On July 5, 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, said something that had many rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Reviewing his government’s first 100 days, he pronounced, “We have managed to create a national agreement about the concept of ‘two states for two peoples.’” Can it be that the hardline leader of the Likud, known for opposing almost every withdrawal from occupied territory Israel has ever undertaken, now believes in a peaceful two-state solution?

On the surface, it is hard to tell. On the one hand, Netanyahu is hardly the first Zionist leader to declare support for peace through Palestinian statehood accompanied by Israeli territorial withdrawals. On the other hand, he is solidly within the Zionist consensus behind colonial and oppressive practices that work to further “Judaize” contested space and deny Palestinians — on both sides of the Green Line marking off Israel proper from occupied Palestine — their legitimate rights.

But the prime minister is not schizophrenic, and there is no contradiction between these two positions, which in fact crystallize the latest phase in the changing political geography of Zionist-Palestinian conflict: a phase of neither two states nor one. In place of movement toward two states or one, there is a process of “creeping apartheid” — undeclared, yet structural — reordering the politics and geography of the country between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The colonized West Bank, the besieged Gaza Strip and Israel proper, each with its own official set of rules, are in fact merging into one regime system, ultimately controlled by the Jewish state, which increasingly appears to bear the characteristics of apartheid, and inhabited by people with citizenship status akin to “blacks,” “coloreds” and “whites.” Repeated statements by Israeli leaders in support of Palestinian statehood have thus far functioned to lend this process legitimacy, rather than lead to the end of colonial settlement, military occupation, minority oppression and resolution of the conflict.

The Israeli regime system has long been “ethnocratic,” that is to say, an overall logic of Judaization prevails in all regions under Israeli control despite the differences in their legal and political circumstances. Over time, however, the contradictions of ethnocracy have led to a deepening of the “separate and unequal” conditions in Israel-Palestine. Jews enjoy a relatively even and privileged political and legal position, while Palestinians are divided into several proto-groups, each having a differently inferior set of rights and capabilities. Under the process of creeping apartheid, Palestinians are increasingly confined to a series of what may be called “black” and “colored” ghettoes, while Jews reside in relatively open localities, both in Israel and in the Judaized West Bank.

Crossing the Rubicon?

A new political geographic phase has prevailed since the early 1990s, leading to a sea change in the discourse of Israeli leaders toward the Palestinians. Under the new approach, Israeli leaders are gradually recognizing Palestinian collective rights, although in vague terms and with perpetual delays in implementation. The shift came after decades of intransigent denial of the Palestinian right to self-determination and statehood, combined with support of Jewish expansion into the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Palestinian regions inside Israel.

A notable early turn into the new discourse was taken by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was willing to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization and “Palestinian national political rights” as enshrined in the Oslo accords of 1993. Another premier from the Labor Party, Ehud Barak, negotiated at Camp David in 2000 and at Taba in 2001 over the shape of a Palestinian state, and ordered withdrawal of the Israeli army from Lebanon. The Labor Party’s reputation, if not its policies or actions, had been moderate for some time, so the change in discourse became much more conspicuous when right-wing nationalist leaders such as Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu began to use it. These men had built their careers on advancing Zionist colonization and advocating violence in order to achieve strategic defeat of Palestinian nationalism, what Baruch Kimmerling aptly termed the “politicide” of the Palestinians. [1]

The transformation was starkest in Sharon, justly regarded as the father of the settlement project in the West Bank and a long-time champion of the idea that Israel’s security required a Greater Israel stretching from the river to the sea. In 2002, Sharon rejected the idea of leaving even the most isolated outposts in Gaza: “Under my leadership there will be no empty concessions to the Palestinians. The fate of Netzarim and Kfar Darom is the same as Tel Aviv.” Just over one year later, the aging premier reversed himself: “It is impossible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation. Yes, it is occupation, and it is bad for Israel.” Moreover, unlike other Israeli leaders who had expressed comparable sentiments, Sharon turned his words into action, carrying out a unilateral military withdrawal and evacuation of 25 Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank in 2005. It was the first time that Israel had willingly vacated areas it considers to be the Jewish homeland, that is, the biblical Land of Israel.

Before he slipped into a coma in early 2006, Sharon also led a coterie of ideological confreres out of Likud and formed a new party, Kadima, whose raison d’etre was to complete similar withdrawals, or “disengagements,” from more of the West Bank. His successor as prime minister, Ehud Olmert of Kadima, actively sought to effect this withdrawal and, failing that, to negotiate a two-state agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In a rare burst of frankness, Olmert later declared: “Failure to reach a peace agreement and create a viable Palestinian state could plunge Israel into a South African-style apartheid struggle.” If that happens, he said, “the state of Israel is finished.” He was backed in the spirit of these comments by his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, now leader of Kadima, whose 2009 election campaign was heavily focused on the two-state horizon.

Does this transformation signal the crossing of the peace Rubicon? It appears not. While the Greater Israel agenda is all but dead, its replacement is unlikely to be either a viable Palestinian state alongside democratic Israel or one democratic state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Rather, its replacement will probably be peace-seeking rhetoric masking a reality of apartheid. In other words, the Israeli ethnocratic project is changing its character, from horizontal to vertical, and its main goal, from expansion to enhancement of ethno-national privilege. Jews, wherever they live, will be at the top of the ladder, and the Palestinians varying numbers of rungs below them.

This outcome is not inevitable. Concerted and determined international pressure, led by the United States, could still bring about a viable and fully sovereign Palestinian state, with international law implemented, Palestinian rights respected, legitimate Israeli rights protected and the region stabilized. Yet such a peaceful trajectory would require both Jews and Palestinians, and especially the former, to deal honestly with the core issues shaping the conflict, such as the consequences of 1948 war, the plight of Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, borders and the future of Palestinians inside Israel. It appears unlikely that any political force, including Israel’s American patron, will have the wherewithal or the willpower to compel Israel to halt the process of creeping apartheid.

Aggression and Conciliation

The contours of the contemporary phase in Israel-Palestine’s political geography are complex, including measured readjustment and some shrinkage of the Zionist territorial project, mixed with new forms of domination over Palestine and Palestinians. The new phase follows decades of unabated Zionist demographic and spatial expansion, characterized by Jewish-only immigration, tight military control, construction of some 800 Jewish settlements in Israel proper and over 200 in the Occupied Territories, massive land confiscation and uncompromising attempts to Judaize all of the country.

Transition to the current phase occurred gradually, as a response to a range of events demonstrating that the previous colonial momentum could not be sustained. Chief among these events were the two intifadas beginning in 1987 and 2000, the Palestinian resort to suicide terror against Israeli civilians, the rise of Hamas and its rocket campaign from Gaza, and growing pressure against Israel’s illegal settlements from an increasingly antagonistic world community. Israeli elites began to realize that further expansion and direct oppression bear high security, economic and social costs, which run counter to the increasingly popular agendas of globalization and liberalization.

In the absence of a genuine wish for reconciliation with the Palestinians according to binding international decisions, however, Israel sought to rearrange control over Israel-Palestine so as to minimize these costs. The overall strategy was unilateral separation, which saw the creation of parallel geographies for Palestinians and Jews in the West Bank, with concrete walls and high fences penning in Palestinian towns and villages, and asphalt highways easing settler travel, as well as the evacuation of Gaza and the maintenance of uneven segregation inside Israel.

Beyond the thrust for separation, Israel’s moves were often confused. On the one hand, it allowed settlers to build new “outpost” settlements wedged between Palestinian population centers; accelerated the expansion of existing settlements; mounted a series of “anti-terror” offensives using state terror against civilians; constructed the massive illegal separation barrier in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; tightened the years-long siege of Gaza; and launched highly destructive invasions of the coastal strip as well as southern Lebanon. These moves found echoes in new discriminatory policies toward Palestinian citizens of Israel, whose political and civil status within the Jewish state was further compromised. [2]

On the other hand, Israel also made gestures toward Palestinian rights: It recognized the PLO, allowed the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and declared its support for Palestinian statehood, which only a decade previously was anathema to over 90 percent of Israeli Jews. Israel also retreated from the main Palestinian towns and cities, southern Lebanon and the entire Gaza Strip; evacuated settlements; enshrined previously denied Palestinian rights to purchase Israeli state land; and recognized ten (out of 45) previously “illegal” Bedouin villages in the Naqab desert. In surveys, a steady majority of Jews agrees, in theory, at least, that Palestinian citizens should have equal individual rights in Israel proper, and that Israel should conclude a peace with a newly established Palestinian state encompassing the majority of the Occupied Territories.

And yet — barring intense international pressure — these gestures do not provide a sufficient foundation for peace, because they are tactical and utilitarian, rather than strategic. They are evidence of conflict management, rather than a drive for reconciliation. Zionism remains a deeply ethnocratic movement, premised on a self-constructing narrative of an historical “right” to the entire Promised Land and the associated dispossession of Palestinians who object to the exclusivity of that right. Most Israeli Jews are accordingly unable to think productively about the core issues of the conflict, chiefly Israel’s role in the 1948 nakba. Denial of the nakba, as the Palestinians term their defeat in the 1948 war, the loss of their would-be state and the flight of refugees, has become a core Zionist value. Most Jews — officials, scholars and ordinary citizens — simply refuse to enter a discussion on the nakba, or alternatively justify it as “necessary,” thereby legitimizing the 1948 ethnic cleansing and the subsequent destruction of over 400 Palestinian villages and towns, and endorsing the continued “right” of Jews to colonize Palestine.

Thus blinded to the past, Israeli Jews cannot or will not look objectively at the present and future, whether regarding the Palestinian refugees, East Jerusalem, borders or the status of the Palestinians inside Israel. This avoidance is wrapped into Zionist discourse by continuous public invocation of (often genuine) communal fears in the face of anti-Jewish violence and the more radical, at times anti-Semitic, communiqués of Hamas and its allied organizations. These fears feed on ambient memories of the Holocaust, as well as distortion of Arab intentions toward Israel. In the end, avoidance and denial are what bestirred Israel to make both its sets of unilateral moves, the aggressive and the conciliatory, toward Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line.

Ethnocracy and Democracy

Apartheid conditions always develop on the basis of existing political and cultural foundations. In Israel, these foundations are the state’s long-standing ethnocratic regime and the associated racist treatment of Palestinians who stand in the way of the state’s program of Judaization.

Ethnocratic regimes are commonly found in contested territories in which a dominant ethnic nation appropriates the state apparatus to further its expansionist aspirations. Significantly, such regimes tend to keep in place democratic procedures that can be selectively applied to groups under their control. Being able to portray the regime as democratic is important for the legitimacy of the ethnocratic project in the eyes of the majority group as well as international circles. The democratic frame also allows minorities to mobilize politically and to enjoy substantial (if not equal) civil and political rights.

But despite their democratic features, ethnocratic states such as Israel are typified by ongoing subjection and exploitation of weakened groups, who invariably resist the order, often violently. This asymmetry tends to produce closely held identities and polarize the polity. Examples of ethnocratic regimes include Serbia, Estonia, Latvia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkey, apartheid South Africa and nineteenth-century Australia. [3]

Despite its history of eviction, conquest and occupation, Israel is still considered democratic by politicians and the public, even in countries where Israel is routinely criticized. Even scholars critical of Israel use the term “Israeli democracy,” though often with qualifiers such as “imagined,” “ethnic” or “deeply flawed.” This tendency draws on the continuing illusion that Israel is an entity neatly contained within the Green Line, even though this very entity settles hundreds of thousands of Jews in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and separates them legally and spatially from local Arabs.

The political system in Israel proper does maintain key democratic practices, such as periodic (though not universal or free) elections and protection of important civil rights such as freedom of speech, movement and association, relative (though far from complete) gender equality and homosexual rights. Israel boasts a strong, quite independent judiciary and relatively open media. Further, since the early 1990s, Israeli society has undergone significant liberalization, privatization and globalization, with greater exposure to international standards and influx of foreign investment. These processes have allowed Israelis greater economic and cultural freedoms, and enabled them to portray the nation as Western, free and progressive. [4] It is mainly Jews, however, who have benefited from these processes, while Palestinians remain either on the margins or locked out. In addition, the democratizing changes have not modified the most oppressive facets of the Israeli regime, such as the ongoing Judaization of land, the disenfranchisement of nearly 4 million Palestinians, the central role of the military and security forces, the Jewish-only immigration policies and the marginality of the 1.2 million Palestinian citizens.

Phases of Colonization

The historical momentum of Israel’s ethnocratic-colonial system is particularly important for the making of apartheid-type relations and requires some elaboration. The Zionist colonization of geographic Palestine has taken place in five main stages. The first, lasting from the late nineteenth century until 1947, can be termed the “colonialism of survival.” Most Jews who came to Palestine in these years were fleeing as refugees, from Eastern European pogroms, the mortal threat of Nazism and, then, the Holocaust. In Palestine, organized by Zionist groups and ideas, they expanded their area of settlement by purchasing land, often from absentee Arab owners, while forming proto-national institutions and armed forces, as foundations for a future state.

The second stage, during the 1947-1949 war, was characterized by ethnic cleansing. It saw the establishment of the state of Israel following the Arabs’ rejection of the UN partition plan and attack on the nascent Israeli polity. The war ended with Palestine conquered by Israel, Jordan and Egypt and the majority of Palestinians rendered homeless and stateless. 1948 was the watershed year shaping the Israeli regime, which is built to protect the military and demographic achievements of the 1948 war for Zionism, such as the seizure of Palestinian territory beyond the allocation of the UN partition plan, the expulsion of most of the land’s Arabs and the Judaization of vast tracts of land. Israel was accepted as a member state of the UN. The Palestinians became a fragmented and defeated nation, dispersed among six countries, unable to contest the Judaization of their homeland.

The third phase, from 1949 to 1967, was typified by “internal colonialism”: Most Palestinian villages now within Israel were destroyed, and the return of Palestinian refugees prohibited. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Jews, mainly refugees or forced migrants from Europe and the Middle East, settled in hundreds of new Jewish settlements, some erected on the previously Arab lands. The Jewish settlement project was centrally planned with modern methods, not only to de-Arabize Palestine, but also to build the Zionist nation. Israel established a formal democracy, although its Palestinian citizens were concentrated in enclaves and placed under military administration until 1966.

The fourth phase from 1967 to 1993 was marked by external, expansionist colonialism. It followed Israeli conquest of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and saw a huge project of state-sponsored colonization. Over 100 Jewish settlements that today host nearly half a million Jews were built in breach of international law. The illicit settlements include those built in occupied Arab Jerusalem, which was partly and illegally annexed to Israel. Religious themes became central to the narratives of both nations, helping to justify the escalating violence. Much of the Jewish settlement was driven by the desire to “return to sacred sites” and Palestinians increasingly used Islamic rhetoric to fire their resistance. Within Israel proper, Judaization continued through the construction of dozens of semi-suburban Jewish housing tracts in predominantly Arab regions, with concomitant restrictions on building by Arabs.

The fifth and present stage, beginning with the 1993 Oslo accords, can be characterized as “oppressive consolidation” and marks the effective end of significant Zionist expansionism. Settlements are still being built in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, but the vast majority of Jewish population increase in the West Bank occurs in settlements of long standing. At the same time, bypass roads connect the existing settlements ever more closely to Israel proper, further “Israelizing” Jewish colonies. The wall-and-fence complex that has replaced the Green Line as the de facto border between Israel proper and the West Bank and the enormous terminals that have replaced checkpoints outside most Palestinian cities cast a mighty shadow over both Palestinian daily life, but in strategic terms, they are management techniques of the overall stalemate. Maximal separation (in Hebrew, hafrada) is the new logic. Both nations, not surprisingly, have become more polarized, and radical factions have risen. Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections and violently took over Gaza in 2007. In Israel, two hardline Likud governments were elected, first in 2001 and then in 2009, and Orthodox Jews have become more influential in the country’s leadership and in the army.

And so it is not accidental that the term “apartheid” has entered the discourse about Israel-Palestine. The momentum of straightforward colonization — the conquest of Arab lands and expansion of Jewish settlements — has slowed, but the resulting stalemate is hardly acceptable to Palestinians, who resist in various ways. From the Israeli side, the attempt is to reduce the costs of its control while maintaining political and military superiority. It has chosen an undeclared system that resembles apartheid, a system of rule that aims to cement separate and unequal ethnic relations.

Master Types

But the definition of the Israeli regime is complicated by several factors, not least the mismatch between the territory under the state’s control and that within its internationally recognized borders. Creeping apartheid in Israel-Palestine is thus best described as a process, rather than a well-delineated system of government. The occupation of the West Bank and discrimination against the Palestinians there are considered by Israel, and to some extent by international law, as temporary conditions subject to the self-defined security needs of the occupier. At this point, with the occupation over 40 years old and the settlements being consolidated, these conditions are in total breach of international law. While Israeli elites and their apologists still resort to such manipulations, their legal and political power is waning.

For example, Jewish settlements in the West Bank — outside the state’s recognized sovereign territory — are both civilian and permanent. They cannot be understood as part of a temporary military occupation, as Israel still claims in legal forums. Why would Sharon and Netanyahu press for the “natural growth” of towns they view as ephemeral? The progress of the settlement project in the Palestinians’ midst shows that the indigenous residents have been unwillingly and unwittingly incorporated as third-class subjects of the regime. Israel’s ongoing interest in representing this situation as “temporary” derives from its “need” to avoid endowing West Bank Palestinians with full civil rights.

Further, in the fifth stage of ethnocratic colonization, apartheid practices are creeping back into Israel proper, albeit with lesser severity than in the first and second phases. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, as documented by Mossawa, Adalah and other human rights organizations in Israel, the state has promulgated a series of new restrictions upon the movements, personal freedoms, employment, land ownership and political rights of Palestinian citizens. There is openly racist talk of “punishing the Arab enemy,” redrawing borders for the purpose of “population exchange” (a code name for annexing settlements and, “in return,” excluding Arab towns near the West Bank border from Israel), and stripping Palestinians in Israel of their citizenship.

The creep of apartheid is most apparent to Bedouin Palestinians in the Naqab region, who struggle against constant threats to their localities on their ancestors’ land. As part of withholding recognition of land and residency rights, the state denies the Bedouin basic services such as water, electricity, roads and schooling. The state also refuses to recognize the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, elected by the Bedouin as a regional leadership. State violence is commonly used against the Bedouin, with 604 demolitions of unauthorized homes from 2001 to 2008. In some important respects, the plight of Bedouin in the unrecognized villages is worse than that of most of their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza.

The vagueness of the adjective “creeping” captures another definitional difficulty: the existence of legal and political differences between the various Arab areas under Israeli control. The West Bank is officially designated as under “belligerent occupation” and the Gaza Strip as “hostile territory,” while Israel proper is commonly called a formal democracy, where Palestinians hold equal individual rights under the law. But Israel itself ruptured the boundaries between these regions and hence undermined the fine distinctions of legal-political status. It has imposed Israeli law in the Jewish settlements whose jurisdiction now covers around 40 percent of the West Bank — an act of de facto annexation. Israel continues to control nearly all key components of sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza, such as immigration, population registration, imports and exports, water management, transportation infrastructure, land and planning policies, foreign relations and investment. Simultaneously, Arabs inside Israel have become second-class citizens, de facto and de jure.

It is no longer possible to distinguish between different “regimes” in Israel-Palestine, as the entire space is ultimately controlled by the Jewish state. There are, however, gradations in rights and capabilities between Jews and Palestinians, and among various groups of Palestinians, which bring the process of creeping apartheid into focus. Israel officially ranks Palestinian groups and awards each a separate status according to a combination of ethnicity and location, while Jews, differences of class, color and religiosity notwithstanding, remain everywhere equal in civil status. Palestinians are classified as follows, in descending order of legal status: the Druze, many of whom serve in the army; Palestinians in the Galilee and “triangle” regions; Bedouin in the Naqab, the most under-privileged citizens; East Jerusalem Palestinians, non-citizen permanent residents who have yellow Israeli plates on their cars because they live in a city that Israel has partially annexed; Palestinians in the West Bank; Gazans; and refugees located outside Israeli-controlled territory who are denied their claims of residency and property rights by the regime.

The logic of Judaization underpins Israeli policies toward all these groups in unique ways, though the groups fall into two broad categories of citizens and non-citizens. The variations in legal standing and exposure to oppression and violence make a significant difference in Palestinians’ life opportunities, economic standing and ability to exercise rights.

To borrow the language of apartheid South Africa, Israel appears to have created three master types of civil status in the areas under its control: “white” (Jewish), “colored” (Palestinians with Israeli citizenship) and “black” (Palestinians in the Occupied Territories). Two brief examples will illustrate the point. Take, first, socio-economic status: The per capita gross domestic product of Israeli Jews in 2006 was about 15 times higher than that of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, but also twice as high as that of the Palestinians in Israel. Unemployment in the Occupied Territories reached 50-60 percent, while hovering around 12-15 percent among Palestinians in Israel, and around half that figure among Jews. About three quarters of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories live in poverty, as compared to some 53 percent of the Palestinians in Israel and 17 percent of the Jews.

Second, take the issue of planning and construction. In Area C of the West Bank, the territory that remains under direct Israeli administration by the terms of the Oslo agreement, only one of the 149 Palestinian villages has an approved outline plan, enabling the residents to build legally. Consequently, 1,626 houses were demolished from 2000 to 2008 and an additional 4,820 were served demolition orders. At the same time, half the Palestinian localities in Israel lack an approved plan and they, too, are constantly subject to house demolition. In 2000, according to an inter-ministerial committee headed by Shlomo Gazit, there were 22,000 unauthorized buildings in Palestinian localities in Israel’s central and northern regions and 16,000 in their Jewish counterparts. Arabs had suffered over 800 demolitions in the preceding decade, as opposed to only 24 for Jews. This disparity was also vivid in the Naqab, where Jews built 62 family farms with no planning approval. Despite the appeals of several human rights and environmental groups, all were retroactively legalized in 2009. At the same time, Bedouins in the Naqab who reside on their ancestors’ land suffered 604 home demolitions between 2000 and 2008.


Geography is vital because the creeping apartheid process relies heavily on a range of skewed settlement, land, development and boundary demarcation policies and regulations. Palestinians amount to 48 percent of the population between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, but control only 15 percent of the land, while Jewish groups and authorities, including the army, control the rest, including most parks, expanses of wilderness and natural resources. Inside the Green Line the inequality is even starker: Palestinians amount to 18 percent of the population but control less than 3 percent of the land. In 1947, Jewish individuals and institutions controlled only 5 percent of historical Palestine or 7 percent of what became Israel.

As a result, the Palestinians have been enclosed in “rough space” — an archipelago of ghettoes with their settlement system remaining nearly frozen since 1948. At the same time, Jews greatly expanded their living space and enjoy freedom of habitation, settlement and travel in the vast majority of the land. In its management of space, too, Israel-Palestine has been divided into three master types — “black,” “colored” and “white.” “Black” ghettoes, mainly in Gaza and the West Bank, are harshly policed, the residents confined by walls, checkpoints and periodic curfews. Physical and legal barriers also cut off the “black” ghettoes from each other, according to the desiderata of Jewish settlements and the military.

“Colored” ghettoes, where Palestinian citizens of Israel and most Palestinians of East Jerusalem reside, have more porous boundaries but also have major restrictions on land rights and development for the inhabitants. For example, Palestinians in Israel struggle to move out of their ghettoes due to limitations on their ability to purchase land and lack of educational, cultural and religious facilities elsewhere. The Arab areas are not only inferior in status to Jewish areas, but Israel also strives to prevent mixing of “black” and “colored,” as with the 2008 restriction on marriage between Palestinians from the Occupied Territories and those from Israel. Most boundaries, not least the Green Line, apply to Palestinians only.

In contrast, the “white spaces” where most Jews reside come in a variety of shapes and forms. Importantly, though, they are all situated within contiguous, “smooth” Jewish territory precisely because the state effectively Judaizes all spaces where Jews settle. They enjoy freedom of movement and similar rights. It is the uniform legal and geographical status of Jewish space between the river and the sea that effectively connects the variegated Arab spaces under the one regime. Jewish localities generate their boundaries from within, mainly for preventing the entry of Palestinians and, in some cases, “undesirable” Jews, such as working-class Mizrahim or the ultra-Orthodox. By law and practice, and with the backing of the army, Jews can reside and purchase land nearly anywhere in Israel-Palestine. This geography is the backdrop against which statements in support of Palestinian statehood appear particularly empty.

…and Beyond

In theory, the change of the political discourse to support Palestinian statehood has potential to move the political geography of Israel-Palestine toward peace and reconciliation. Close examination, however, reveals that Israel has so far acted to lend legitimacy to its strategy of consolidating control over the Palestinians. Jewish expansion appears to be ending, but in its place the confinement of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line in ghettoes proceeds. The ensemble of new discourses and regulations has combined to create an order best described as creeping apartheid. This highly oppressive and internationally illegal order is, needless to say, replete with suffering and prone to outbursts of violence.

This predicament necessitates new thinking. How long, for example, can Israel stick to its legal argument that the occupation is “temporary,” without being declared an apartheid regime by the international community? This question is paramount.

There is a need as well to investigate the various types of apartheid regimes that deviate in detail, but not in principle, from what obtained in South Africa. It appears that the creeping apartheid in Israel-Palestine is based on ethnic, national and religious, but not “racial,” or skin color, categories. What political and moral difference does this entail? Does Israel resemble a Serbian model of apartheid more than the multi-racial South African one? And what difference does the existence of the state of Israel with its legitimate UN standing make for resolution of the conflict?

In addition, the intersection of identity and class is critical: What is the connection between apartheid-like forced separation and accelerating privatization and globalization of the economy in Israel-Palestine? What roles do the US and European economies and military industries play in this process? What are the consequences of Israel’s systematic import of foreign labor to replace Palestinians? How does the apartheid process feed on rapid accumulation of capital among small national elites? And, finally, is the ghettoization of the Palestinians effecting a parallel economic and political ghettoization of Israel itself in the Middle East?

One can imagine several visions that might resolve the predicament. The best appears to be an old one that was abandoned far too easily — socially progressive binationalism. There could be an Israeli-Palestinian confederation (based on two sovereign spaces, possibly leading to a federation) with an integrated economy, a joint capital city, open borders and fair accommodation of the Palestinian refugees. Discussions about these options have already begun in several arenas and are likely to pick up steam. They may sow the intellectual and political seeds of a genuinely just and peaceful future for this strife-torn land.


[1] Baruch Kimmerling, Politicide: Israel’s Policy Toward the Palestinians (London: Zed, 2005).
[2] See Oren Yiftachel, “The Shrinking Space of Ethnocratic Citizenship” in Joel Beinin and Rebecca L. Stein, eds., The Struggle for Sovereignty (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006); and Oren Yiftachel, “Voting for Apartheid: The 2009 Israeli Elections,” Journal of Palestine Studies 38/3 (Spring 2009).
[3] See Oren Yiftachel and Asad Ghanem, “Understanding Ethnocratic Regimes: The Politics of Seizing Contested Territories,” Political Geography 23/6 (August 2004).
[4] See Uri Ram, The Globalization of Israel (Tel Aviv: Resling, 2008).

How to cite this article:

Oren Yiftachel "“Creeping Apartheid” in Israel-Palestine," Middle East Report 253 (Winter 2009).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This