The state of Israel was established as a settler- colonial project that was sponsored by different colonial powers for different reasons. Because it was not possible to establish a Jewish state in Palestine without expelling the indigenous people who constituted the majority of the population, the 1948 war provided a cover for their widespread and systematic expulsion.
As was the case with South African whites, Zionist settlers’ understanding of their project was not as a colonising project, but a project for the rebirth of an ancient civilisation. They saw it as a project of self-liberation that, through the settling of land, led to the formation of a nation. This understanding was not disturbed by the usage of classical colonial methods in the forcible dispossession of the population, the appropriation of land, and the formation of common economic interests with the colonial powers.
Any Jew, anywhere in the world, has the right to become a citizen of Israel immediately on arrival, with full rights and more privileges than the nation’s Arab population. At the same time, no Palestinian refugee has the right to return to the home from which he was expelled only a few decades ago. It is also impossible for Arab citizens of Israel to pass citizenship on to their spouses or other family members.
The Zionist movement achieved racial separation through expulsion, and the Jewish minority — appropriating all the economic resources of the country, most importantly, the land — considered the state as an embodiment of its right to sovereign domination. The Arab minority that remained was marginalised and fully subjugated to the process of planning and building the institutions of the Jewish state. Indigenous Palestinians were granted citizenship and the right to vote, but were kept under military administration until 1966. This military administration made a mockery of their citizenship and violated the rights conferred by citizenship.
Israel was in no need of formalised racial separation, as it was the de facto system practised under the military administration. And unlike other nationalist movements, Zionism, as a secular movement, did not attempt to subordinate religion to the aim of crystallizing a national identity, but created an overlapping identity, such that it became impossible to separate religion and state. The concept of a sovereign Jewish nation is perforce exclusive because of its Zionist definition.
When the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip fell under direct military occupation in 1967, Israel’s form of racial separation became problematic. It was no longer possible to absorb the Palestinians who remained through granting them citizenship, since this would upset the demographic balance in Israel and confront it with the historic choice once faced by South Africa: declare an apartheid state in the formal, legal sense (such a state would be doomed from the start), or establish a democratic secular state encompassing all citizens (which would negate the Jewish definition of the state).
How did the Israeli political establishment respond to this challenge? It responded by rejecting both choices and establishing a state of occupation far worse than the apartheid practised in South Africa. All the forms of atrocities spawned by apartheid in South Africa were practised by Israel, which led to continuous and bloody confrontations with the Palestinian national movement. This was immediately translated into the forcible suppression of people’s daily activities.
Furthermore, Israel initiated settlement activities without formally annexing the Palestinian territories. The settler movement is the truest expression of the Israeli form of apartheid. Israel builds Jewish settlements on Arab lands where an Arab majority resides and provides the settlement movement with a completely developed infrastructure. Meanwhile, the needs and aspirations of the indigenous population are ignored and repressed.
The permanent nature of the settlement movement, and Israel’s insistence on it, contradicts the apparently temporary nature of occupation. At the same time an official policy of annexation, leading to the formation of a formal system of apartheid has never been declared. Israel strains to escape this dilemma by imposing a deeply flawed system of self- rule on the Palestinian population. This system is then touted as a permanent peace settlement, should violent conflicts in the area be eradicated. But limited self-rule in a Bantu state is a compromise between Israel’s inability (due to international constraints) to establish a formal apartheid system, and its refusal to accept the conditions of a just peace — a recognition of the unconditional right of the Palestinian people to true independence. This is the new form of apartheid that exists in historical Palestine.
Israel will never acknowledge the nature of the colonial apartheid system it has established in Palestine. Israel’s suggestion to the Palestinians is to give up the refugees’ right of return in exchange for limited or extended self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza (without Jerusalem), while simultaneously keeping enough space for Jewish settlements in these areas. In doing so, Israel not only undermines the possibility of Palestinian statehood, but it also undermines its own exclusive national character and sets up the foundations for a new era of Palestinian struggle against apartheid, which cannot be expressed in the “two state” solution.