Israeli border police officers and Palestinians clash during a protest against the expansion of Israeli Jewish settlements near the West Bank town of Salfit. 

The word ‘apartheid’ is used to describe Israel’s control over Palestinians. Why is it so loaded? 

Human rights groups have used the term apartheid strategically to emphasize the need for a paradigm shift in the region. But others argue that the loaded term doesn’t apply.

The World

Israeli border police officers and Palestinians clash during a protest against the expansion of Israeli Jewish settlements near the West Bank town of Salfit, Dec. 3, 2020. 

Majdi Mohammed/AP

In the aftermath of 11 days of violence between Israel and Gaza, the term “apartheid” has circulated in the media and among activists to describe the Israeli government’s control over Palestinians and the Palestinian territories. 

But the debate about whether or not Israel’s policies amount to apartheid is nothing new.

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In April, Human Rights Watch, the global advocacy group, issued a report accusing Israel of “persecution and apartheid,” including the dispossession, confinement, forcible separations, and subjugation of Palestinian people to “varying degrees of intensity” in certain areas. 

Groups that use the term do so strategically to emphasize the need for a paradigm shift in the region. But others argue that the word is loaded and that it doesn’t apply to the situation between Israel and Palestinians. 

Related: Why a leading Israeli rights group calls Israel an 'apartheid' state

Eric Goldstein, who edited the Human Rights Watch report, said he doesn’t take the term lightly. 

“I think that 20 years ago, we would not have called the situation apartheid,” Goldstein said. 

Back then, the Oslo peace process was in full swing and many people anticipated the establishment of two states, one for Palestinians and one for Israelis, Goldstein said.

“And so, whatever abuses that were occurring in the occupied territories, however bad they might have been, it looked like a temporary situation.” 

But after 54 years of military occupation — Goldstein said the situation feels very far from temporary.

The problem is most glaring in the West Bank, he said, where everyone lives under the same Israeli authority, but Jewish Israelis have full political and legal rights, while Palestinians do not. 

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Goldstein said this system is a version of apartheid.

According to the International Criminal Court, apartheid is a state’s system of legalized, racial discrimination in which one racial group is deprived of political and civil rights. Under international law, apartheid is defined as a crime against humanity. 

“We’re not using apartheid like flamethrowers, we’re not using it as an insult word. It’s a term meant to refer to a particularly severe type of systemized kind of discrimination."

Eric Goldstein, editor, Human Rights Watch

“We’re not using apartheid like flamethrowers, we’re not using it as an insult word. It’s a term meant to refer to a particularly severe type of systemized kind of discrimination,” he explained. 

Lessons from South Africa 

The word apartheid originated in South Africa to describe the racist political system that governed every aspect of life from 1948 to 1991. 

Over the past 20 years, the term has become much broader. 

But the word is still so loaded that many experts won’t go near it. Nor should they, said veteran journalist Hirsch Goodman, who has covered Israeli politics.  

“Apartheid is a sacred word. It is not to be used lightly." 

Hirsch Goodman, veteran journalist

“Apartheid is a sacred word. It is not to be used lightly,” said Goodman, who grew up in South Africa and immigrated to Israel in 1965, as a teenager.  

He said the people who use the term apartheid to describe Israel are usually activists who want to present an ugly caricature of the Jewish state and undermine its right to exist. 

“The word apartheid, having grown up with it — no free press, no free thought, arrest without trial, like Stasi police, 2 million whites subjugating 20 million Black [people], moving populations from rich farmland to bantustans — a system that is so horrible … I can’t even begin to see the comparison,” Goodman said. 

But many South Africans do see the comparison — including the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who was an anti-apartheid activist. 

In an interview with France 24 last month, Ramaphosa said the plight of Palestinians triggered a horrible sense of déjà vu.

“The images that we’ve been seeing of people being prevented to move around, of their homes being destroyed, brings back very terrible memories of our own history under apartheid,” he said. 

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A younger generation of South Africans also sees parallels. 

Muhammed Desai, an activist with a group called Africa 4 Palestine, was 5 years old when apartheid ended in 1991. In 2004, he took a gap year in Israel. He said that some of his experiences there were “a stark reminder of South Africa’s apartheid regime and of Israel’s own complicity with apartheid South Africa.”  

Israel became a friend of the South African apartheid regime in the 1970s. It was one of the last Western nations to sever ties with the country after global sanctions were imposed in the late ’80s.     

On the other hand, anti-apartheid freedom fighter Nelson Mandela was friends with Yasser Arafat, then-chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO provided military support to the African National Congress in the 1970s.

That’s why many Black South Africans identify with Palestinians and are active in the anti-Israel “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement, Desai said.  

The movement has organized Israel Apartheid week on college campuses since 2005.

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“Long before it was fashionable, long before it was attractive or sexy, it was the Palestinans who gave us financial resources, who gave us military training, they gave us other various forms of solidarity, so in some ways, it’s paying back for that."

Muhammed Desai, activist, Africa 4 Palestine

“Long before it was fashionable, long before it was attractive or sexy, it was the Palestinians who gave us financial resources, who gave us military training, they gave us other various forms of solidarity, so in some ways, it’s paying back for that,” Desai said. 

Rhetoric, consequences

The debate over the term apartheid isn’t just about rhetoric — it’s about consequences. 

“Whether you call the situation apartheid, occupation or conflict will determine the particular roles and responsibilities of those involved,” said Leonie Fleischmann, who teaches international politics at City, University of London.

The ’90s Oslo peace process relied on the term "conflict."

“When it’s defined as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s a case of two equal sides who need to come together on a negotiation table to resolve the conflict,” Fleischmann said. 

Now, Fleischmann said, the international community calls Israel’s controls over Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem a military occupation.

Fleischmann said under this framework, the occupier — Israel — has certain obligations toward the occupied people, the Palestinians. But at the same time, Israel can legally take its security into account.

Israel can argue that its recent military campaign against Gaza was necessary “in order to protect the security of Israelis,” Fleischmann said. 

“...[A]s soon as you start talking about the situation in terms of apartheid, that idea of balancing interests is no longer applicable.”

Leonie Fleischmann, educator, City University of London

“But as soon as you start talking about the situation in terms of apartheid, that idea of balancing interests is no longer applicable.” 

Goldstein, with Human Rights Watch, said he wants the international community to talk less about one state or two — and more about how to secure equal rights for everyone, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea — the full area encompassing Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

“Let’s start with giving everybody their rights and then work for a resolution to the outstanding political issues,” Goldstein said. 

He hopes that’s a vision most people can get behind, whether they use the word apartheid or not.