The right of return and the limits of the anti-Apartheid framework

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Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) held their annual conference on November 2-4 in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan. Students from campuses throughout the U.S. and Canada participated in a tremendous weekend of organizing workshops, organizational development, political education and cultural expression. Student activists and others frequently engaged apartheid as both a description of Israeli policy against Palestinians and a node for organizing solidarity and liberation. Increased scholarly and activist use shows a radicalization of discourse. Yet this important development is not itself inherently positive as it can – though does not have to – decenter Palestinian voices from the Palestinian liberation narrative and efforts by focusing on the territory of Palestine at the expense of the geography of Palestinians.*

Activists and analysts began using apartheid as a framework to engage Zionism with some regularity in the 1970s. The early critiques of Israel’s budding alliance with Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia gave way to critiques of Israel as an apartheid state itself. Many of these like Nathan Weinstock’s “The Impact of Zionist Colonization on Palestinian Arab Society before 1948” (Journal of Palestine Studies, 1973) and Israel Shahak’s “Israelis for Human Rights” (Journal of Palestine Studies, 1975) described Zionism’s apartheid practices in all territories it controlled and not just the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, as did Uri Davis in his 1987 book Israel: An Apartheid State. The New York Times in 1988 covered the liberal Zionist group Shalom Achshav’s (Peace Now) demonstration against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by noting banners demanding “Stop Israeli Apartheid Now!” and also ran an ad accusing the Jewish National Fund of “enforc[ing] apartheid.” This radicalization—like most critical political economic examinations of Israeli policy—largely exited liberal discourse with the 1991 Madrid Conference and the ensuing Oslo process, beginning again in earnest only after the April 2002 Operation Defensive Shield during the al-Aqsa Intifada (for example critiques of Israeli arms exports disappeared entirely compared to several books and numerous popular and academic articles in the 1970s and 1980s). The Journal of Palestine Studies and a few other sources hosted a modestly increased use, especially after Israel’s 1989 imposition of closure policies and the 1994 end of South African apartheid.

Palestinians too deployed the framework but it was Israeli and European (including the settler states) leftists who discussed Israeli apartheid most frequently in the earlier period. Much of the Palestinian political leadership and critical research from 1967 until the 1990s came from refugees—those not in the West Bank and Gaza refugee camps nor the ‘present absentees’ with Israeli citizenship, but those who did not themselves live under Israeli apartheid. This points to both similarities and differences between Zionism in Palestine and other settler societies noted for establishing apartheid regimes.

The Northern Rhodesia (post-settler rule, Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (later Rhodesia, post settler-rule, Zimbabwe), German South-West Africa (post-settler rule, Namibia) and Apartheid South Africa settler states all engaged in removals of the indigenous populations. Northern Rhodesia, Rhodesia and South Africa tended to displace indigenous populations—the survivors of the settler invasion at any rate—to areas where they remained under settler apartheid regimes (relatively briefly and not nearly to the same extant in the case of Northern Rhodesia where the settlers had relatively marginal power vis-à-vis both the metropole and indigenous population). The Afrikaner ethnic cleansing of the Western Cape and other areas mostly did not drive the indigenous population from the area where the settler state eventually claimed sovereignty. The Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestine did. German South-West African settlers drove out entirely significant portions of the indigenous population during the settlers’ 1904-07 genocide against Herero and Nama people. While most Hereros today remain in Namibia, a substantial population lives in Botswana where survivors of the genocide resettled after having been driven out (Hereros too have long discussed return, which some have done).

In this respect German South-West Africa more closely resembled Israel than the other settler states noted above for, like Israel, apartheid was imposed only over the population not killed over driven out.** However, unlike that case, most Palestinians do not live where Israel exercises state sovereignty (using Weber’s description of claiming a monopoly on the exercise of ‘legitimate’ violence). Rather, most live in a diaspora scattered across the globe with the majority concentrated in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. It is these removed Palestinians—the majority of all Palestinians—that are most at risk of marginalization in apartheid discourse though even those refugees living under Israeli apartheid too run some risk of being pushed aside.

While much international engagement on Palestinian liberation in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s included refugee discourse, the 1990s witnessed a move to exclude refugees.*** This began with the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority and the arrival of many PLO leaders in the West Bank and Gaza after 1994 (though the shifting geographic discourse likely started earlier with the Intifada and the PLO’s 1988 Algiers Declaration announcing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with Jerusalem as its capital). The Palestinian liberation narrative was now centered—in media, liberal and even much radical coverage—in historic Palestine. Critiques of Israeli policy became ever more focused there, effectively leaving Palestinian refugees on the outside looking in.

This shift can be understood as the refocus from the political geography of Palestinians to the political geography of Palestine. The overwhelming majority of discourse around Israeli apartheid does so within the political geography of Palestine, irrespective of the political geography of Palestinians. That naming Israeli apartheid for what it is fits within radical discussion and organizing does not mean that it necessarily respects Palestinian narratives and voices. Indeed, it can push aside refugee narratives even within Palestine. Palestinian refugees in West Bank and Gaza Strip camps as well as ‘present absentees’ with Israeli citizenship are fixed as subjects to an apartheid regime regardless of their refugee status. Thus, apartheid is a true but partial engagement of their encounter with Zionism. Ending apartheid does not inherently mean right of return.

Israeli practices apartheid, true, but to an even larger degree it practices removal. Between 1967-1994 Israel revoked the residency status of at least 140,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and an unknown number from the Gaza Strip. This amounted to around 10% of the West Bank’s 1994 population. Israel too revoked residency for another 13,115 Palestinians with Jerusalem status, the overwhelming majority of whom had all residency status revoked with the remainder being expelled to the West Bank or Gaza Strip. These revocations are not part of an apartheid regime that seeks separation and domination. They are part of what Patrick Wolfe calls settler colonialism’s “logic of elimination.” Apartheid is just one of the ways Zionism, a specific settler colonial effort, organizes power along with military occupation and others. These more recent expulsions should be counted alongside the refugees expelled during the 1947-49 Nakba—the “ethnic cleansing of Palestine,” and the 1967 Naksa when many tens of thousands of more were driven from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. None of these people are subjects of Israeli apartheid (This is also a main flaw in the various ethnocracy/ethnic democracy examinations which look at how majoritarian states organize power to systematically dominate minority populations. Israel holds the actual majority outside the borders at gunpoint; which is to say that these critiques use a different definition of the minority population—Palestinians including refugees—than the population itself uses.).

Israel began imposing closure policies (compared to South Africa’s Pass Laws) in 1989 during the Intifada, escalated them in 1991, again in 1993, and began a general closure in 2001 during the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Israel’s closure policies and attendant checkpoint regime, along with other policies directed at Palestinians residing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, led to a dramatic escalation in naming Israeli policies apartheid though this was, and to a significant extent remains, predominantly discussed with regards to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Mainstream and liberal discourse also began tentatively using the term, often to point out differences between Israel and South Africa (almost always the only apartheid state offered for comparison) or to note that Israel was in danger of becoming an apartheid state.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s 2006 book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid marked this radicalization of public discourse. Carter, like most making the analogy, left the refugees at arm’s length. Conservative columnist Shmuel Rosner, then with Haaretz, in his critical response to Carter’s analogy concedes that, “Arguing about Apartheid is pointless. There is enough material evidence to prove that apartheid exists in the occupied territories in one form or another. If you argue about the use of this word, you lose.” Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2010 stated “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan river there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.” Rosner and Barak’s partial approval of the term is entirely unnecessary to validate it. It does point however, to the mainstreaming once again of apartheid discourse and its limited relationship with Palestinian refugees.

Radical apartheid discourse often shares this same problem. The new documentary Roadmap to Apartheid is one example. The film, a useful, informative and compelling comparison between the South African and Israeli apartheid states, mentions only briefly the 1947-49 Nakba and does not broach right of return of refugees as part of ending apartheid nor the experience of Palestinian refugees no matter where located. All the apartheid discussion that I heard directly or heard about at the SJP national conference too mostly neglected refugees (My impressions there perhaps reflect my selection of workshops rather than the general discussion. Only one workshop description included refugees.). This was true as well about the recent Independent Jewish Voices annual gathering in Toronto (again reflecting only my impressions of a selection of sessions). The new book Beyond Occupation: Apartheid, Colonialism and International Law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories edited by Virginia Tilley (Pluto, 2012) is another addition. It’s a thorough breakdown of how Israel practices apartheid but most Palestinians are largely left out in the cold.

Organizing against Israeli apartheid is of course not mutually exclusive with organizing for right of return of refugees. Gayatri Spivak famously asked, “Can the subaltern speak?” This we can read next to Edward Said’s call for “permission to narrate” and ask, “Can the superordinate listen?” If the superordinate can listen then we find that Palestinian narration of Israeli apartheid works alongside the Nakba and that anti-apartheid work must be part of realizing the right of return. The 2005 Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is a key example. The call cites global anti-apartheid efforts against South Africa while centralizing Palestinian refugees as both shapers of the call and its eventual beneficiaries. The 2001 book The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid edited by Roane Carey centers refugees and the right of return as one of four sections. Other examples abound.

Yet the anti-apartheid efforts that are also, in effect if not intent, anti-refugee are more common than those that fight against apartheid and for right of return. The discursive radicalization can be a great step towards justice but only if we do not decenter Palestinian voices from Palestinian liberation. Anti-apartheid work must intentionally and centrally engage Palestinian refugees no matter where located not or not only vis-à-vis apartheid, but vis-à-vis removal (an aspect of settler colonialism). As ever it is Palestinian activists who can best guide these efforts. The Naksa and Nakba Day direct actions, the reestablishment of Iqrith, the BDS call and the recent refugee protests in Beirut all offer the chance to focus once again on the political geography of Palestinians instead of the political geography of Palestine through Palestinian refugee efforts to reconcile and reunite these geographies. Here anti-apartheid work can be appropriately conducted and valued as just one facet of Palestinian liberation.


* Another limit discussed by numerous others is that ending apartheid regimes doesn’t necessarily mean broad liberation (as with the South Africa’s and the Palestinian Authority’s neoliberal economic regimes) or even ending racism (as with the persistence of systemic white supremacy decades after Jim Crow in the U.S.).

** Though German South-West African settlers, unlike Zionists, never comprised anywhere near a majority in the territory they controlled. It was a minority apartheid regime rather than Israel’s majoritarian apartheid system.

*** If for no other reason than the reporters covering and activists organizing around the topic engaged (or didn’t) the Palestinian leadership and activists where they were based or active in Damascus, Beirut, Jordan and Tunis.

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This is certainly a complex issue if so considered. However, another way to consider it is that Israel was established [1] somewhat with the support of various nations which felt guilt or sorrow after the Holocaust (or felt Biblical obligations) [2] by violence as with most invader states [3] after the UN had come into existence and ruled out the settlement of international disputes by warfare and [4] a brief moment before the 4 Geneva… Read more »

I agree that the refugees in the Diaspora have been completely left out of the discussion and are rarely if ever mentioned, and this is very sad because they’re the victims of a serious crime, ethnic cleansing, and experienced a grave loss of land, home and in many cases family. I hope to see more reporting on the refugees, their daily struggle, effects of being stateless and the economic hardships they suffer as refugees. We… Read more »

When is the Palestinian diaspora going to be able to vote? – hopefully in the next elections.

The top role of every Palestinian Quisling in recent years is to pretend the Diaspora doesn’t exist or anything but a symbolic or token Right of Return

Thank you. A very important point.

I don’t see why radical apartheid discourse can’t include the refugees. After all, the etymology and meaning of the term apartheid literally is “separateness,” from Dutch apart “separate” (from French àpart; see apart) + suffix -heid, cognate of English -hood, as in separate neighborhood. Israel’s violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the neighboring states to warehouse its unwanted minority population and the use of its laws, snipers, and minefields to keep those particular… Read more »