It's simple apartheid


President Jimmy Carter is drawing criticism because his new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, uses the label apartheid to describe Israeli practices in the occupied Palestinian territories. As second-class citizens in their own land, the term "apartheid" often rings truer for Palestinian citizens of Israel than democracy.

Israel's Jewish majority enjoys a thriving democracy. But Israel's non-Jewish citizens -- nearly 20 per cent of the population -- live a different reality. Palestinian citizens of Israel send their children to separate but unequal schools that receive less funding than Jewish schools, they cannot buy land or lease apartments in most Jewish towns, and they must often stand in a separate line at the airport from Jewish people.

While it is in the West Bank and Gaza that the apartheid analogy holds best, in many ways Palestinian citizens of Israel live under an apartheid-like legal regime. More than 20 Israeli laws explicitly privilege Jews over non-Jews, including the law of return that grants automatic citizenship rights to Jews from anywhere in the world upon request, inviting them to settle on land that is not theirs, while denying that same right to Palestinians. Israeli housing and land policies are racially driven. Hundreds of thousands of acres of privately owned land have been expropriated from Palestinians for the establishment of Jewish settlements.

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 recently appointed deputy prime minister and minister for strategic threats, Avigdor Lieberman, considers Palestinian citizens of Israel to be a "demographic threat". Over the years, he has advocated ridding Israel of its indigenous Palestinian inhabitants to maintain a Jewish majority. His appointment did not elicit the same outrage as the 1999 victory of Jorg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria. Back then, Israel re-called its ambassador, Europe threatened Austria with economic sanctions and the US threatened to react swiftly to any expression of racism or anti-Semitism.

In the West Bank, though Palestinians have lived under Israeli rule for 40 years, they have no voice in Israeli politics and very limited recourse to Israel's legal system. Hundreds of checkpoints impede movement, disrupting, or blocking access to schools, jobs and medical care. As under South Africa's "pass system", Palestinians often require permission to travel from one village to the next inside the West Bank. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said during a visit to Palestine that the situation was "much like what happened to us black people in South Africa." At the same time, Israel has constructed a vast road system for the exclusive use of Jewish settlers living illegally in the West Bank. This network of settlements and segregated roads bisects the West Bank, furthering the Palestinians' isolation and loss of land and property.

Israel's separation wall/barrier inside the West Bank confiscates Palestinian land and separates Palestinian communities. Dwarfing the Berlin Wall, it serves not solely security, but reaches deep into the West Bank to encompass major illegal Jewish settlements. Palestinians in the West Bank are increasingly penned into ghettoes that resemble the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa.

Meanwhile, Israel "withdrew" from Gaza more than a year ago, but it continues to control Gaza's borders, airspace and coastline and continues military strikes and operations inside Gaza at will. Determining everything that gets in or out, it has turned Gaza into the world's largest open-air prison.

Though it took decades, the world (with the exception of Israel) united against the South African apartheid regime and demanded equal rights for all of that country's citizens. This same standard should be applied to Israel immediately. The discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel and the oppression of Palestinians in the occupied territories, as well as disinherited Palestinian refugees, demands a comprehensive solution based on international law and equal rights regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.

The United States and the EU have a pivotal role to play. The US State Department and the EU have repeatedly documented Israel's discriminatory practices. Yet while the Bush administration and the EU demanded that Palestinians under occupation develop democratic systems, no pressure has been applied to Israel to reform its exclusivist democracy for Jews to include all citizens of Israel, including 20 per cent of its citizens who are Palestinians. It is time the US and the EU hold Israel to account by making its massive economic and military aid contingent upon Israel abandoning its discriminatory policies. Americans and Europeans shunned apartheid once. It is time to do it again.

* The writer is a formerly senior lawyer with Adalah, the legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.