In January Btselem, a human rights organisation, accused Israel of apartheid. Last week Human Rights Watch did the same. The basis of both accusations is that Israel is not one sovereign country and one set of occupied territories (East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza) but a single authority in the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, in which Jews are treated more favourably than Palestinians, and Palestinians are segregated and confined. This is something of a simplification. Whilst Israel shows no sign of handing back full control of the territory it took in 1967, The Oslo agreements of the 1990s gave Palestinians in the OPT limited autonomy. They have been governed by the Palestinian Authority since then, although both Fatah, in the West Bank, and Hamas, who seized control in Gaza in 2007, run oppressively illiberal regimes, with scant disregard for religious or political freedoms, and deep-rooted hatred for Jewish Israelis.
Today Hamas and Fatah-allied groups hurl rockets at Israel regularly, including hundreds last weekend. Two Israeli civilians (one mentally handicapped) and the bodies of two IDF soldiers have been held in Gaza for some years. But in 2005 Israel dismantled all settlements in Gaza and pulled out, maintaining only its damaging blockade. It is not clear that the power to blockade makes Gaza de facto part of Israel.
In the West Bank, Israeli law controls the land rights, and the land-claims of established Palestinian communities are treated with disdain. The 440,000+ Israeli citizens west of the Green Line are subject to Israeli, not Palestinian Authority, rule and have Israeli freedoms and rights that OPT Palestinians are denied, but does this make the West Bank also part of Israel? It is a hostile place, where Israel is constantly asserting and Palestinians constantly pushing back. Settlers regularly harass and assault Palestinians. But on May 2nd when three Israeli teenagers were shot in a drive-by shooting, Hamas spokesperson Abd al-Latif Qanou called this legitimate, saluting ‘the rebellious heroes of the West Bank’. It feels very unclear that this is de facto part of Israel either, given the effective state of near-warfare regarding the land itself between its two sets of occupants and their two, respective, governing authorities.
The trouble with calling this complicated story apartheid is that this seems to imply just one evil oppressor and one innocent oppressed. Palestinians point to 27+ Palestinians shot by Israeli forces last year. Israelis point to 43 Israeli citizens who died (of any cause) defending Israel. Wouldn’t it be something if, instead of each focussing on what the other has done wrong, each focussed on what they could do right? Meanwhile we should be ready to call a spade a spade, but it is not always helpful to call it a different kind of spade than it is, as this risks people arguing not only that it is not that kind of spade, but that there is no spade at all.
It is true that Israeli policy on settlement in the West Bank is discriminatory to the point of being morally offensive. It is true that the blockade of Gaza collectively punishes the whole population for the actions of the minority. It is true that the Israeli constitution allows people to be treated according to whether they are Jewish or Arabic. It is also true that Israel is responding, in part, to what it sees as an existential attack. To call this response apartheid, however, risks focussing the argument not on the moral failings of all sides, but only on those of one.