Is the West Really the Best Judge of Apartheid?

Namat Abulebada
Saturday 25 Nov 2023

In light of the countless violations of international law currently taking place in Gaza and the West Bank, it is important to consider one question: how can the United States and the West continue to fervently support Israel?


In other words, how can the biggest preachers of human rights stand idly by while Israel blatantly commits a wide range of crimes against humanity? While many love to glorify the West’s role as the protector of human rights, the only role that the West is currently playing is that of the villain.

As a matter of fact, the West has played this role for years. One of Israel's many crimes is that of apartheid, and it is guilty of having practiced it since its inception. In recent years, major international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have spoken out, designating Israel an apartheid state.

Despite this, the United States and the West continue to support the Israeli government, refusing to use such a term.

It should not come as a shock that the United States and the West back Israel, as their unconditional support is nothing new. For the past 75 years, the United States and its Western allies have done nothing to end the suffering of the Palestinian people.

On the contrary, for 75 years, they gave Israel the means to operate a state of apartheid. According to the many instruments of international law, apartheid is considered a crime against humanity. As defined by the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of Crime of Apartheid, apartheid encompasses “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them” (United Nations, 1976).

These acts, according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, include torture, deprivation of basic needs such as food and medicine, forced displacement, and several others (International Criminal Court, 2002).

The term apartheid is one that has been closely linked with South Africa, due to that republic’s long and painful history with the institution. Under apartheid rule in South Africa, the white minority imposed “systematic and legalized discrimination shaping the economic, social, and political structure of the whole country” (Worden, 2012). They did so in order to entrench “white supremacy.”

This happened at the expense of non-whites, who were subjected to the most appalling forms of discrimination and exclusion. For example, “public facilities from schools and libraries to parks and restaurants were strictly divided along racial lines… [and] residential areas were completely segregated by law” (Seidman, 1999). To put it simply, “inequality was built into the system” (Seidman, 1999).

Now it is crucial to mention that during apartheid rule in South Africa, the West’s role was mostly non-existent. The United States maintained close relations with the apartheid regime in South Africa, as it considered the country an important asset. South Africa was rich in resources and minerals, making it a key trading partner. In other words, it was ripe for exploitation.

Second, South Africa was seen as an important ally for the United States in its fight to ‘contain’ the spread of Communism. At the time, the Cold War was still ongoing with the United States and the Soviet Union both vying for world domination (Thomson, 2008).

Finally, until 1964, the United States itself legitimized and institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination as part of its Jim Crow laws. Consequently, they could hardly speak out against apartheid in South Africa when practicing it in their own backyard.

It was not until 1986, when the Comprehensive Anti–Apartheid Act was passed, that sanctions were finally placed against the apartheid regime in South Africa. It is important to emphasize the fact that this bill was not easily passed. Former US president Ronald Reagan attempted to veto the decision to sanction the apartheid regime; however, his veto was overridden by Congress (Redden, 1988).

Knowing this history makes one question the very basis of American and Western principles. They stood by as apartheid flourished in South Africa post-WWII, and for 75 years as Israel imposed the harshest forms of apartheid.

Zooming in on Gaza, the Strip is referred to as “the world’s largest open-air prison” (Human Rights Watch, 2022). This is due to the heavy restrictions Israel has placed on the movement of Palestinians. The people of Gaza are barely able to freely use their own streets, let alone leave the territory. Furthermore, the ‘Iron Dome’, as it is commonly known, is a clear example of legalized segregation. While Israel has maintained that this dome is part of its national security system, it is in fact a physical manifestation of apartheid.

Critics have pointed to the Arab citizens of Israel, stating that they are given the same rights as Jews, such as the right to vote or to have representation in the Knesset for example. This argument, however, is easily debunked. The nation-state law that was passed by the Israeli government in 2018 is a clear-cut example of the apartheid in question.

This law acknowledges the right of Israelis to self-determination; however, it is a right that is “unique to the Jewish People” (Jabareen & Bishara, 2019). What this law basically establishes is the concept of ‘Jewish supremacy’, reducing the Israeli Arabs to second-class status. Regardless of the so-called ‘rights’ allocated to Israeli Arabs in theory, in practice, it is a very different reality.

“These rights do not empower them [Palestinians] to overcome the institutional discrimination they face from the [same] Israeli government, including widespread restrictions on accessing land confiscated from them, home demolitions, and effective prohibitions on family reunification” (Human Rights Watch, 2021). These rights are merely written down in order to maintain the façade that Israel is a democratic state concerned with equality and human rights. However, it is just that: a façade.

The West’s selective application of the term apartheid, even when the situation qualifies as such, brazenly highlights the hypocrisy.

Just like South Africa, Israel is an important and strategic ally of the United States. As a result, it is blind to the crimes that Israel has been committing over the last few decades.

Just like the “human rights” card, the apartheid card is played by the West only when it suits their interests; in other words, when it is convenient. So again, to restate the question: is the West really the best judge of apartheid?

* The writer is a researcher at BUC’s Center for Global Affairs. She graduated with a Master of Arts in Middle East Studies from the American University in Cairo. Her research interests include International Relations, Conflict and Security Studies, Foreign Policy, and Comparative Politics.

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