whites” based on the color of one’s skin. In Israel, you are either a Jew, whether religious or not (which makes it a matter of race), or a non-Jew.

For Israel, as was for the Apartheid South Africa, the goals are/were colonial and imperialistic in nature. However, in former South Africa, the system of control and separation was designed to expropriate the valuable natural resources for the ruling minority through oppression of the natives, who did not enjoy the right to vote. Whites there were the extreme minority; they therefore realized the impossibility of upholding even a fallacy of a democracy, and laws were made and upheld by and for the ruling class. The Palestinian populations of the OPT and Israel will soon surpass the number of Jews. Hence, the question of how to achieve and maintain the demographic majority of Jews in Palestine has become the single most important obsession of Israel’s leaders. The fact that Palestinians in Israel are allowed to vote adds to the confusion and the illusion of democracy. Moreover, the basic laws in Israel, and countless military orders in the OPT, which exclude Palestinians are so deeply embedded in the fabric of Israeli Apartheid, that they are seldom questioned in a systematic manner.

As a result, the point which begs understanding – although obvious to Palestinians, anti-Zionist Jews and other scholars – is that Israel as a state ‘for Jews’ leads directly to the oppression and subjugation of Palestinians. Herein lies the inherent racism against Palestinians on both sides of the ‘Green Line’: either we come to terms with Jewish superiority and Israel’s “right to exist” as it is as “Greater Israel,” or we cannot ‘coexist’ at all. The implication is that it is naïve, unrealistic, perhaps ideal but definitely impossible, to live as equals on this land, if Israel continues to be allowed to define itself exclusively as a Jewish state. This message advanced clearly by representatives of Palestinians in Israel in their “Future Vision of Palestinian Arabs in Israel:”

Defining the Israeli State as a Jewish State and exploiting democracy in the service of its Jewishness excludes us, and creates tension between us and the nature and essence of the State. Therefore, we call for a Consensual Democratic system that enables us to be fully active in the decision –making process and guarantee our individual and collective civil, historic, and national rights.(3)

Israeli ‘Democracy’: The Formula for Dispossession

Since the inception of the state, the basis of Zionist ideology and Apartheid has been manifest in Israel’s Law of Return of 1950, which states that any Jew in the world, spanning three generations, is allowed to ‘return’ to the ‘promised land’ of over 2000 years ago. This stands in stark contrast to the laws for Palestinians who are forbidden to return to their own homes of just 60 years ago. This law alone, makes it impossible to construct, much less uphold, a democratic system. Such discrimination contradicts every democratic principle and the otherwise universally recognized right of 6 million 1948 Palestinian refugees, who are entitled to Israeli nationality based on the right of return and the law of state succession.

Since 1950, the Absentee Property Law has ensured that the new immigrant settlers find a comfortable home in the properties belonging to those who fled or were forced to leave because of Zionist terrorism during the 1948 War. The same law was later applied to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the 1967 war. Property rights were transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property without compensation and effective appeal. In the OPT the seized land has been used predominately for military bases, Jewish-only bypass roads, and settlements. So-called “state land” also allows for the Apartheid “roads and tunnels plan”. Israel is currently in the process of completing 24 tunnels for Palestinians to drive through and connect with their Palestinian prison-islands, and paving the 56 settler-only Apartheid roads for Jews only to travel on!(4)

In order to prevent additional Palestinians from becoming Israeli citizens, against international law, on 14 May 2006, the Supreme Court of Israel, issued a decision to uphold the racist Nationality and Entry into Israel Law of 2003, which violates the right of Israeli citizens to family reunification with their Palestinian spouses from the OPT.

These laws combined with countless supplemental policies result in the cleansing of Palestinians and the population of the land with Zionist settlers. The suffering of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem has reached tragic proportions; while illegally annexed to Israel, they are considered “permanent residents” whose residency permits can be taken away if they go abroad for more than 7 years. Jews may have dual citizenship, but a non-Jewish Jerusalemite loses residency if acquiring additional citizenship. Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem are enduring the same systematic process as those in the rest of the West Bank as the Wall leads to house demolitions, property confiscation, forced displacement, isolation and denial of access to social services. Such practices found in Jerusalem, can also be seen from the Galilee to the Naqab and the Jordan Valley. It all adds up into one bigger picture, and the larger context, its analysis and the recipe become clear to see.

It is time to define our own terms and claim our rights, in practice and as enshrined in human rights conventions and international law. In addition to the concept of Apartheid, it is critical we challenge the acquiescence to cultural genocide and ethnocide, in part and in full.

Noura Khouri is a Palestinian American activist who has written on the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories. This is a shortened and edited version of a longer article which can be found in full at:


(1) Article 7 of the “United Nations draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples” defines Cultural genocide as (a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities; (b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources; (c) Any form of population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights; (d) Any form of assimilation or integration by other cultures or ways of life imposed on them by legislative, administrative or otherwise.

(2) Raphael Lemkin, the linguist and lawyer coined the term genocide as “the union of the Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing), used ethnocide as an alternative form representing the same concept, using the Greek ethnos (nation) in place of genos.” The broader definition of ethnocide may be useful in addressing perceived shortcomings and restrictions of genocide law and in identifying cultural destruction when it occurs by less violent and less visible means (All Experts Online Encyclopedia:

(3) The National Committee for the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities in Israel, of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel presented titled, A Manifesto for the “Future Vision of Palestinian Arabs in Israel”.

(4) Negotiations Support Unit Website –


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