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Are Israel and apartheid South Africa really different?

Akiva Eldar | Haaretz

4 January 2010

The Supreme Court ruled last week that route 443 must be opened to Palestinian traffic. (Reuters)

The day after the murder of the settler Meir Hai about 10 days ago, Major General (res.) Amos Gilad was asked to comment on the claim by settlers that the attack was able to take place because roadblocks had been lifted on West Bank roads. The security-political coordinator at the Defense Ministry told his radio interviewer that the policy of thinning out internal roadblocks has greatly contributed to the West Bank’s impressive economic growth. According to Gilad, who until recently was coordinator of activities in the territories, the improvement of the Palestinians’ economic lot has contributed substantially to Israelis’ security.

An army man, who is not suspected of belonging to a human rights organization, thus upsets the simplistic and most accepted formula: restrictions on Arabs means more security for Jews. The Supreme Court ruling last week to lift the ban on Palestinians using Route 443 shows that members of the judiciary also no longer stand at attention when they hear the magic word security. Nonetheless, the judiciary members, like politicians and the media, still find it hard to let go of their paralyzing dependency on this term. This is intentional: If discrimination is not mandated by security considerations stemming from the threat of Palestinian terrorism, how can we diagnose this regime as segregationist? If it is not diagnosed as such, there is no need to treat it.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which appealed against the ban on Route 443, dared suggest the word apartheid and was reprimanded for it. In her ruling, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch wrote that “the great difference between the security means adopted by the State of Israel for defense against terrorist attacks and the unacceptable practices of the policy of apartheid requires that any comparison or use of this grave term be avoided.” A similar argument was voiced during the days of Israel’s military administration over its Arab citizens, which was lifted in 1966, and which is today considered a dark period in the country’s history.

Beinisch herself is a co-author of about a dozen rulings that exposed the malicious use of the segregation regime in an effort to take over Palestinian land. In some cases, most notably one concerning the separation fence near Bil’in, she wrote that the invasive route set by the army was inferior from a security point of view to the route proposed by experts at the Council for Peace and Security. In another case the state admitted that the person in charge of planning the fence did not inform government lawyers that the route had been adjusted to the blueprint for expanding the settlement of Tzofin. Were it not for human rights organizations and conscientious lawyers, who would prevent shortsighted politicians from annexing more and more territory “for security against terrorism”? asked Beinisch.

One of the myths among whites in South Africa was that “blacks want to throw us into the sea.” Many of apartheid’s practices were formally based on security, mostly those involving restrictions on movement. Thus, for example, at a fairly early stage, black citizens needed permits to move around the country. During the final years of apartheid, when the blacks’ struggle intensified as did terrorism, its practices became more severe.

To avoid the rude word apartheid, Beinisch pulled out the well-known argument that apartheid is “a policy of segregation and discrimination based on race and ethnicity, which is based on a series of discriminatory practices designed to achieve the superiority of a certain race and oppress those of other races.” Indeed, systematic segregation (apartheid) and discrimination in South Africa were meant to preserve the supremacy of one race over others.

In Israel, on the other hand, institutional discrimination is meant to preserve the supremacy of a group of Jewish settlers over Palestinian Arabs. As far as discriminatory practices are concerned, it’s hard to find differences between white rule in South Africa and Israeli rule in the territories; for example, separate areas and separate laws for Jews and Palestinians.

Last Wednesday, Israeli policemen blocked the main road linking Nablus and Tul Karm. Dozens of taxis with Palestinian workers on their way home from another day on the job in the settlements were told to park on the side of the road. Cars with yellow license plates passed by. There was no roadblock for security inspections; it was just the memorial ceremony for Rabbi Meir Hai. Just as long as they do not say that there is apartheid.