When Occupation Becomes Apartheid

Backers of right-wing Israeli policies bristle when the South African term “apartheid” is applied to the Jewish state’s isolation and persecution of Palestinians. But the near half century of West Bank occupation leaves little doubt the description fits, says Gil Maguire, whose father famously airlifted Jews into Israel.

By Gil Maguire

Israel’s military occupation and control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza has gone on almost half a century, since it conquered those territories during the 1967 Six Day War. While many fear Israel will become an apartheid state unless it relinquishes all or most of these occupied territories, the evidence is overwhelming that Israel created an apartheid system and became an apartheid state at the end of the 1967 war, 48 years ago.

Under international law and Section III of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, a conquering army becomes an occupying power once military operations have ceased. The occupying power has the duty to restore public order and safety and protect the local civilian population.

A section of the barrier -- erected by Israeli officials to prevent the passage of Palestinians -- with graffiti using President John F. Kennedy's famous quote when facing the Berlin Wall, "Ich bin ein Berliner." (Photo credit: Marc Venezia)

A section of the barrier — erected by Israeli officials to prevent the passage of Palestinians — with graffiti using President John F. Kennedy’s famous quote when facing the Berlin Wall, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (Photo credit: Marc Venezia)

Under Article 49, it cannot seize or annex any part of the territory occupied or forcibly deport civilians, nor can it permanently transfer its own citizens into the occupied territory. It must also relinquish control of the occupied territory and return it to civilian authority and control as soon as reasonably possible once order is restored.

The U.S. conducted one the most difficult military occupations in history at the end of World War II after it (and its allies) had defeated the combined Axis Powers of Germany, Italy and Japan. Despite the bitterness of the conflict, the U.S. restored public order and safety and took less than eight years to rebuild the infrastructure and civilian democratic institutions of all three countries and return each to sovereign democratic rule.

The U.S. didn’t seize or annex the sovereign territory of these three countries, it didn’t deport civilians, nor did it transfer portions of its own civilian population into the three countries it occupied. The U.S. post-World War II occupations are models of how military occupations should be conducted, and today, Germany, Italy and Japan, all former bitter enemies of the U.S., are healthy, prosperous democracies, and strong allies.

Unlawful Deportations and Annexations

By sharp contrast, Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza has defied international law almost from the beginning. Some 300,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to leave their homes during and after the 1967 fighting and then were deported from the territories occupied by Israel, as were another 130,000 from the captured Golan Heights.

Israel also prevented Palestinian refugees from lawfully returning to their homes and lands by denying them entry at the borders and by using force against those who surreptitiously attempted to return. It destroyed dozens of Arab towns and villages to prevent their Arab inhabitants from returning.

It also seized and annexed Palestinian lands including East Jerusalem and about 27 square miles of West Bank land which became Greater Jerusalem the so-called eternal capital of Israel.  Later it annexed the Golan Heights. Both annexations have been declared illegal under international law.

In his meticulously researched study of the two years following the 1967 Six Day War, The Bride and the Dowry: Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians in the Aftermath of the June 1967 War (2012, Yale University Press), author Avi Raz details how Israel successfully forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to leave the West Bank and then conducted “a diplomacy of prevarication” aimed at deceiving the U.S. and its allies into believing it was willing to allow the refugees to return, and would give back the territories it had captured during the war.

Raz also shows how Israel was approached by both the Jordanian government and by Palestinian leaders who were eager, after the debacle of the 1967 Six Day War, to negotiate a settlement with the Israelis. Israel used its excruciatingly-protracted talks with both sides to convince the UN and the U.S. that it was interested in and working toward a negotiated settlement while instead it was doing everything possible to delay and avoid any commitment to one.

This diplomatic strategy was aptly described by Israel’s foreign minister, Abba Eban, as tahksisanut or deviousness. Raz concludes Israel was never willing to trade captured land for peace and used a “foreign policy of deception” to hide that fact from its allies, mainly the U.S. which Israel feared would force it to return the captured lands and refuse to sell it the sophisticated aircraft and weaponry it craved.

Raz argues that Israel’s entire approach to settlement negotiations from 1967, through the Oslo Accord of 1993, to the present day followed Eban’s strategy of diplomatic tahksisanut.  The goal has always been to delay and avoid an agreement until the number of illegal settlements and settlers in the occupied territories created facts on the ground that would make the permanency of Greater Israel a fait accompli.

The collapse and failure of Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2013-14 peace talks reflects the continuing success of tahksisanut, of Israeli duplicity.

The Illegal Settlements

Raz quotes Levi Eshkol, Israeli prime minister from 1963 until his death in 1969, as saying Israel “wanted the dowry” (the land of the occupied territories) “but not the bride” (the Palestinians living on that land). To solve that dilemma, plans were made and implemented almost immediately after the war to keep the occupied territories as an integral part of Greater Israel or Eretz Yisrael, and build all-Jewish settlements in the occupied areas to create facts on the ground that would make the establishment of a separate Palestinian state difficult if not impossible.

In September 1967, a secret legal memo commissioned by Israel’s prime minister made it clear that transferring Israeli Jewish citizens onto settlements in the occupied territories would be a direct violation of international law, specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Despite this warning, Israel began the process of transferring Jewish civilians into settlements, establishing 12 in 1967, followed by ever-increasing numbers in the next five decades.  Today, 48 years later, over 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, well over 600,000 Israeli Jews, live in hundreds of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, making the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state virtually impossible, as was the plan from the very beginning.

U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in a March 1968 memo to the U.S. Embassy in Israel, told the U.S. ambassador to warn the Israeli government that the transfer of its civilians into the occupied territories violated Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. He instructed the ambassador to tell the Israeli government, in the strongest possible terms, the U.S. opposition to any Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

Rusk also said that building Jewish settlements created the impression that Israel had no intention of reaching a settlement and withdrawing from the occupied territories. Half a century later, Rusk’s memo has proved prophetic.

The evidence is clear that Israel knew its obligations as an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention but decided to ignore them. Its illegal actions of forcing civilians out of the occupied territories, refusing to allow them to return, annexing portions of occupied lands for itself, and transferring its own civilians into the occupied lands, all while keeping the Palestinians under strict military rule, demonstrate an intent to keep the occupied territories for itself. Its negotiation strategy of tahksisanut is further evidence of that intention.

If Israel had no intention of withdrawing from the occupied territories, and deliberately violated most if not all of the legal precepts regarding military occupation, its behavior was and remains illegal under international law and constitutes grave violations of the laws of war, or war crimes.

Even President Obama’s White House seems to have finally acknowledged this hard fact. On March 23, at the J Street annual conference, White House Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough said:

“Israel cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely”; “An occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end, and the Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state”; “Palestinian children deserve the same right to be free in their own land as Israeli children in their land,”

The Law and Practice of Apartheid

Can Israel’s 48-year illegal military occupation be described as apartheid? The term was originally used to describe a system of racial segregation in South Africa. Today, the crime of apartheid, according to the UN Apartheid Convention, applies to acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial, ethnic or religious group over another by acts of systematic oppression.

Examples include: denying the one group the right to life and liberty and subjecting members of that group to arbitrary arrest and expropriation of property; depriving the group of the right to leave and return to their country, or of freedom of movement and residence; the creation of separate areas for the members of different racial groups; the prohibition of mixed marriages, etc.

Each of these examples applies to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories, and, to a lesser extent, to the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are non-Jews. Some 50 laws in Israel discriminate against non-Jewish Israeli citizens, forcing them to live in impoverished Arab communities surrounded by prosperous all-Jewish communities which receive the vast majority of public resources. Moreover, Israel’s Arab population lived under strict martial law the first 18 years of Israel’s existence, until 1966, even though Israeli Arabs became nominal citizens of Israel in 1952.

Today, there remain about 274,000 Israeli Arab citizens who are internally displaced refugees of the 1948 war who fled or were forced to leave their homes and villages and were not allowed to return to reclaim their homes, land and property after the end of the war even though they are lawful residents and citizens of Israel.

In the occupied West Bank, conditions are far worse. Palestinians are forced to live in enclaves (the so-called Area A) surrounded by Israeli military zones (Area B). Area C, about 61 percent of the West Bank, contains over 300,000 Jewish settlers living in all-Jewish settlements under complete Israeli control. This area completely surrounds Areas A and B.

Palestinians are forced to live in dozens of separate enclaves, their movement heavily restricted. Arbitrary arrest and detention of adults and even young children is commonplace, due process a distant dream.

Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is confiscated and used to build all-Jewish Israeli settlements protected by Israeli Army units and connected by access roads that are restricted to use by Jews only. Israeli Jews living in the occupied territories have full civil rights including the right to vote while their Palestinian Arab neighbors live under Israeli military law, have no civil rights, and cannot vote in Israel’s national elections. All of these discriminatory restrictions on the Palestinian Arab population certainly seem to meet the definition of apartheid.

Stephen Robert, a Jewish-American investment banker and long-time Israel supporter, as well as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former chancellor of Brown University, described the situation in the occupied territories as apartheid after fact-finding visits to the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2011. In a long and detailed article entitled “Apartheid on Steroids”, he concluded:

“How can Jews, who have been persecuted for centuries, tolerate this inhumanity? Where is their moral compass? How can this situation be acceptable to Judaism’s spiritual and political leaders? I don’t have that answer; except to say that Israel’s biggest enemy has become itself.”

That was four years ago. David Shulman, an Israeli Jew and distinguished professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem described similar conditions in his March 21 post-Israeli election recap, article:

“Israel has, in effect, knowingly moved further toward a full-fledged apartheid system. Those who don’t like the word can suggest another one for what I see each week in the territories and more and more inside the Green Line.” [Emphasis added].

Shulman sees apartheid in the occupied territories and more and more evidence of

it even within Israel itself. Israeli journalist and author, Amira Hess, sees much the same:

“When you look at the geography of Palestinians in Israel, it’s the same geography, they are encircled in enclaves. They are deprived of their land. Most of their land has been taken by Jews to settle, even though they are Israeli citizens. They are all packed and cramped in houses without spaces to breathe, without agricultural lands. The political geography of the Israeli state is very similar on both sides of the Green Line.”

Apartheid Comparisons

The treatment of Palestinian Arabs by Israeli Jews is also strikingly similar to the treatment of non-whites by South Africa’s all-white regime under apartheid.  Moreover, all the conditions for apartheid, the deportations, the annexations, the creation of Jewish settlements, the isolation of Palestinians under military law, were put in place by the Israeli government in 1967.

Since both the intent and the fact of apartheid were in place in 1967, and since conditions have only gotten worse, it’s become impossible to call Israel’s near half century military occupation of the Palestinian people on Palestinian lands in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza anything but apartheid.

The only remaining question is why we as Americans continue to support a country whose oppression of its Arab population is so contrary to our own national values, a country who openly practices apartheid. Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinian people makes a mockery of its claim to be “the only democracy in the Middle East,” as does its claim that Israel and the U.S. share common values.

It’s high time that we, as Americans, face up to the fact that supporting Israel is supporting apartheid, and that our military, economic and diplomatic support of that country has fostered and abetted nearly half a century of continuing oppression of 4.5 million Palestinians.

It’s also high time we put a stop to it by telling our representatives in Congress that while we as Americans support the state of Israel, we will no longer provide military, economic and diplomatic support for Israeli apartheid.

Gil Maguire is a retired civil rights attorney and a writer of both non-fiction and fiction. His interest in the Israel-Palestine issue came from his father’s involvement flying Jewish refugees from around the world to the new state of Israel in 1948-49. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister called his father “the Irish Moses” because of his exploits, hence the name of Maguire’s blog site — www.irishmoses.com. [This story previously appeared at Mondoweiss.]

17 comments for “When Occupation Becomes Apartheid

  1. Hillary
    April 7, 2015 at 07:06

    Many experts believe Israel pre-emptively attacked Egypt in 1967 as a premeditated plan to occupy more Palestinian land , particularly Jerusalem.

    Gil says Israel “conquered those territories during the 1967 Six Day War” but the Palestinians were the helpless indigent people who suffered as Israel expanded its illegal occupation of Palestinian land as was its planned intention.

  2. David G
    April 6, 2015 at 21:00

    I actually think the early decades of the occupation could be more accurately described as apartheid, as compared to how the situation has evolved since the 1990s. However, I don’t mean that as a compliment to, or defense of Israel.

    With due respect to the generalized, legal definition of apartheid, I still look to the historical South African type, and a key aspect of that system was economic exploitation of the subjugated Black majority as a cheap, disempowered labor force. Such was also the case in Israel post-1967, albeit without being as central to the national economy.

    But since the intifadas and the rise of the infrastructure of separation, I believe the importance of the Palestinian labor force to Israel has declined a lot. Thus for Israel, the people of the occupied territories have lost even that commodified value.

    I think Israelis of today who buy into the logic of occupation see the continued existence of the Palestinians as purely a problem that they would like to be rid of. The attitude is genocidal even if the practice still falls somewhat short of that.

    • bobzz
      April 7, 2015 at 10:42

      The Palestinian labor force was pushed out thanks to America’s applying Milton Friedman economic doctrine to Russia after the fall of the wall. Conditions in Russia became rather grim prompting an emigration of Jews from Russia to Israel. Israel used these unskilled immigrants to do what the Palestinian laborers were doing. Now, Israelis have no use for Palestinians.(Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine)

  3. bobzz
    April 6, 2015 at 15:21

    All except a fringe element recognize Israel was on the receiving end of seventeen centuries of church state persecution culminating in the Shoah. Understandably, they needed a home of their own. Places other than Palestine were considered including Nigeria (?!). The powers that be chose to plant them in a land where Jews, Christians, and Arabs had been living, mostly in peace, for centuries. It was a tough go for a while, but Israel created a 1967 bordered space for themselves, but they were not content. They want to restore the Solomonic kingdom. And here is the rub: lets say your people lived on a land for centuries, and someone comes along and begins forcing you out. I recall Bill Bradley’s presidential candidacy years ago and his suggestion that part of South Dakota be turned over to the Lakota Sioux (it wasn’t quite that simple but it was popularly understood that way). South Dakota went up in arms. We wailed at Indian massacres, but they reacted they way most do when their land is being taken away. Why can’t we see that is happening to the Palestinians. Intifada and bottle rockets are understandable reactions. (I call them bottle rockets because the damage they do is negligible. Does anyone believe Israel would miss an opportunity to show photos of devastated neighborhoods if there were any?) Oh, the ‘Iron Dome’ protected them. How many died in two weeks of Operation Cast Lead? Two, and the Iron Dome was not operative at that time. How many in Protective Edge? Four during a four week Israeli reign of terror. The Iron Dome was inconsequential. OK, I am off track, but to come back, whatever Hamas or the Palestinians have done in reaction have been minimal compared to what Israel has dished out in its land grab. All Israel has to do is go back to the 1967 borders, and the whole middle east calms down. Israel 1967, yes; Zionism, no.

  4. alexander horatio
    April 6, 2015 at 08:40

    Dear Mr Mcguire,
    Thank you for a superb article!…Superb !…….An “excellent” synopsis of the history of the conflict!… The willingness to finally make a distinction between “Israels existence”(which nearly the whole world supports) ….. its ” apartheid-like behavior”( which nearly the whole world rejects) …and the Israeli governments “tahksisanut” which constantly seeks to confuse the two!
    Well Done !

  5. Joe Tedesky
    April 6, 2015 at 02:48

    Elliot, your comment states the Yin without the Yang. Seriously, make a list of Palestian acts of terror, then draw a line down the middle of the page. On the other half of the sheet write down all of the historical Israeli attacks against the Palestinians, and then let us all have ‘that’ debate you crave for so much. If Israel is to do anything right it should only need to look into the mirror. Putting all your blame on the Palestinians is Israel’s only way of feeling right for what it as done for so many years. While you may come away from this inward self examination I’m suggesting, and you are still placing all the blame on the Palestinians, I would remind you that history would prove you wrong for being so one sided. Ellot, just be fair!

  6. Ellot
    April 5, 2015 at 21:00

    So what is the solution? From what I remember when the Palestinians were allowed easy entry into Israel some (more than enough) blew themselves up and took many (as many as possible for them) Israelis with them. It happened often enough that Israel chose to essentially to seal the border and divide up the Palestinian land. The Palestinian reaction? Drop missiles into Israel until Israel, periodically (every 2-3 years) goes in and trashes the place. Of course the more deaths, injuries and destruction that occurs, the more sympathy and more important to Hamas, money, flows into Palestine. One of the first things the Palestinian leadership did recently after much death and destruction, was to parade their army around and of course let everyone know they are ready for more death and destruction. What I see is that the leadershiop of Palestine, Hamas, could care less about its own people and only cares about its power. That is why they kept firing missles into Israel long after they could have stopped. It was a calculated move in that they were already losing power before Israel moved in for destruction and starting a “war” with Israel brought them back into power. Israel, on the other hand, gets sick of being shot upon continuously. I don’t see a solution to this . The everday people of Palestine, are caught between their own leadership that cares nothing about them and Israel, who also doesn’t care. At this point I highly doubt the “right of return” for Palestinians.

    • Zachary Smith
      April 5, 2015 at 21:25

      So what is the solution?

      1) How about relocating that big wall to Israel’s 1967 borders. 2) Then evacuating the thieving settlers from the stolen lands back behind that wall. #3 Finally, start paying reparations to the Palestinians for the lands stolen from them back in 1948.

      After that, THEN a tit-for-tat retaliation for incoming missiles and/or rockets begins to make a bit of sense.

      The world as a whole is beginning to get disgusted with Israel’s wholesale murders to “retaliate” for violence they instigated themselves. Even a few “poodle” Americans are beginning to grumble.

    • April 6, 2015 at 02:17

      Your reply seems a bit too convenient; the fault lays only with Palestinians and Hamas cares nothing about them. You seem to ignore the possibility that they might be fighting for their freedom, for that last fifth of Palestine left to them, except 60 percent of that is now gone as well, the so-called Area C. If you were in their shoes, wouldn’t you fight for your freedom?

      Ah, but you say they are terrorists, but weren’t Jews terrorists as well when faced with similar circumstances, with 100,000 British troops trying to hold the lid on boiling Palestine? You bet they were and two of them became prime ministers of the state of Israel.

      So see if you can come up with an affirmative solution or do you think you can keep 4.5 million souls under your boot indefinitely?

    • Stefan
      April 6, 2015 at 20:08

      Like a rapists blaming the victim for fighting back when getting raped.

  7. Eurosabra
    April 5, 2015 at 20:18

    You’re another retired Arabist who’s going to write the Jews to death to spite your philosophy father’s memory.

    • Zachary Smith
      April 5, 2015 at 21:17

      What the hell is that supposed to mean? Robert F. Maguire Jr. – from all accounts he performed some real heroics in moving Jews from unstable places to Israel.


      Yes, from all accounts I can locate he was quite a helpful figure in the early days of Israel – back in those good old days when a person could read the novel Exodus and cheer rather than gag.

      But when his son comes to this site detailing what a shitty little apartheid state Israel has become, you construct a 1-sentence insult. Is that because you’re not up to defending the non-stop murdering and thieving of Israel?

      • April 6, 2015 at 01:33

        Thanks for the link Zachary. I hadn’t seen this one.

    • April 6, 2015 at 01:10

      Well, my bio shows I’m a retired attorney but I’m also a former cop, former school teacher, former business owner. I never ran with the striped pants crowd so I guess I’m not that kind of Arabist. Since I consider Arabs as fellow human beings with equal rights, as opposed to them being untermenschen, I guess I am an Arabist. I feel the same way about Jews. Hopefully, that doesn’t make me a Zionist.

      i appreciate you commenting. I know this is a tough, emotional subject for you, perhaps because you lost relatives. That’s a pain I can’t share with you. I can tell you this: the strong emotions you feel are felt on both sides of the separation wall.

      April 6, 2015 at 22:49

      Please list your credentials as a psychologist or psychiatrist.

      If an “Arabist” is a person concerned with justice, then I hope there are billions of us.

    • Alana
      April 8, 2015 at 19:00

      What a hateful, disgusting comment. This isn’t about favoring one group over another. It’s about respectable journalism that doesn’t hold back for anyone or anything – what journalism used to be. It’s about journalism with integrity that is dedicated to the truth. All people, no matter what religion, race, nationality etc., who are being discriminated against, oppressed, and persecuted deserve justice and to have their voices heard. Your vile, racist comment makes me that much more thankful for journalists like Gil Maguire.

    • Alana
      April 8, 2015 at 19:01

      What a hateful, disgusting comment. This isn’t about favoring one group over another. It’s about respectable journalism that doesn’t hold back for anyone or anything – what journalism used to be. It’s about journalism with integrity that is dedicated to the truth. All people, no matter what religion, race, nationality etc., who are being discriminated against, oppressed, and persecuted deserve justice and to have their voices heard. Your vile, racist comment makes me that much more thankful for journalists like Gil Maguire.

  8. tony
    April 5, 2015 at 19:56

    Yes, we all know this. The question we must ask ourselves is;

    How does Israel get away with it? Where is the main stream media ?

Comments are closed.