Today is election day in South Africa, 20 years after the election in which Nelson Mandela became president and apartheid was effectively ended. It seems like the African National Congress will be re-elected to office despite the record of corruption of the party and its leader president Jacob Zuma, which is partly blamed for the voting apathy of the so-called ‘born frees’, young people who were born after end of apartheid and who can vote for the first time.
The word apartheid that was once inextricably linked to South Africa is now increasingly associated with Israel because the way that it treats Palestinians within Israel and in the Occupied Territories bears so many strong similarities to the way that white South Africans treated blacks in that country.
Even US Secretary of State John Kerry in a private meaning warned that Israel risked becoming an apartheid state. His use of that word, coupled with his earlier warning of the rise of the boycott movement, caused the Israel lobby to spring into action, with some demanding that he withdraw his statement and others calling for president Obama to fire him. But others, including many in Israel, have faulted Kerry for implying that Israel is not already an apartheid state.
As could have been predicted, Kerry apologized for what he claimed was a poor choice of words. But he is a veteran politician. I cannot imagine that this was an inadvertent slip on his part. He must have known that the word apartheid is loaded and that his remarks would be leaked. I suspect that using it was a deliberate choice, in order to highlight the real problem that Israel’s policies are creating for itself and its sponsor the US.
Zaid Jilani writes about how the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress, under pressure from the Israel lobby, warned their bloggers initially not to write about Israel at all and to never use the apartheid analogy. But he says that the US and Israel have lost control of the word and that what was commonly said in private is now being said in public. Despite the massive efforts of the Israel lobby to suppress use of the word, it is now out there and cannot be taken back
But South Africa is not the only historical parallel for Israel’s policies. Historian James D. Le Sueur argues that the closer parallel to Israel’s relationship with the Occupied Territories may the French colonial occupation of Algeria, in that Israel sees the Occupied Territories as its own land, just like the French did in Algeria.
And after the beginning of the occupation of Algeria in the 1830′s and 1840′s, France almost immediately converted Algeria into three overseas provinces. That is very important because, in the French mind, when soldiers fought for the continuation of the French control in Algeria, they fought on French soil for France itself, and not in abstract terms. Hence the French stake in Algeria was a very significant feature of how the French became ever more imbedded in that conflict. As they said, “Algeria is France.” In the French mind, it was not a colony and what they did there was legally and entirely a French matter, and it continued to remain so all the way through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, as Algerian nationalists tried to bring the matter to the UN.
On the other hand the two histories, Algeria and Israel/Palestine, might be comparable because the violence continues to escalate in Israel/Palestine and has since Israel was created, because Palestinians view this as a colonial occupation. I have many friends who are on both sides of this issue, including liberal Jewish friends who oppose the continuation of the occupation. And on the ground, the settlements look a lot like French colonialism in some real ways. And the logic of the settlements looks a lot like the logic given by French settlers for ‘occupation’ of Algeria.
Most people would agree that the more radical Jewish settlers, the ones who have built and who continue to build houses in illegal areas, they’re essentially colonial in outlook.
I see this debate about settlers as a pretty universal colonial question; it happens with all settler societies when they see themselves being surrounded by hostile forces and desirous of someone else’s land. And it’s tautological. Settlers need more military protection because they continue to make contested moves, and the more settlers there are, the more the military is needed to protect them. And as a result settlers have militaries that are bound to protect them and settler societies develop increasingly radical politics. So a government like Israel feels that contradiction of trying to protect settlers and at the same time rein them in because they’re considered even by most moderates in Israel to be pretty problematic.
He suggests that just as Algeria and France passed the point where they could negotiate an end to the occupation and an outright battle ensued, that point may have already been reached with Israel’s occupation. But in France’s case Charles de Gaulle emerged who, although he hated the idea of relinquishing Algeria, realized that he had no choice.
That said, he was never in favor of ending the French empire. Never, not even as he negotiate the peace in Algeria. Was he pro FLN? Absolutely not. Was he someone who liked to retreat? No way. He did it because he knew that France couldn’t survive economically or politically the continuation of this crisis that Algeria had become. He knew that continued war might destroy France.
Not only that. But there was substantial pushback because there had begun to be these really very serious protests and the anti-draft movement. There were people who rejected the draft and wouldn’t fight. And after the OAS [the rightwing pro-settler movement called the Organization of the Secret Army] emerged at the end of the war, it was impossible to maintain order in Algeria because the OAS began killing Algerians, French settlers, and the French military/police alike. The OAS were murderers and thugs, and they destroyed the last chances for the Europeans to remain in Algeria.
The rapid rise of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish elements in Israel and violent and militant settler organizations in the Occupied Territories that are challenging the Israeli government seem similar to the OAS. It remains to be seen if an Israeli equivalent of de Gaulle emerges, someone who recognizes that continuing current policies means heading for disaster.