Editor’s note: this is part three of an ongoing series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Part one, on the immediate causes of the recent war, can be read here; and part two, on the major obstacle to permanent peace, can be read here.
In my series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I have yet to evaluate the pro-Palestinian faction arguments at their strongest. Granted that I wholly condemn the radical supporters of Palestine, who think Hamas is justified and wish to “push the colonizers into the sea,” there are plenty of critics of Israel who bear the Israeli people no ill will and who support the continuation of the Israeli state, but who believe that Israel continues to commit crimes against humanity in regards to its treatment of Palestine. These claims are serious, if true, and any fair-minded study of the conflict must grapple with them. The most prevalent of these is the idea that Israel is an ‘apartheid state’ — a state on the model of South Africa in which one ethnic group exerts a strict racial or ethnic caste system over the country. While I try to cover the most common claims, readers are encouraged to reach out if they know of any credible claims that I have missed, or if there is evidence for or against one of the claims of which I am unaware. I was particularly brief on the impact of Israeli settlers, for example, due to space and time constraints. This article probably won’t make either side happy, but the flip side of this is that, if you feel that I am being unfair to your “side,” then just read on and I will probably be unfair to the other “side” as well in a few paragraphs.
So, is Israel an ‘apartheid’ state?
In the literal sense of ‘apartheid,’ no, it is not. Israeli citizens, whether they are Jewish or Arab, have the right to vote, to due process, and to free speech. Israelis in general have fewer rights than Americans, particularly in terms of freedom of movement, but these rights apply to Jewish and Arab citizens alike and are due to the heightened security risks in parts of Israel. Arab citizens of Israel have more rights there than they do anywhere else in the Middle East.
But what about all of those discriminatory laws against Palestinians? Well, the Arab Minority Rights Center in Israel has collected a database of 66 laws that supposedly discriminate against Palestinians, and a quick scroll through the database shows that the story is more complicated than it is portrayed.
For example, one law gives the Israeli government more leeway in handling detainees when they are being held on suspicion of a security related crime (which will mostly tend to be Palestinians.) The database states that “[t]he order allows for the detention of a security suspect for up to 96 hours before being brought before [a] judge, versus 48 hours in other cases, and for up to 35 days without being indicted, versus 30 days in other cases.” This phrase is very telling. At first glance, it seems to interfere with the civil liberties of the detained, but what is really striking about it is that it explicitly acknowledges that the defendant has civil liberties in the first place. Both Habeas Corpus and the right to a speedy trial are recognized in the law. There are valid criticisms (and security related justifications) for the law, which despite being supposedly temporary has stuck around for years, but an apartheid state, or most other Middle Eastern Countries rather, wouldn’t bother giving the state five extra days to indict certain prisoners, as they could quite simply disappear them without a trial at all. Many of the other laws are things such as altered voting rules in the Knesset or tax breaks for Zionist organizations — debatable, and in the case of the former quite unwise, as policy, but hardly smoking gun evidence of apartheid. The worst law I could find in the database was the Absentees’ Property Law, which placed control of property abandoned by anyone who fled to Israel’s enemies (basically any neighboring country) under the control of a trustee. While some way of dealing with this abandoned property was necessary, the way in which it was done was insufficiently respectful of the property rights of Palestinians, (some estimates say 40-60% of Arab land within Israel was at least temporarily confiscated under this law.) The law has drawn wide condemnation from within Israel. This law is probably the closest Israeli law comes to the charge of apartheid, and should be reformed to ensure that Palestinians can keep the land and houses that they currently own.
But the law is one thing, how are Palestinians treated in actuality? Only about 43% of Palestinians in Israel have Israeli citizenship, for instance, and 67% live in the West Bank, where security concerns have caused Israel to take a much heavier hand than they have in the rest of Israel. For example, there have been allegations of Israeli forces killing unarmed Palestinian civilians. There have been cases of this (for example, an Israeli police officer was charged with reckless homicide after shooting an unarmed Palestinian man with Autism.) In 2020, 27 confirmed Palestinians were killed and 2,000 were injured by Israeli forces. While many of these people were security threats, several, like the man mentioned above, were not. With that said, most of the Palestinians killed by Israeli forces supposedly without provocation were caught up in the midst of an ongoing fight. One man, for instance, had the misfortune to go on a walk through his village while a fellow villager was throwing Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers, and he was mistakenly shot.
Not all of the violence against Palestinians is committed by Israeli forces, however, some is committed by Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Settlers are people who created settlements, or basically small towns, in territory traditionally inhabited by Palestinians to tie it politically closer to Israel. Unsurprisingly, there is tension between these people and the local Palestinians, which frequently boils over into violence. And it is worth noting that the Israeli government halted all new settlement construction as part of the Abraham accords brokered by the previous administration, but has continued to expand current settlements. There was only one confirmed casualty from settler confrontations in 2020, but there were over 100 injuries and instances of property destruction. For instance, settlers would frequently destroy or seize Palestinian Olive groves, which was particularly egregious due to the importance of the Olive tree in many Middle Eastern cultures. While, in 2006, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the government to do more to protect Palestinian Olive groves, this still remains a very much a problem. I bring up the example of the Olive trees (besides the fact that it has been on social media recently) to demonstrate both the Israeli government’s constant effort to protect Palestinian property and the way in which these efforts have been at best a qualified success.
So then, what are we to make of the above accusations, which are only a small part of the criticism against or defenses of Israel. It is clear from looking at the situation in the West Bank that Israel has vast room for improvement. It has, and to an extent still does, failed to protect the lives and liberties, but most especially the properties, of the Palestinian people. But what distinguishes Israel from almost any other government the Palestinians have had or are likely to have is that they feel obligated to try and protect these rights. Palestinians can, and have, peacefully protested policies that they disagree with and sued the Israeli government over policies that they feel violate their rights. At worst, Israel gives Palestinians pro forma justice, which is far superior to the indefinite detentions of the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah or mass execution under Hamas. Whether or not they ever receive an independent state, Palestinians will likely continue to face a government that is unresponsive to them, but Israel, despite the almost intractable problems caused by Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups, is making slow but sure progress in giving actual political equality to the people of the West Bank.
In many ways, Israel is like America — a flawed country dealing with the fallout from past injustices in the best way that it can. We both recognize our obligation to work harder on behalf of those oppressed within our own country, but we both acknowledge the need to do so, which is all too uncommon among governments. There are valid criticisms of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and I hope the Israeli government will do more to protect Palestinian property, but at the end of the day, Israel is still by far the best country in the Middle East, and spreading disinformation about the supposed “genocide” of Palestinians will only create confusion and hamper efforts to help Palestinians.