Not a New Phenomenon: References to Apartheid in the context of Israel/Palestine

Media Briefs
October 03, 2017

Not a New Phenomenon: References to Apartheid in the context of Israel/Palestine


In March 2017, the release of a report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) on the question of Israeli practices towards the Palestinian people caused a political storm. Following intense and immediate pressure from Israel and its political allies, the UN Secretary General succumbed and agreed to withdraw the report. The head of ESCWA, Rima Khalaf, resigned in protest.

What apparently made the report so unpalatable to those who opposed it was the use of the term ‘Apartheid’. However, and as can be seen from the following document, Apartheid is a term which has been used in relation to Israel since as early as 1967, and by a wide spectrum of individuals and organizations, notably including a number of high-profile Israelis.

The ESCWA report- a serious academic study of international law- was by no means the first reference to Apartheid in the context of Israel. And, unfortunately for those subjected to these practices, it will not be the last.


UN Economic and Social Commission for East Asia:

“This report establishes, on the basis of scholarly inquiry and overwhelming evidence, that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid.“ (March 2017)[i]

UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk:

“Through prolonged occupation, with practices and policies which appear to constitute apartheid and segregation, ongoing expansion of settlements, and continual construction of the wall… the denial by Israel of the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people is evident.” (January 2014)[ii]

“[The special Rapporteur recommends that] the General Assembly request the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion on the legal status of the prolonged occupation of Palestine… and further assess allegations that the prolonged occupation possesses legally unacceptable characteristics of “colonialism”, “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing”…” (January 2014)[iii]

The Rapporteur believes that there are important issues of language that arise from the cumulative effects of Israeli violations of international humanitarian law, human rights law and criminal law. It becomes misleading to treat these violations as distinct behavioural instances disconnected from broader consequences… To call appropriate attention to the effects and implications of these unambiguously unlawful patterns, and their somewhat perverse ex post facto attempted “legalization” and “normalization” requires stronger expository language to better understand the unbridled assault upon Palestinian rights and prospects for meaningful self-determination. It is against this background that this report has decided to employ such terms as “annexation”, “ethnic cleansing”, “apartheid”, “colonialist” and “criminality” as more adequately expressing the actual nature of the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.” (January 2011)[iv]


UN Special Rapporteur John Dugard:

“Settler roads link settlements to each other and to Israel. These roads are largely closed to Palestinian vehicles. (Israel has therefore introduced a system of “road apartheid”, which was unknown in apartheid South Africa.)” (January 2008)[v]

“The Special Rapporteur is unfortunately compelled to compare the different permit systems that govern the lives of Palestinians within the OPT with the notorious “pass law” system which determined the right of Africans to move and reside in so-called white areas under the apartheid regime of South Africa.” (December 2004)[vi]

President of the United Nations General Assembly Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann: 

"I spoke this morning about apartheid and how Israeli policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories appear so similar to the apartheid of an earlier era, a continent away. I believe it is very important that we in the United Nations use this term. We must not be afraid to call something what it is. It is the United Nations, after all, that passed the International Convention against the Crime of Apartheid, making clear to all the world that such practices of official discrimination must be outlawed wherever they occur.” (November 2008)[vii]

Government Officials (International)

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry:

“If there’s no two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict soon, Israel risks becoming “an apartheid state,” (Apr 2014)[viii]

(Then) Chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (and current German Foreign Minister) Sigmar Gabriel:

“I was just in Hebron. There’s a legal vacuum there for Palestinians. This is an apartheid regime, for which there is no justification…” (March 2012)[ix]

Former UK Minister for International Development Desmond Swayne:

“Has he [Minister Tobias Ellwood] walked the streets of Hebron, which Palestinians may not use? We used to call that apartheid…”[x]

Former US President Jimmy Carter (on his book Palestine Peace not Apartheid)

"The book describes the abominable oppression and persecution in the occupied Palestinian territories, with a rigid system of required passes and strict segregation between Palestine’s citizens and Jewish settlers in the West Bank. An enormous imprisonment wall is now under construction, snaking through what is left of Palestine to encompass more and more land for Israeli settlers. In many ways, this is more oppressive than what blacks lived under in South Africa during apartheid. I have made it clear that the motivation is not racism but the desire of a minority of Israelis to confiscate and colonize choice sites in Palestine, and then to forcefully suppress any objections from the displaced citizens.” (December 2006)[xi]

H.H. Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, Amir of Qatar:

“Besides, what could Israel do with the millions of Palestinians living on their own land and are increasing in number and resourcefulness? So, the options are narrowing and Israel has either to go for the two-state solution or to opt for establishing a system of apartheid. And does Israel really think that it could maintain a system of apartheid in the 21st century?” (September 2016)[xii]


Israeli Officials 

(Then) Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion:

“Israel […] better rid itself of the territories and their Arab population as soon as possible… if it d[oes] not Israel w[ill] soon become an apartheid state.” (1967)[xiii]

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert:

“If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished," (November 2007)[xiv]

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak:

"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." (February 2010)[xv]

Former Education Minister Shulamit Aloni:

“…the state of Israel practises its own, quite violent, form of Apartheid with the native Palestinian population.” (January 2007)[xvi]

Former Environment Minister Yossi Sarid:

“And what acts like apartheid, is run like apartheid and harasses like apartheid, is not a duck - it is apartheid.” (April 2008)[xvii]

Former Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair:

“In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture. That oppressive regime exists to this day.” (March 2002)[xviii]

Former Ambassador to South Africa Alon Liel:

“In the situation that exists today, until a Palestinian state is created, we are actually one state. This joint state… is an apartheid state…” (February 2013)[xix]


Notable figures in Israeli Society

Historian Ilan Pappe:

“The one apartheid state of Israel came into being around 2001, but maybe we haven’t noticed that. But it’s there. It is there and it’s going to be more and more legalized as an apartheid state with every passing day.” (April 2017)[xx]

Israeli writer Uri Avnery:

“If they annex the West Bank as they have annexed East Jerusalem… it doesn’t make much of a difference. The trouble is that in this territory which is now dominated by Israel, there are about 49 per cent Jews and 51 per cent Arabs – and this balance will become larger every year because the natural increase on the Arab side is far greater than the natural increase on our side. So the real question is: if this policy goes on, what kind of state will it be? As it is today, it is an Apartheid state, a full apartheid in the occupied territories and a growing apartheid in Israel – and if this goes on, it will be full apartheid throughout the country, incontestably.” (November 2012)[xxi]

Comedian and TV Personality Assef Harel:

“Israel controls everything that goes in or out… Ever since the right-wing took power, more and more voices are warning of apartheid. Are you kidding? Apartheid has been here for ages. Ages. It’s just that we’re on its good side, so it doesn’t really bother us.” (March 2017)[xxii]

Human Rights Organisation B’Tselem:

"Israel has created in the Occupied Territories a regime of separation based on discrimination, applying two separate systems of law in the same area and basing the rights of individuals on their nationality. This regime is the only one of its kind in the world, and is reminiscent of distasteful regimes from the past, such as the apartheid regime in South Africa." (May 2002)[xxiii]

Head of Israeli Human Rights Organisation Breaking the Silence Yehuda Shaul:

“As Israelis, we must ask ourselves what kind of Israel we want, a democratic state or an apartheid state.” (February 2017)[xxiv]

Journalist and Academic Zvi Bar'el:

"Israel's apartheid movement is coming out of the woodwork and is taking on a formal, legal shape. It is moving from voluntary apartheid, which hides its ugliness through justifications of 'cultural differences' and 'historic neglect' which only requires a little funding and a couple of more sewage pipes to make everything right – to a purposeful, open, obligatory apartheid, which no longer requires any justification.” (October 2010)[xxv]

Publisher of Haaretz Newspaper Amos Schocken:

"Israel’s citizens ostensibly live in a democratic situation, with the right to vote and to be elected – but here, regrettably, I must resort to a comparison with South Africa. The whites there also had the right to vote and to be elected, but South Africa was not a democracy. The regime there ruled millions of disenfranchised blacks. The Israeli occupation and Israel’s control of broad aspects of the life of the Palestinians – who do not have the right to influence their lives by democratic means – is an undemocratic, South Africa-type situation which conflicts with the democratic Zionist vision." (July 2014)[xxvi]

Israeli journalist Gideon Levy:

"The binational state is already here, and has been for a long time.... The only question still open is what kind of state it will be: a binational democracy, or binational with an apartheid regime” (October 2014)[xxvii]

Israeli journalist Bradley Burston:

"I used to be one of those people who took issue with the label of apartheid as applied to Israel... I'm not one of those people any more. Not after the last few weeks... Our Israel is what it has become: Apartheid.” (August 2015)[xxviii]

Israeli journalist Amira Hass:

“If the donor states now finance the upgrading of Palestinian roads, they will be providing the Palestinians with temporary relief. But they will be direct accessories in consolidating a uniquely Israeli regime of separation and apartheid.” (September 2004)[xxix]

Haaretz Editorial:

“Not only is the planning inequitable in scope, it is carried out by separate planning bureaucracies; while the settlers enjoy a planning system sympathetic to them, the Palestinians face a military planning bureaucracy that is hostile. Even though in recent years, in response to the petition and under pressure from Europe, the Civil Administration has prepared 11 master plans for Palestinians and slowly approved a few local plans that were prepared, the discrimination is still built in to the system and results in planning apartheid.” (April 2014)[xxx]

Other Notable Figures

UK Chairman of the United Jewish Israel Appeal and executive of the Jewish Leadership Council Mick Davis:

“[If the world community were to lose hope in the possibility of a two-state solution, then demographics would eventually cause Israel to become an apartheid state] because we then have the majority going to be governed by the minority." (November 2010)[xxxi]

Linguist, Philosopher and Political Commentator Noam Chomsky:

“In the Occupied Territories, what Israel is doing is much worse than apartheid … To call it apartheid is a gift to Israel, at least if by 'apartheid' you mean South African-style apartheid. What’s happening in the Occupied Territories is much worse. There’s a crucial difference. The South African Nationalists needed the black population. That was their workforce. … The Israeli relationship to the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is totally different. They just don’t want them. They want them out, or at least in prison." (August 2014)[xxxii]

Former Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress Henry Siegman:

“Israel’s relentless drive to establish "facts on the ground" in the occupied West Bank… seems finally to have succeeded in locking in the irreversibility of its colonial project. As a result of that "achievement,"… Israel has crossed the threshold from "the only democracy in the Middle East" to the only apartheid regime in the Western world…”[xxxiii]

Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

"I have witnessed the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces… Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government." (March 2014)[xxxiv]

“I've been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.” (April 2002)[xxxv]

Former South African Deputy Defence Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge:

What I see here is worse than what we experienced… The absolute control of people's lives, the lack of freedom of movement, the army presence everywhere, the total separation and the extensive destruction we saw." (July 2008)[xxxvi]

ANC Veteran (unnamed):

"The daily indignity to which the Palestinian population is subjected far outstrips the apartheid regime. And the effectiveness with which the bureaucracy implements the repressive measures far exceed that of the apartheid regime." (July 2008)[xxxvii]

President of the US Middle East Project Daniel Levy:

“However, the Israeli government has not voted to endorse two states; many, even most Israeli ministers, oppose a Palestinian state, and those who sometimes do endorse the label, including the prime minister, have in practice offered something more closely resembling apartheid South Africa–style Bantustans than real statehood.” (March 2017)[xxxviii]

American Novelist and Activist Alice Walker:

"[Israel] is guilty of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people." (June 2012)[xxxix]


Conferences and Studies

UN Economic and Social Commission for East Asia:

“This report establishes, on the basis of scholarly inquiry and overwhelming evidence, that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid.“ (March 2017)[xl]

Palestinian Human Rights Organization Al-Haq:

“Israel’s illegal exercise of sovereign rights over Palestinian water resources and its discriminatory policies and practices are integral elements of an institutionalised system of Jewish-Israeli domination over Palestinians as a group, in the form of a colonial and apartheid regime.” (July 2013)[xli]

Russell Tribunal 3rd Session Conclusions:

“The Tribunal finds that Israel subjects the Palestinian people to an institutionalised regime of domination amounting to apartheid as defined under international law. This discriminatory regime manifests in varying intensity and forms against different categories of Palestinians depending on their location. The Palestinians living under colonial military rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territory are subject to a particularly aggravated form of apartheid. Palestinian citizens of Israel, while entitled to vote, are not part of the Jewish nation as defined by Israeli law and are therefore excluded from the benefits of Jewish nationality and subject to systematic discrimination across the broad spectrum of recognised human rights. Irrespective of such differences, the Tribunal concludes that Israel’s rule over the Palestinian people, wherever they reside, collectively amounts to a single integrated regime of apartheid.” (November 2011)[xlii]

The Human Sciences Research Council (South Africa):

“Domination by the Jewish group is associated principally with transferring control over land in the OPT to exclusively Jewish use, dividing the population of the territory into Jewish and Palestinian enclaves, and restricting movement on discriminatory grounds and disadvantaging Palestinians in all areas of economic, social and political life. This discriminatory treatment cannot be justified or excused on grounds of citizenship. Consequently, this study finds that the State of Israel exercises control in the OPT with the purpose of maintaining a system of domination by Jews over Palestinians and that this system constitutes a breach of the prohibition of apartheid.” (May 2009)[xliii]

Israeli Human Rights Organisation B’Tselem:

The regime [the road system Israel has established in the occupied West Bank], based on the principle of separation through discrimination, bears striking similarities to the racist apartheid regime that existed in South Africa until 1994.” (August 2004)[xliv]


This compilation of quotations, which is not an exhaustive list, demonstrates clearly that use of the term ‘Apartheid’ in the context of Israeli practice is by no means a new or isolated phenomenon. As we reach the anniversary of 50 years of military occupation-turned-colonisation, which has created a situation where two groups of people live in the same territory, under the control of the same power, and yet subjected to different systems of law and administration, such comparisons can only become more frequent. Rather than putting all its political might into quashing such discussions, the Israeli government would do better to engage in an exercise of self-reflection, for the long-term benefit of its own people- as much as for the Palestinians, who bear the appalling consequences of such practices.


[i] Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid. Available from:

[ii] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 Available from:

[iii] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 Available from:

[iv] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 Available from:

[v] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 Available from:

[vi] Question Of The Violation Of Human Rights In The Occupied Arab Territories, Including Palestine, Report of the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, John Dugard, on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967 Available from:

[vii] At the 57th Plenary Meeting on Agenda Item 16, the Question of Palestine, Available from:

[xi] In an article for the Los Angeles Times. Available from:

[xii] During UNGA General Debate 2017. Available from:

[xiii] As reported by Israeli journalist Hirsh Goodman in his memoir Let me Create a Paradise, God Said to Himself, 2005, p. 76

[xv] During a speech to the Herzaliya Conference. Available from:

[xviii] In an article for Haaretz. Available from:

[xix] Said during a conference in Jerusalem. Available from:

[xx] During a talk to The Israel Lobby and American Policy conference. Available from:

[xxii] During farewell monologue for his talk show. Available from:

[xxiii] Land Grab: Israel's Settlement Policy in the West Bank. Available from:

[xxv] In an article for Haaretz. Available from:

[xxvi] Article in Haaretz. Available from:

[xxvii] Article in Haaretz. Available from:

[xxxii] During an interview with Democracy Now: Available from:

[xxxv] In an article for the British newspaper, The Guardian. Available from:

[xxxvi] Quoted in an article by Gideon Levy, Haaretz. Available from:

[xxxvii] During a visit of ANC Veterans to Palestine. Originally reported by British Newspaper The Independent, but source no longer available. Available from: 

[xxxix] Article for the British newspaper The Guardian. Available from:

[xl] Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid. Available from:

[xli] Water for One People Only: Discriminatory Access and ‘Water-Apartheid’ in the OPT. Available from:

[xliii] Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid? A re-assessment of Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian territories under international law, p.Available from:

[xliv] Forbidden Roads: Israel’s Discriminatory Road Regime in the West Bank, p.3. Available from:

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