Is the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories similar to apartheid in South Africa?


Though it is still considered controversial by Israel advocates, Palestinian solidarity activists and critics of Israel have been making the apartheid analogy for years now. Even former prime ministers of Israel, including Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, have warned that Israel will become an apartheid state in the near future if a two-state solution cannot be reached.  This discussion was popularized in the U.S. by the former president Jimmy Carter’s 2006 book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, and he was heavily criticized by many supporters of Israeli policy for making this comparison. Some say the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians is worse than South African apartheid in many ways.  Some argue that while it is not quite apartheid at this point, it is becoming more and more like apartheid as time goes on.  Others argue that the two situations, though they may appear to have some similarities on the surface, are also significantly different in other ways.  And then, others argue that it is in no way like apartheid and that to even compare the two situations is anti-Semitic.  Many opponents of the apartheid analogy fear that it will lead to calls for a one-state solution that will be the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority state.

Yes, there are many similarities between South African apartheid and the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.  And, yes, the situation is becoming more like apartheid as time goes by rather than less.  However, the Israeli occupation and South African apartheid also have some significant differences, and it is useful to become well-informed on the situation to be able to apply the analogy appropriately. No two situations are exactly alike, and though the compariaon to South African apartheid may be the best analogy available, parallels can also be made between Israel and the US, as well as Israel and several other settler-colonial situations, including Northern Ireland, Algeria, and others.

It is also useful to remember that Israel was not established for the same reasons as many other settler-colonial societies were. In the case of Israel, the colonization of Palestine was seen as a last resort to avoid severe and ongoing anti-Semitic persecution and discrimination in Europe.

Critics of the apartheid analogy often argue that Israel cannot be practicing apartheid because the situations are not exactly alike in every way. However, a situation of one group oppressing another does not have to be exactly like apartheid in South Africa in order to meet the definition of the “crime of apartheid” from the United Nations Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid from November, 1973: “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

Similarities to South African Apartheid

Some of the strongest similarities to South African apartheid can be found in the treatment of Palestinians living in the West Bank under Israeli military occupation and include the control of movement, physical separation of the two peoples, and the Palestinians’ lack of equal rights.  In South Africa under apartheid, blacks were confined to certain areas that became known as bantustans.  Some of these bantustans were eventually given a degree of autonomy while the South African government still maintained real control.  People have compared this system to the security zones in the West Bank where Palestinians must have permits to pass through a series of checkpoints in order to go from one part of the West Bank to another.  And, some critics have compared previous offers by the Israeli government of autonomy or of a less-than-sovereign Palestinian state separated by Israeli-only roads as offering them a series of bantustans.

The physical separation of blacks and whites in apartheid South Africa was enforced by a variety of measures that enclosed the black bantustans.  While there has always been a high degree of separation between Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israeli Jews, the physical separation has increased significantly since the Second Intifada when Israel began building the separation barrier inside the West Bank.  This barrier, which is a high concrete wall in some places and an electrified fence in others, now limits the movement of Palestinians even more than before.

Proponents of the apartheid analogy also point out that Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, similarly to apartheid in South Africa, live under a completely separate legal system than do Israeli settlers living in West Bank settlements, who, unlike the Palestinians, are considered citizens of the state of Israel.  The existence and continued construction of Israeli-only “settler roads” throughout the West Bank that connect settlements to Israel proper, which Palestinians residing in the West Bank are not permitted to use, have been given as further evidence that apartheid-like practices are becoming more entrenched.

The lack of equal rights, including voting rights, is another similar feature between Israel’s occupation and South African apartheid.  Blacks could not vote in elections in white-ruled apartheid South Africa, though near the end of the apartheid era, the South African government tried to appease blacks by offering them the ability to vote for local black leaders of the bantustans, but these black leaders lacked real political power or influence in the white-ruled apartheid government.  Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza cannot vote in Israeli elections, but under the Oslo Accords they were given the ability to vote in Palestinian Authority elections for a parliament and prime minister.  (This illusion of democratic participation was shattered when Hamas won the 2006 elections but were not allowed to form a government).  The Palestinian Authority (PA) only has nominal autonomy over some civil, religious, and educational affairs in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, while Israel maintains control over all external borders, internal checkpoints, and many other matters that affect the daily lives of Palestinians in the occupied territories.  The Israeli military also regularly carries out arrests, detentions, and other military actions against the occupied Palestinians, and the PA has no power against this.


So, while there are some major similarities, the comparison becomes more complicated as one looks at the differences, revealing that the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories is very complex and unique, which makes it an oversimplification to say that it is the same as South African apartheid.  One problem with the analogy to South African apartheid is that the situation for Palestinians is very different depending on whether one is a Palestinian citizen of Israel (also known as Israeli Arabs—and 20% of the population of Israel), a Palestinian living in East Jerusalem, or a Palestinian living in the West Bank or Gaza.  While some Palestinians, depending on where they live, are better off in some ways than blacks under apartheid and may even officially enjoy many legal rights that are equal to those enjoyed by Jewish Israelis, there are also many restrictions and discriminatory policies that are imposed on Palestinians that were not imposed in South Africa.  South African apartheid was also not the same kind of military occupation, which leads to many legal and real differences. 

While the strongest similarities to apartheid may be found in the oppression of Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, even here there are some differences.  Because the West Bank and Gaza are not officially part of the state of Israel, but are rather militarily “occupied territory,” the Palestinians living there are not considered citizens of the state, even though they are still controlled by Israel.  This situation has enabled Israel to more easily justify much of the occupation as security necessity against non-citizen “enemies” who therefore don’t have legal rights under Israeli law (similar to the U.S. government attempts to label people, recently even U.S. citizens, as “enemy combatants” to strip them of legal rights).  This is very different to South African apartheid because blacks in South Africa were not seen as “enemies” in a context of an ongoing conflict, and the South African apartheid government did not carry out large-scale military operations and bombings against the black populations as Israel has frequently done against the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Another difference between South African apartheid and the oppression of Palestinians in the occupied territories is that Israel has chosen to completely separate the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza from the state of Israel.  In South Africa blacks were an essential part of the South African workforce and economy, and the apartheid regime sought to exploit black labor.  For this reason, blacks and whites intermingled economically with each other much more than is the case in Israel where Palestinians from the occupied territories, for the most part, do not provide labor for Israelis.  In the past, it used to be more common for Palestinians from the occupied territories to come into Israel to work with permission, but this practice has become rare as a result of Israeli fear of terrorist attacks during and after the Second Intifada.

South African apartheid is also different to the situation in Israel and the occupied territories because Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20% of Israel’s population, are officially entitled to equal rights in Israel as citizens, including voting rights, as opposed to Palestinians living in the occupied territories.  This official equality under the law, which is often cited by opponents of the apartheid analogy, makes the situation for Palestinian citizens of Israel very different from the legal discrimination in South Africa under apartheid, where the laws of the state explicitly discriminated against blacks. 

However, though Israeli law officially grants equal rights to all Israeli citizens, the Palestinian minority in Israel are routinely discriminated against in many ways, many of which are not enshrined in Israeli law—including disparate government funding for the separate Arab education system and other civil services, access to employment, and the fact that Palestinian citizens of Israel do not have equal access to land ownership or building permits.  For example, even though Israeli law officially states that all citizens can own land and access building permits, in practice (and contrary to false claims otherwise), Arab Israelis routinely face severe institutional discrimination in this arena.  Palestinian citizens of Israel find it nearly impossible to acquire building permits, and while Palestinian homes are routinely demolished by the Israeli government for lack of a building permit, this very rarely happens to illegally built Jewish homes. 

Because the discrimination faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel is largely de facto rather than de jure (in practice rather than in law), some have argued that a better analogy for the discrimination against these Palestinian citizens of the state is Jim Crow in the U.S. South prior to the Civil Rights Movement.  Under Jim Crow, the southern state governments found ways to circumvent federal laws to block equal rights for black citizens.

The Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, which was officially annexed by Israel after the 1967 war (an annexation that is not recognized as legal by the rest of the world), are in another unique situation.  Because these Palestinians are legally considered “residents” rather than “citizens,” they do not have as many legal rights as Palestinian citizens of Israel, and their homes are more likely to be demolished, but they have more rights than Palestinians living in the occupied territories.

Another technical difference between the two situations relates to the official definition of the “crime of apartheid” by the UN as a system in which one “racial group” imposes discriminatory policies on another racial group.  While many of Israel’s discriminatory policies and actions can certainly be considered racist against Palestinians and Arabs, classifying the situation entirely on the basis of “race” is difficult to do.  First, Jews are not considered to be a “race” but rather an ethno-religious group.  While many Israeli Jews (Ashkenazi) would be considered “white” and have European heritage (including most Israeli leaders), almost a third of Israeli Jews--Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews--trace their heritage to Arab countries or North Africa, and there are even Ethiopian Jewish immigrants and small numbers of Jewish immigrants from other non-European parts of the world.  In this way, Israeli Jews are racially diverse.  Many Israeli Jews have even complained about discrimination against Jewish immigrants from certain parts of the world, especially against Ethiopian Jews and Mizrahi Jews from Arab countries, many of whom speak Arabic, have darker skin, and some of whom even consider themselves to be Arab in addition to Jewish.  Thus, the problem with racism in Israel is not limited to Israeli Jews vs. Palestinians but includes racism inside of Israel against Jews of different origins.  Because Israeli Jews cannot be classified as a distinct “racial group,” this also weakens the apartheid analogy.  However, this point, though it may weaken the case for a legal definition of apartheid to apply, does not invalidate certain logical parallels that exist regardless of whether the ethnic groups in question are “racial” or “ethno-religious.”

Despite the differences between South African apartheid and the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, many Palestinians, as well as some Israeli and international activists, believe that the apartheid analogy is a useful one in helping to raise awareness of the very real oppression and discrimination faced by Palestinians.  The apartheid analogy has also been a helpful tool in bolstering support for an international boycott, divestments, and sanctions (BDS) movement to pressure Israel to change its policies, end the occupation, and hopefully make the necessary concessions for a comprehensive peace and a viable two-state solution.

While the apartheid analogy may be a useful rhetorical tool to help conceptualize the conflict and emphasize Israel’s discriminatory policies, it has also initiated much heated debate and criticism, especially from supporters of Israel that fear its implications and intentions.  Many Jewish Israelis fear that calling the situation in Israel and the occupied territories “apartheid” will lead to calls for ending the occupation in the same way that South African apartheid ended—with a one state solution of “one man, one vote”—which would mean the end of a Jewish-majority state of Israel.  At this point in time, a majority of both Israeli Jews and Palestinians still believe that a two-state solution is the most realistic and preferable outcome, though there is a small but growing minority who believe that a one-state solution is preferable or that it may become inevitable if a peace agreement that leads to a viable Palestinian state (rather than a bantustan) is not reached soon.

  1. South African Archbishop and anti-apartheid activist, Desmond Tutu, compares the Israeli occupation to apartheid:


  3. Ali Abunimah discusses the Northern Ireland analogy for Israel/Palestine:


  5. Article from Haaretz by Tom Segev that asks if Israeli Arabs are the new African Americans:


  7. Uri Avnery on how Marwan Barghouti is the Palestinian Nelson Mandela:


  9. An article about an Israeli civil rights organization comparing occupation to apartheid:


  11. Article comparing segregation in the occupied territories to apartheid:


  13. Haaretz editorial that describes one way in which Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are discriminated against:


  15. Argument about why it isn’t the same as apartheid from an anti-apartheid activist from South Africa:


  17. Another piece by the same former South African in which he discusses a book on how the South Africa model of a one-state solution is not a good model for Israel-Palestine:


  19. Uri Avnery on why he doesn’t support a wide boycott:


  21. Wikipedia has a decent page about the apartheid analogy:


  23. An interview with Noam Chomsky and Israeli historian Ilan Pappe on Israeli policies, the apartheid analogy, prospects for peace, etc.:


  25. International inter-faith activist organization dedicated to raising awareness about Israeli policies that are similar to apartheid:


  27. Another article supporting the apartheid analogy: