Apartheid Israel Israeli Arabs Middle East peace process Palestinians

Near the Dead Sea, a canary in a coal mine

There was a very disturbing, very sad story in Maariv yesterday. It describes a situation that is indefensable and ought to be condemned in the strongest possible terms:

(Translation courtesy of Israel News Today).


by Felix Frisch

IDF soldiers in the Jordan Valley this week received an order with which some of them find it hard to identify.

The Jordan Valley Brigade ordered a battalion of reserves serving in the northern Dead Sea area to set up a roadblock at the eastern edge of the Jerusalem-Jericho road and to prevent Palestinian civilians from all over the territories from reaching the Dead Sea.

Officers and soldiers serving in the area reported that they had been ordered to stop all Palestinian vehicles or vehicles of Arab Israelis, and to deny anyone with a Palestinian identity card access to the Dead Sea beaches. Officers at the brigade headquarters had explained that Israelis bathing on the north shore of the Dead Sea had not been pleased with the presence of the Palestinians whom they feared might harm them.

It should be noted that the northern Dead Sea is part of the territories. On the face of it, after removal of the roadblocks in the West Bank there should be no problem about allowing Palestinians to reach the Dead Sea shore and bathing there.

But a senior officer in Central Command said the ban on Palestinians reaching the shore is not the result of a whim. He said that since the opening of the bathing season large numbers of Palestinians have been coming to the northern Dead Sea shore, which is the only beach where Palestinian from the West Bank are allowed to bathe. In some cases, the officer said, violence and scuffles broke out between Palestinians and Jews. In addition, the officer said, there are some warnings of terrorist attacks in that area.

However the officer did not explain why, if the problem is one of security, why is the very thorough security check which the army conducts on the Palestinians at the road block insufficient.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Office response to our request to comment was:

“After an evaluation of the security situation it was decided at Central Command that Palestinian traffic from Judea and Samaria to the Jordan Valley would be permitted through the Taysir and Bekaot crossing points, after a full security check.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s Office did not answer our question about why Palestinians are being denied access to the Dead Sea shore.

This is the kind of story that feeds into the increasingly popular tendency to equate Israel with South Africa under apartheid. I don’t buy into this equation…yet. There are a number of good arguments that show the differences.

Unlike South Africa, Israel is an occupying power that governs territory whose juridical status is still undetermined. The residents of the territory it occupies are not separated from –or ruled over- by the occupiers via race laws that apply to an entire country. Palestinians are governed by the laws of a military occupation that majorities of both Palestinians and Israelis want to end. The occupier and the occupied are in a relationship that has been forged by an unresolved territorial dispute that has led to a terrible, seemingly unending conflict. But, unlike white and black South Africans, the occupier and the occupied are not part of the same polity.

Moreover, Arabs within Israel proper have the right to vote and have access to most –although not all– privileges afforded to Jewish citizens. There is inequality between Jews and Arabs within Israel and the gaps must be closed, but the circumstances of Israel’s Arabs are not comparable to those of South Africa’s blacks under the thumb of whites.

But those are technical arguments. They are fine for political science classes. They don’t matter very much to people on the ground, in the Palestinian territories.

What matters is that the EXPERIENCE of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip resembles –and might even be worse than– the experience of South African blacks under apartheid.

What also matters is that the current occupation, the nature of the relationships between occupiers and the occupied, the legacy of tit-for-tat violence, and the enduring mistrust have created a situation that is a breeding ground for the natural tendency in all human beings to fear and loathe The Other. And that fear is the basis of racism, whether in Israeli Jews or Palestinian Arabs or suburban Americans who live in gated communities or the Danes, Swedes, Germans, and French who are appalled at the presence of Muslims in their midst.

Israel is not South Africa…yet. But slowly, inexorably, Israel is moving towards a situation that is very similar to that of South Africa’s during the apartheid years. As Jamie Levin, the former Executive Director of Ameinu, once said, the talk about apartheid is like the “canary in a coal mine” that is used to warn of impending disaster.

Ending the occupation is not a cure-all. Creating a self-governing, secure Palestinian state living side by side with Israel won’t end the kind of fear –and, yes, probably racism– that motivated those Israeli bathers to ask that Palestinians not swim in the same body of water. But surely the situation would improve if wishes like those of the Israeli bathers could not be enforced by the military apparatus of their state. Surely it would improve if and when the mutual mistrust and fear diminish. And there is no other way to diminish it except to ensure that Israelis no longer rule over Palestinians.

Further note: if you want to dive into an instructive, usually calm and very detailed debate about the 1-state vs. 2-state solution, check out the responses to “More conversations about one state vs. two states.” I learned a great deal from John Sigler, Tom Mitchell and Richard Witty.

25 thoughts on “Near the Dead Sea, a canary in a coal mine

  1. Dan,

    Well said…but too simplistic. There is an element of racism that is inherent in Israeli culture and it has little to do with the occupation. ‘Avoda aravit” (Arab labor) used to be the term for low status maintenance work like sweeping floors or laying bricks (not sure if that is true any more). A two-state or one-state solution won’t change that. I believe in the former solution, but can’t see that it would have much impact Israeli Jewish prejudices. The Palestinian Arabs, of course, have their own set of deep-rooted prejudices.

  2. I second Teddy. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. 40 yrs ago I was writing as a teenager about the comparisons to apartheid era S. Africa. It’s too close for comfort for many of us who care about Israel.

    I urge you to provide links to stories like this so we can get to the original if it’s online.

  3. Richard,

    Thanks for the comment. Wish I could provide links. The service I take advantage of, Israel News Today, is only available via email.

    Do you think Israelis, as a whole, are more racist or prejudiced than Western Europeans or Scandanavians or North Africans or Arabs? I don’t. But The Situation fuels prejudice.

  4. Israeli racism “has little to do with the occupation”? Well, true in the sense that non-occupied Palestinians (i.e. those who live in Israel) are victims of racism without having to be under occupation. But I think it’s foolish not to recognize that the experience of being an occupier does exacerbate the endemic issue of difference that is maintained by various ethnic groups in the region and in the world. Iranians sometimes maintain these feelings towards Arabs, and Egyptian Arabs sometimes maintain these feelings toward Egyptian Nubians, but it’s not the same as the simple racism that is sadly so acceptable within mainstream Israeli society. It’s very natural that this would be the case — put a gun in the hand of an 18 year old kid and tell him/her to shove around and harass some Palestinians at a checkpoint, and this will deeply mark him/her. The same can be seen with many US soldiers who have served in Iraq. That’s why occupation is a cancer that erodes the occupying society’s moral fiber.

  5. Kevin, you’re right. I did not mean to suggest otherwise. Of course the occupation corrupts Israel’s moral fiber. What I meant was: racism in Israel certainly existed before the occupation and has an existence that is independent of the occupation.

    Having said that, I also don’t think Israelis are more inherently racist than any other people, certainly not more than the Swedes, Danes, Germans, North Africans and Arabs that Dan mentions. Don’t know how to prove that, but I’ve travelled quite a bit and I know it to be true.

  6. It is upsetting that the suppression of Palestinians is accepted widely.

    It is not even a tension in many people’s minds.

    That is not different than most societies, but one would hope that those that were annually “liberated from slavery” and requested to remember the other for “you were strangers in a strange land”, would care more.

  7. We do care more. The situation sickens us. But aside from a policy of national suicide, it does not appear that there as a workable solution that satisfies the supposed Palestinian sense of Justice.

  8. Fascinating. See # 7, which links this post to something called “Global Voices Online” After summing up the story of the bathers, the author, Amira Al Hussaini, includes only one quote from Dan’s analysis: “This the kind of story that feeds into the increasingly popular tendency to equate Israel with South Africa under apartheid. I don’t buy into this equation…yet. There are a number of good arguments that show the differences.”

    By ignoring the rest of his argument, she implies that he accepts or justifies this racist behavior! This is how the blogosphere can make “global conversation” more difficult…

  9. Why is this even news? Israel is a state with enforced separation in many aspects of life – separate communities, separate school systems, and so on – so what does this matter? It is a slightly more blatant imitation of South African “petty apartheid,” but even that isn’t particularly new in Israel.

  10. In the overall scheme of the system of Apartheid in South Africa, the measures for separate amenities became known as “petty apartheid” and constituted one of latest elements of the system to be established (“Reservation of Separate Amenities Act” 1953, Amendment (extending “petty apartheid to the beaches) 1960, &c.) and one of the first elements of the system to be repealed. Effectively these measures – that created separate amenities for different racial/ethnic communities similar to the measures taken in the Segregationist US South – while of symbolic significance were not really all that important for the maintenance of white supremacy. This article about the “separate bathing” in Israel is reminiscent of South African “petty apartheid,” offensive and obnoxious, but not really all that important in the overall scheme of maintaining Israeli Jewish supremacy in Israel/Palestine.

    How many of you have actually gone to the trouble of reading the May 9 World Bank report about the current situation in the OPTs? Entitled “Movement and Access Restrictions in the West Bank: Uncertainty and Inefficiency in the Palestinian Economy” and can be found in full online at:


    This is the real image of Israeli Apartheid (or as some prefer the Hebrew terminology, Israeli Hafrada). For those with a decent understanding of the South African Apartheid system, the parallels and similarities are striking. A few quick points of comparison:

    ”2. GOI’s control of the Palestinian population registry, which allows it to issue ID cards and determine the place of residence of every Palestinian in WB&G over the age of 16, is at the core of the system of administrative obstacles.”

    Compare to the South African “Group Areas Act” (1950) and the “Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act” (1951) and amendments.

    2. (con’t) “The population registry also supports the permit system which can be used to control nearly all facets of Palestinian movement outside of an individual’s immediate village or municipal area. Permits are used to restrict Palestinian access to large areas of the West Bank including East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, Settlement Areas, and the “seam zone”, as well as access to and movement between Areas A, B and C.”

    Compare to the pre-Apartheid “Pass Laws” as fully consolidated in the Apartheid system via the “Natives (Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents) Act of 1952. As well as elements of the “Native Laws Amendment Act” of 1952 which severely restricted movement, visitation of urban areas, and residency.

    ”3. Under occupation, administrative restrictions on movement are defined and implemented by orders of the Military Commander of the West Bank. These orders, which are published and have the effect of law, are then supplemented by ad hoc measures which are communicated verbally to Palestinians, but which are not supported by published rules or procedures. Together, military orders and ad hoc measures create a system of movement restrictions which is non-transparent and highly unpredictable.”

    Compare to the pre-Apartheid “Pass Laws” as fully consolidated in the Apartheid system via the “Natives (Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents) Act of 1952. As well as elements of the “Native Laws Amendment Act” of 1952 which severely restricted movement, visitation of urban areas, and residency.

    And so on and so forth. Despite the varying rationales, in practice Israeli and Apartheid policies are very similar in many different respects. The “petty apartheid” matters, in both South Africa & Israel are only marginal elements of the overall system.

  11. My understanding is that EVERY person in Israel or Palestine is required to carry a passbook.

    BUT, that the similarity with apartheid is that in the passbook, the ethnic community is identified.

  12. You are correct Richard. Although this was true prior to 1982, the current governing legislation stems from the Identity Certificate (Possession and Presentation) Law, 5743-1982.

    In that Arabs and Jews are not easily distinguishable by physical characteristics (unlike most South Africa’s groups) it can come as no surprise that the law applies to everyone, though the Population Registry Law 5725-1965 is careful to make this distinction.

  13. John

    I really hope you to fail with your false mission. I, opposite to you, want the Jewish people to won his only land in the universe. The Arabs in Palestine are just caught in the middle of their effort to ruin Israel and throw the Jews into the sea.

    It’s pity that you believe those Arabs and you don’t really know what the Arabs think and act within their own communities

  14. Sorry to remind you but as long the Palestinians will dream to bomb Israelis just because they are Jews this kind of separation is vital for both sides. It’s the Arab Palestinian choice and they chose war. One can’t dances on two marriages at the same time.

    First, the Palestinian Arabs should cease their fire and bombs and seek for true peace and then they should leave aside their demand for ALL the land of Israel (and the “right of return” as the tool to achieve that goal), as they agreed in the “road map”.

    If some Arab really wants peace he should act in peace and not by exercise ethnical cleanse towards Jews.

    All the above is not related to Israeli Arabs who are treated by the IDF as any Israeli citizen.

    You should wake up from your dreams.

  15. It’s always a relief when someone like Abe Bird comes along to give us a sense of where the median lies on public discourse on Palestine and Israel. Otherwise, with all the generally thoughtful and rational discussion here (albeit of different political perspectives) we might be lulled into thinking this is an issue discussed in public on rational grounds. Clearly, as Abe shows, it isn’t… Thanks Abe for illustrating the banal racism that is sadly common and acceptable in Israeli discourse, and indeed, in much of what is said these days even in the US.

    And truly, as you say so eloquently, “one can’t dances on two marriages at the same time.”

  16. John,

    My point was that these are technical arguments. I know you have spent a great deal of time trying to prove the similarity between Afrikaner nationalism and Zionism, and I could disagree with you on several counts. But why does that matter, one way or the other? It is the experience of the victims that matters. This conduct might not be a “surprise” to you or me. But the “petty” nature of these exclusions is not widely understood or appreciated.

    Happy Mothers Day to one and all.

  17. “This conduct might not be a “surprise” to you or me. But the “petty” nature of these exclusions is not widely understood or appreciated.”

    Dan, my point is just that little things like this bathing incident should not be held up as the primary example of the ethnocentic and exclusivist ideology that dominates Israel. Little things like this happen not uncommonly and usually once there is a bit of press, the offending policy or practice is removed. This is easy to do because it isn’t really necessary to maintain the existing status quo. These other vastly more serious aspects of the system reflected in the World Bank report are much more important and are integral elements of maintaining the system of ethnic repression.

  18. But this so called ‘ethnic repression’ has nothing to do with any racist ideology.

    What is being separated is a people who have, via a democratic vote, decided that the answer to their problem is the wholesale destruction of the Jewish people.

    It is simple as that. The Afrikaaner system was racist in nature and intent. There is no similarity to the intent of the Israeli politik.

  19. Hi Eibie,

    ”But this so called ‘ethnic repression’ has nothing to do with any racist ideology.”

    Absolute rubbish. The entire idea is the establishment of a “Jewish State” in a land fully populated by non-Jews. Ethnic repression – ethnocentric domination, i.e. racism – is the very premise of the whole Zionist enterprise.

    ”The Afrikaaner system was racist in nature and intent.”

    And so too, by its very definition and of course in practice, is the entire Zionist enterprise from start to finish. The entire idea is the establishment of a “Jewish State” on a land/territory that has been – and continues to be – fully populated by non-Jews. That is, from its very inception, Zionism is racism, ethnocentric domination and exclusion of the native population because their mothers do not fit the biological definition of “Jewishness” imported from Europe.

    Save your empty meaningless propaganda for people stupid enough to buy into it.

  20. Back to “Zionism is racism”.

    A false equation.

    Zionism is at root the self-determination movement of the Jewish people. How Zionism is applied is a realistic avenue of criticism.

    You use the terms “entire” enterprise and “fully” populated very carelessly.

    You formerly presented your arguments more thoughtfully and less insultingly. Why the change?

  21. Fully populated? What does that mean?

    Right now there are about 10 million living in the portion removed from historical Palestine (Which included Transjordan) and 70 years earlier there were only 1.5 million there.

    The Negev continues to have little population.

  22. John,
    The proper Southern African equivalent of the territories is Namibia, which was conquered in a war from the previous regime and maintained by Pretoria as a buffer zone. The buffer zone kept the threat of guerrilla infiltration into South Africa away for 15 years. Namibia was ruled as part of South Africa as a C-class mandate from the League of Nations, which meant that Pretoria was free to treat it for all practical purposes as part of its own territory. Israeli settlers on the West Bank and in Gaza are/were analagous to the whites in Namibia.

    Because of the Karoo Desert in the Northern Cape, South Africa could probably have managed quite well without Namibia. Israel will have a harder time without the West Bank, but has a large nuclear arsenal to rely upon as the ultimate deterrent. Still, after a peace treaty with Palestine, Israel must be prepared for some continued terrorism from both Gaza and the West Bank.

    The real purpose of the pass laws within South Africa was to destroy the bargaining position of South Africa blacks by forcing them to immediately take labor jobs or face deportation back to the homelands that they were assigned to under grand apartheid. The purpose of the road blocks is to provide security to Israel. In the past, and to a much lesser extent at present, Israel benefits from a similar rigged labor market with Pal. migratory labor in Israel proper. But Israel has changed the situation by replacing many Pal. workers with foreign workers from Asia and E. Europe during the 2nd Intifada.

    The purpose of Zionism was not ethnic repression but ethnic self-determination in the only land that the Jews felt they had a historical right to. The fact that the Arabs failed to accept the Jewish right to self-determination in Palestine led to conflict and suppression of the loser by the winner. Those who advocate a one-state solution are either advocating a complete surrender by the loser, or the covert subversion of the winner by the loser. Considering the dreadful record of power sharing in Third World ethnic conflicts this is the reality.

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