How Israeli apartheid spread from inside the Green Line to the West Bank

Orly Noy

+972 Magazine  /  June 29, 2023

A new report examines how, according to Adalah Legal Director Suhad Bishara, Israel is expanding Jewish territorial, spatial, and political supremacy.

This month, Adalah — The Legal Center for the Rights of the Arab Minority in Israel published a position paper that takes an in-depth look at the steps the Israeli government is taking to try and accelerate the annexation of the occupied West Bank. The paper divides these steps into three main categories: institutional changes and the transfer of areas of action to government offices; legalizing of outposts and expansion of existing settlements; and the direct application of Israeli law in the occupied territories.

The position paper concludes that the Israeli government “openly works to expand the regime of Jewish supremacy beyond the Green Line, and to deepen and perpetuate in the West Bank the apartheid mechanisms it has established there for generations to come.” It further calls for immediate and urgent action by international bodies — including the International Criminal Court, which has launched an investigation into suspected war crimes by Israel, and the International Court of Justice, which is holding proceedings to examine the legal consequences of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank.

“It is true that this has been an ongoing policy for decades,” according to Dr. Suhad Bishara, the director of Adalah’s legal unit and of its land, planning, and construction department. “At the beginning of the 1967 occupation, there were discussions about the status of the territories and what would be done with them, but soon after, Israel’s policies became much clearer in terms of what was happening on the ground as well as its territorial ambitions in the occupied territories, and [it became] more careful in terms of how it framed those ambitions.

“In the 1970s and ’80s, we see in the legal rulings a discourse surrounding security needs, including when it comes to settlements. But later on, things became much clearer in terms of Israel’s demographic and territorial ambitions. Therefore, it cannot be said that this government is bringing something new, but rather is accelerating [already existing] processes. The moves it has made so far, in a period of less than six months, along with those that are on the agenda, indicate a desire to change things before something changes politically. These are steps we have not seen before.

“Until now, successive governments have operated on the fine line between Israel’s distorted reading of international law — and this includes the Supreme Court — and the perception of the occupied territories as an area in which Israel has a political interest, in the form of annexation in one way or another. The current government is no longer interested in that fine line, which in the eyes of many is illusory and does not really exist, since they have been talking about practical annexation for many years. This government wants explicit annexation moves.”

Expanding supremacy 

Similar to position papers published by human rights organizations in recent years, Adalah’s document also discusses the existence of an apartheid regime in the occupied territories. However, contrary to popular perception, the document marks the progression of apartheid from Israel into the territories.

“Most of the discourse on the issue is framed in such a way that there is ‘sovereign Israel,’ which is democratic, and ‘occupying Israel,’ which in turn causes people to ask how the occupation affects Israeli democracy,” Bishara said. “The experience of the last few years has taught us that the principle of annexation takes Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian people, ever since the Nakba, and extends it to the occupied territories.

“Israel came to the 1967 occupation prepared, after 20 years of military government imposed on Palestinian citizens which included deportations, segregation, massive and arbitrary land expropriations, and a policy of territorial and spatial Jewish supremacy. This whole enterprise was normalized with the end of the military government in 1966, but it never stopped. There was no normalization of the state’s attitude toward its Arab citizens. Race-based territoriality was naturalized by laws, administrative decisions, and the like, and later was inherently anchored within what is known as the ‘constitutional revolution,’ including the Jewish Nation-State Law. Now this experience is also being extended to the occupied territories.”

Adalah’s position paper mentions the extension of the applicability of the Admission Committees Law to the West Bank, which also brings with it the logic of apartheid segregation that originated inside 1948.

Even today, admission committees function in West Bank settlements within the framework of military orders, but this is only one layer. [There is also] the appointment of Bezalel Smotrich as minister overseeing the Civil Administration — which manages the civilian affairs of the occupied West Bank — and the ‘civilianization’ of the management of the settlements, the transfer of powers from the military commander to ministers and government ministries, the expansion of the powers of the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee into the occupied territories. All of these are things that have not been official government policy until now.

“We are aware that government ministries and governmental entities have operated in the territories before, including the Ministry of Construction and Housing and the Israel Lands Authority, but the answers we received in the past regarding their activities were that they were advisory bodies to the military commander, who has the ultimate authority in the West Bank. This is an idea expressed in the establishment of the State of Israel by the Zionist movement, and in the way its spatial policy has been formulated since 1948. This was also expressed in the Jewish Nation-State Law and now its expansion into the occupied territories. Therefore, it is more correct to see this as the expansion of our experience, of Palestinians inside Israel and refugees from the Nakba, into the territories occupied in 1967, and not the other way around.”

And at the same time, we are also seeing a parallel process of trying to return the Palestinian citizens to the era of the military government, through the use of the Shin Bet, administrative arrests, and the National Guard that Itamar Ben Gvir wants to establish. That is, the civilianization of the occupation on the one hand, and the securitization of relations with the Arab citizens on the other.

“Definitely. We’re seeing two parallel moves: the expansion of Israeli ‘civilianization’ of the West Bank and the normalization of two legal systems — one that refers to the legitimate Jewish citizen, for whom the state works wherever they are, whether inside Israel or in the occupied territories, and another system for the Palestinian who is ‘the Other.’

“This dual system is designed to ensure that Jewish territorial, spatial, and political supremacy will continue and expand. To this end, the Palestinian ‘other’ needs to be managed, and this management is done more and more through separate legal systems — whether by the activation of emergency regulations, proposals to involve the Shin Bet in the struggle against crime in Arab society or the appointment of teachers and principals of Arab schools, proposals that in practice give rise to two planning systems, selective law enforcement, etc.

“The separation that exists in the legal system in the occupied territories and within the territory of Israel is becoming much clearer in order to serve, among other things, Israeli territorial Jewish policy, both in the occupied territories and inside Israel.”

You talk about two separate legal systems for two populations, but avoid using the term apartheid. Is this intentional?

“The apartheid reports that came out over the last two years were justifiably criticized. After all, when we talk about apartheid, we are talking about a serious list of human rights violations, and perhaps even a step up in the context of the systematic policy of oppression and segregation, in a framework that defines crimes under international law. But this is another list that lacks context and does not deal, at all or sufficiently, with the question of why all this is happening.

“I do not underestimate the importance of the discourse of human rights violations, but we have enough experience, including the experience of other countries, to know that it does not stand on its own. That is, not human rights violations for the sake of human rights violations, and not because of ‘bad politics.’ This is politics that has a very clear goal, and this discourse does not refer to the colonial context of these violations.

“No matter how you frame it, human rights violations are a symptom. These violations were developed and adopted as a colonial structure. Terrible symptoms that we all struggle to stop, of course, but without understanding their context we will fail to efficiently fight these violations. Let’s not forget that the guiding principles of the current government are that ‘the Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all parts of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan, ‘Judea and Samaria.’ I think that these principles and the Jewish Nation-State Law leave no room for doubt in this matter.”

Defining the root of the problem is also important for actions that follow. In Adalah’s position paper, you call for intervention by international bodies and the ICC. What is it that you call on them to do?

“The paper is very focused on actions that deepen, expand, and accelerate annexation in a way that is contrary to international law and international decisions, including that of the International Court of Justice. This is a very important process at the international level, because in practice Israel is trying to characterize annexation as an internal Israeli matter.

“The processes that the government is trying to promote should not occur at the international level, and therefore we have to insist that this is an international conflict, and it cannot under any circumstances become an internal Israeli matter. 

“In this context, the advisory opinion currently before the ICJ is of particular importance in the context of the occupied territories, the significance of the ongoing occupation and the violations of human rights, including the consequences for the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people and the status of the occupied territories. This part is ignored when discussing human rights violations, including in some of the reports that frame these violations as apartheid.”

If the institutional structure and the essence of the practices vis-à-vis Palestinians are the same on both sides of the Green Line, why not extend the request for international relief to the Palestinian citizens inside Israel?

“This is a very valid question. It is why we were happy when, following the events of May 2021, a commission of inquiry was appointed by the United Nations to discuss not only the violation of human rights in the occupied territories, but [also] the root of the problem — including what is happening inside Israel. This is a very significant move at the international level. It seems that something is beginning to change in the international discourse. This was, of course, also expressed in reports that analyzed the Israeli regime as a single regime that controls the entire territory of historic Palestine.

“I very much hope that the government’s coalition agreements, as drafted, the guiding principles included in them and the attempt to extend the principles of the Jewish Nation-State Law to the occupied territories, will lead to a deepening of this understanding at the international level — otherwise it is simply impossible to understand what is happening here.”

Orly Noy is an editor at Local Call, a political activist, and a translator of Farsi poetry and prose; she is the chair of B’Tselem’s executive board and an activist with the Balad political party