Former Israeli Ambassadors to South Africa, Ilan Baruch and Alon Liel, wrote a controversial article, originally published in Group Up, in which they claim that Israeli controlled areas in the West Bank constitute apartheid.
South African born Benjamin Pogrund, famed liberation-struggle journalist and activist and receiver of the Order of Ikhamanga Silver award, responded to the article stating reasons why their allegations are false.
The original article by Ilan Baruch and Alon Liel
“It is clearer than ever that the occupation is not temporary, and there is not the political will in the Israeli government to bring about its end.”
8 June 2021 | Ilan Baruch and Alon Liel
During our careers in the foreign service, we both served as Israel’s ambassador to South Africa. In this position, we learned firsthand about the reality of apartheid and the horrors it inflicted. But more than that – the experience and understanding we gained in South Africa helped us to understand the reality at home.
For over half a century, Israel has ruled over the occupied Palestinian territories with a two-tiered legal system, in which, within the same tract of land in the West Bank, Israeli settlers live under Israeli civil law while Palestinians live under military law. The system is one of inherent inequality. In this context, Israel has worked to change both the geography and the demography of the West Bank through the construction of settlements, which are illegal under international law. Israel has advanced projects to connect these settlements to Israel proper through intensive investment in infrastructure development, and a vast network of highways and water and electricity infrastructure have turned the settlement enterprise into a comfortable version of suburbia. This has happened alongside the expropriation and takeover of massive amounts of Palestinian land, including Palestinian home evictions and demolitions. That is, settlements are built and expanded at the expense of Palestinian communities, which are forced onto smaller and smaller tracts of land.
This reality reminds us of a story that former Ambassador Avi Primor described in his autobiography about a trip that he took with then-Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon to South Africa in the early 1980s. During the visit, Sharon expressed great interest in South Africa’s bantustan project. Even a cursory look at the map of the West Bank leaves little doubt regarding where Sharon received his inspiration. The West Bank today consists of 165 “enclaves” – that is, Palestinian communities encircled by territory taken over by the settlement enterprise. In 2005, with the removal of settlements from Gaza and the beginning of the siege, Gaza became simply another enclave – a bloc of territory without autonomy, surrounded largely by Israel and thus effectively controlled by Israel as well.
The bantustans of South Africa under the apartheid regime and the map of the occupied Palestinian territories today are predicated on the same idea of concentrating the “undesirable” population in as small an area as possible, in a series of non-contiguous enclaves. By gradually driving these populations from their land and concentrating them into dense and fractured pockets, both South Africa then and Israel today worked to thwart political autonomy and true democracy.
This week, we mark the fifty-fifth year since the occupation of the West Bank began. It is clearer than ever that the occupation is not temporary, and there is not the political will in the Israeli government to bring about its end. Human Rights Watch recently concluded that Israel has crossed a threshold and its actions in the occupied territories now meet the legal definition of the crime of apartheid under international law. Israel is the sole sovereign power that operates in this land, and it systematically discriminates on the basis of nationality and ethnicity. Such a reality is, as we saw ourselves, apartheid. It is time for the world to recognize that what we saw in South Africa decades ago is happening in the occupied Palestinian territories too. And just as the world joined the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, it is time for the world to take decisive diplomatic action in our case as well and work towards building a future of equality, dignity, and security for Palestinians and Israelis alike.
Ilan Baruch served as Israeli Ambassador to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.
Dr. Alon Liel served as Israeli Ambassador to South Africa and as Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.
Benjamin Pogrund’s response to the allegations
So, exactly what did former Israeli ambassadors Alon Liel and Ilan Baruch learn from their postings in South Africa? Not much, judging from their claims on 8 June.
First, they say Israel drew inspiration for the West Bank from the Bantustans. That’s totally faulty. Anyone with elementary knowledge of South Africa knows that the white nationalist government decided to create the Bantustans, imposed them and defined the borders. It was unilateral and one-sided.
On the other hand, the division of the West Bank into Areas A, B and C between Israelis and Palestinians was agreed upon between them in the Oslo Accords of 1993. The arrangement was meant to last for five years when a Palestinian state would come into being. Unhappily, both sides screwed up – Israel seized land and Palestinians stepped up terror attacks. The promised Palestinian state must still be formed.
Two, each Bantustan had its own government, albeit nominal and vassal-like. Most of them had contiguous areas of land. On the other hand, the myriad Palestinian communities that Liel/Baruch refer to are merely towns and villages scattered through the West Bank. There is not the slightest resemblance to the Bantustans.
It’s quite possible, as Liel/Baruch suggest, that the late Ariel Sharon took a fancy to the Bantustans when he visited South Africa and saw them in terms of Israel/Palestine. But, as the former ambassadors cannot but know about quite-recent Israeli history, a fundamental change occurred inside Sharon when he became prime minister and faced the realities of ruling: at the time of his untimely death, he was clearly heading towards separation through two-states – which is the current policy of the Palestinian Authority and is backed by the US, EU, UK, Russia and most of the world.
Third, Bantustans were a racist device. Called “separate development” they were intended to fool the world by trying to put a pretty face on naked apartheid.
The West Bank is entirely different. As Liel/Baruch must surely know, Israel’s occupation did not simply fall from the sky but is due to well-known historical events. Jordan controlled it from 1948 (and suppressed any Palestinian political activity). In 1967, Jordan joined the war between Israel and Egypt/Syria and attacked Israel from the east with artillery fire. Israeli troops crossed onto the West Bank and drove the vaunted Arab Legion back to Jordan.
After some hesitation, Israel decided to remain on the West Bank as a buffer zone against possible Jordanian attack. Its motivation gradually broadened and strengthened: messianic beliefs came into play with Jews believing God had given them that part of the world. There was, and is, also greed, with land seized for Jewish settlement. The occupation continues to this day. It is an issue of contention in Israel with many wanting to end it. For the moment, right-wing views prevail and the Israeli army and the settlers are in control.
The bottom line is that race is not the determining factor. Security remains a paramount issue with fears, rightly or wrongly, that an independent Palestinian state could become a terrorist neighbour. Suicide bombings, stabbings and car killings emanating from the West Bank have strengthened such Israeli belief. And messianism and greed have become embedded.
Fourth, Liel/Baruch are surprisingly, really astonishingly, glib about Gaza. They look the other way about its complexity. It was occupied by Egypt until Israel conquered it in the 1967 war. Israel offered to return the territory. Egypt declined. Israel left it in 2005 but controls the northern border and the sea and air. Egypt controls the southern border and treats Gazans toughly: it closes the border for lengthy periods, leaving Palestinians stranded, and has destroyed about 1,000 tunnels built by Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, to smuggle in arms, explosives, food and even cows.
Egypt views Hamas with hostility, blaming it for complicity in the Islamicist attacks on its soldiers in Sinai.
Gaza is a colossal problem for Israel. The territory has limited resources except for wonderful beaches and some agriculture. Hamas seized power in 2007 and murdered its Palestinian Fatah opponents. It refuses to accept Israel’s existence and is openly genocidal in declaring that it wants to kill all the Jews. Israel’s siege of the territory is meant to block Hamas from bringing in arms and missiles. But, as last month’s violent outbreak showed, Hamas manages to build up an arsenal of thousands of missiles and fires them at Israeli civilian areas whenever it wants to.
Fifth, Liel/Baruch equate Israel with apartheid, “as we saw ourselves”. When might that have been? Liel was ambassador from 1992 t0 1994, during the transition period when apartheid was ebbing away; Baruch was ambassador from 2005 to 2008.
Israel has many faults but apartheid is not one of them. Those who make the equation either lack knowledge or are politically driven by hatred of the Jewish state to have Israel declared the same evil as was apartheid South Africa and hence subject to international boycotts.
Benjamin Pogrund was deputy editor of the former Rand Daily Mail. His books include Robert Sobukwe: How Can Man Die Better, and Drawing Fire: Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel. He has been awarded the Order of Ikhamanga Silver.
15 Jun 2021
This article and response were first published in Ground Up.