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Home > News & Analysis > Fact Sheets
Israel and apartheid

A Palestinian boy plays near Israel's separation wall in the West Bank village of Hizma outside of Jerusalem. (Moamar Awad, Maan Images)
1. What is apartheid?

2. Why do some people consider Israel to practice apartheid?

3. What do Palestinians outside Israel have to do with Israeli apartheid?

4. What are the categories of people living under Israeli rule?

5. Is it accurate to consider Israel's treatment of its Palestinian citizens a form of apartheid?

6. How does Israel discriminate against non-Jewish citizens?

7. What are key differences between South African apartheid and Israel's policies toward its Palestinian citizens?

8. Is it fair to consider Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza a form of apartheid, when these areas are not part of Israel?

9. Why do Palestinians call Israel's "security barrier" the "apartheid wall?"

10. How has the international community reacted?

1. What is apartheid?

"Apartheid" refers to
  • the official policy of racial segregation formerly practiced in the Republic of South Africa, involving political, legal, and economic discrimination against nonwhites

    and, more broadly to

  • any social system that separates and discriminates against people based on race or ethnicity, especially when that system is institutionalized by laws or decrees.

2. Why do some people consider Israel to practice apartheid?

Israel and South Africa are different in many ways. There is ample evidence, however, that Israeli policies meet the broader definition of apartheid by separating and discriminating against Palestinian Arabs, through systems that are institutionalized by laws and decrees. Some of these policies bear resemblance to South Africa during its apartheid era.

Since its inception, Israel has striven to establish and maintain a strong Jewish majority within the state, treating the ratio of Jews to non-Jews as a national security issue. Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, considers the Palestinian citizens of Israel to be a great "demographic threat" facing Israel.

Over the years, Lieberman has advocated ridding Israel of its indigenous Palestinian inhabitants. He said in a November 5th 2006 interview with the Sunday Telegraph that Palestinian citizens of Israel, who comprise roughly 20 percent of Israel's population, were a "problem" that requires "separation" from the state. He added, "We established Israel as a Jewish country. I want to provide an Israel that is a Jewish, Zionist country. It's about what kind of country we want to see in the future. Either it will be an [ethnically mixed] country like any other, or it will continue as a Jewish country."

Many Israeli policies -- from the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinian Christians and Muslims in Israel's founding years and the denial of their internationally-recognized rights to return to their homes, to the route of Israel's current "security barrier" -- are designed to preserve Jewish demographic predominance.

This has led to discriminatory policies against all major categories of Palestinians either living under or affected by Israeli rule, including Palestinian refugees in exile.


3. What do Palestinians outside Israel have to do with Israeli apartheid?

It is true that "apartheid" typically involves considerations of how states govern and treat residents of territories under their control. Israel, however, has exercised discriminatory policies in determining who may live within the country and who may not. Thus, Palestinians who had lived continuously on their land for generations were forcibly expelled or fled in fear from their homes in areas that fell under Israeli control, and have never been allowed to return. Their continued exclusion has helped Israel remain a predominantly Jewish state. Meanwhile, Israel's Law of Return grants rights of automatic citizenship to Jews all over the world - a measure used to stimulate Jewish immigration and thereby bolster Jewish demographic predominance.


4. What are the categories of people living under Israeli rule?

Israel today rules over:(top)

5. Is it accurate to consider Israel's treatment of its Palestinian citizens a form of apartheid?

In some ways, yes.

On the one hand, Palestinian citizens of Israel do not face institutionalized and formalized separation of the kind practiced in apartheid South Africa. However:
  • Jewish Israelis have greater rights and freedoms than Palestinian citizens of Israel. Although Palestinian citizens of Israel have the right to vote and run for office, they face de jure and de facto discrimination in many areas of life.

  • More than 30 Israeli laws explicitly privilege Jews over non-Jews. These include

      1. The Law of Return which grants automatic citizenship rights to Jews from anywhere in the world upon request, while denying that same right to Palestinians

      2. The Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty which defines Israel as a "Jewish" state rather than a state for all its citizens.
This legal and symbolic commitment to Jews throughout the world leads to a variety of forms of discrimination against Palestinians.


6. How does Israel discriminate against non-Jewish citizens?

According to the U.S. State Department's annual Human Rights Report in 2010:

"Principal human rights problems [in Israel] were institutional, legal, and societal discrimination against Arab citizens...Arab and other minority residents of the country faced official and societal discrimination in a number of areas, including employment, education, land ownership, and naturalization."

For example:
  • Ninety-three per cent of the land in Israel is owned either by the state or by quasi-governmental agencies (such as the Jewish National Fund) that discriminate against non-Jews. Palestinian citizens of Israel face significant legal obstacles in gaining access to this land for agriculture, residence, or commercial development.

  • Most non-Jewish children attend schools that are "separate and unequal" in comparison to those attended by Jewish Israeli children. Government budgets allocate far more money for the Jewish schools.

  • Many towns in Israel with a majority Palestinian population lack basic services and receive significantly less government funding than do majority-Jewish towns. In fact, more than seventy Palestinian villages and communities in Israel, some of which pre-date the establishment of Israel, are unrecognized by the government, receive no services, and are not even listed on official maps.

  • The Nationality and Entry into Israel Law prevents Palestinians from the Occupied Territories who are married to Palestinian citizens of Israel from gaining residency or citizenship status. The law forces thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel to either leave Israel or live apart from their families. Israel's Supreme Court upheld the law when petitioned by Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and other groups.

  • Many Jewish Israelis express racist attitudes toward Palestinians and other Arabs.

    • A January 2011 poll found that nearly half of Jewish Israelis don't want to live next door to Arabs. According to a September 2010 report, half of Jewish Israeli students don't want Arabs in their classrooms and 59% oppose equal rights for Arabs.

    • Israeli public school textbooks depict Palestinians and other Arabs in a derogatory fashion.

    • Israeli political figures openly denigrate Palestinians.

      • Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel and the spiritual leader of Shas, the third largest party in Israel's Knesset, said that "most people know the Arabs are snakes...and snakes should be dealt with like snakes." (Maariv, 7/12/2001).

      • Knesset member and former Minister Efraim Eitam called the Palestinian citizens of Israel "a ticking time bomb" and said that they "resemble a cancerous growth - We shall have to consider the ability of the Israeli democracy to continue the Arabs' participation." (Haaretz, 3/22/2002)

7. What are key differences between South African apartheid and Israel's policies toward its Palestinian citizens?

In Israel, there is a lack of formalized separation of the kind practiced in apartheid South Africa. Another key difference is that while white South Africans sought to exploit the labor of the nonwhite community under apartheid, Israel has more often sought to displace Palestinians from as much of their land as possible and keep the land for Jewish use.
  • Land confiscation began in 1948 and has continued ever since. In 1948, approximately 750,000 Palestinians (three-fourths of the Palestinian population) were either forcibly expelled by Israeli troops or fled in fear during the war. Israel destroyed more than 400 Palestinian villages and took over other villages for Jewish settlement. Confiscation of private property of Palestinian citizens of Israel continues to this day.
Beginning in 1967, confiscation of Palestinian land extended to the Occupied West Bank and Gaza, and especially Occupied East Jerusalem. In the Occupied Territories, Israel has seized private Palestinian property, built hundreds of illegal Jewish settlements and expelled Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza.


8. Is it fair to consider Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza a form of apartheid, when these areas are not part of Israel?

In the early years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it might have been unfair to regard its system of military government of the regions as a form of apartheid; discriminatory policies against the Palestinians might have been viewed as a temporary incident of the armed conflict in 1967 and its aftermath.

But Israel has now maintained control over these territories for more than 44 years - a period two-thirds as long as Israel's entire history as a country. Even after the 2005 withdrawal of Jewish settlers from Gaza, Israel continues to control entry and exit of all people and goods and in other ways continues to determine the fate of Gaza Palestinians. Moreover, Israel has annexed East Jerusalem, and announced its desire to permanently control up to nearly half of the West Bank, possibly including the Jordan Valley. For all intents and purposes, Israel and the Palestinian territories it controls have functioned as one integrated economic and political unit. It is no longer possible to view an occupation of such long duration as a "temporary phenomenon".

It is in its administration of these territories that Israel exhibits the strongest parallels to apartheid.
  • Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have even fewer rights and freedoms than those with Israeli citizenship. They have no political voice in Israel, even though Israel effectively rules their lives.

  • Separation and discrimination is most apparent in the two distinct legal systems applicable to Jews and Palestinians - Israeli Jews illegally living in the West Bank are subject only to Israeli laws, and enjoy the right to vote, and the right to travel within Israel and abroad. Palestinians living in the same territory cannot avail themselves of Israeli law, have no right to vote in Israeli elections and can travel freely neither within Israel nor abroad.
Separation and discrimination are also evident in:
  • An extensive road system built by Israel throughout the West Bank that Palestinians are forbidden to use. These Israeli-only roads bisect Palestinian land and impede West Bank Palestinians' freedom of movement.

  • Palestinians in the West Bank often require permission simply to travel from one village to the next, and must pass through numerous Israeli military checkpoints. This is reminiscent of South Africa's infamous "pass system" which controlled the movement of blacks.

    Bishop Desmond Tutu, a South African anti-apartheid leader, described what he saw during a visit to Palestine as "much like what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about."

    Israel has begun to confine Palestinians to small, encircled enclaves in the West Bank similar to the infamous "Bantustans" that South Africa created for blacks.

  • Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza do have the right to vote for the Palestinian Authority, but that body has only the trappings of sovereignty - postage stamps, passports, a police force - and lacks real power. The Palestinian Authority has no jurisdiction over Israeli settlers and settlements in the West Bank, borders, airspace, water resources, its population registry and numerous other spheres that regularly fall under government control.

  • Although occupied in 1967, East Jerusalem was illegally annexed by Israel. The Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are not citizens of Israel, only "legal residents" who must regularly prove connections to Jerusalem in order to continue to reside there. They face enormous legal obstacles to family unification and unequal access to housing, municipal services and other social benefits. They are treated as the equivalent of foreign guests in their own country, without the right to vote in national elections.
South African law professor and former United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) John Dugard said to the UN General Assembly that "Israel's conduct in the OPT poses the same kind of challenge to the credibility of international human rights that apartheid did in the 1970's and 1980's. There are gross, egregious and systematic violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in the OPT, committed not by undisciplined and uncontrolled militias but by one of the most disciplined and sophisticated armies in the modern world, directed by a stable and disciplined government."


9. Why do Palestinians call Israel's "security barrier" the "apartheid wall?"

This wall, which physically dwarfs the former Berlin wall, secures Israel's control over confiscated Palestinian land and separates Palestinian communities from each other. Special regulations require Palestinians to obtain permits even to approach the wall in some areas, while Jewish people are able to enter these same areas unrestricted.

If the sole purpose of building the wall had been to provide security for Israelis, it would have been built along the internationally recognized 1967 border (the "Green Line"); instead, it has been built on Palestinian land and in some instances right through the middle of Palestinian towns. Its additional result is to maximize Israeli control over Palestinian land, thus guaranteeing Jewish demographic predominance within areas of Jerusalem and the West Bank that Israel hopes to retain.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that the wall is illegal and must be dismantled, and ordered Israel to compensate Palestinians damaged by the wall's construction. It also called upon third-party states to ensure Israel's compliance with the judgment.


10. How has the international community reacted?

The world opposed South Africa's racist government and imposed sanctions on it (except for Israel, which maintained a close relationship with apartheid South Africa). Much of the world deplores Israel's institutionalized discrimination. The U.S. government is aware of Israel's record of discrimination, as its State Department reports demonstrate. But U.S. political leaders, to date, have not required Israel - for example, by placing conditions on economic or military aid - to abandon its discriminatory policies against Palestinians.


This document may be used without permission but with proper attribution and a link to the Institute for Middle East Understanding.

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