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Israel-Palestine: If not apartheid, then what?

by Peter A. Belmont / 2021-06-01
© 2021 Peter Belmont


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•(06/21) Israel-Palestine: If not apartheid, then what?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Israel and Palestine and what may come next.

We are at a pregnant moment when more and more estimable human rights organizations have described not only Israel itself (that is to say, the state as organized on its pre-1967 territory) as an “apartheid state” de jure but the totality of the territory now controlled by Israel—the Golan Heights, Gaza, pre-1967 Israel, the West Bank including occupied East Jerusalem—as an “apartheid state” de facto. See B’Tzelem’s opinion and Human Rights Watch’s opinion.

Excluding the Golan Heights, which I imagine will be returned ultimately to Syria, the territories I just described may reasonably be called “Mandatory Palestine”, “Palestine”, or more simply “The Land”. As a territorial term, I will use the term “Israel” to mean “pre-1967 Israeli territory”. My essay, my terminology!

Israel is reacting to these accusations of “apartheid”, to today’s political turmoil, and to the desertions from knee-jerk support of Israel (you know, the “my country right or wrong, my mother drunk or sober” sort of knee-jerk support) of so many young Jews and leftists, by moving farther to the “right” into what many describe as a “one-state” “solution” along apartheid lines.

Nearly every thoughtful person says now that the two-state “solution”—indeed, any imaginable two-state “solution”—is “dead” and has been dead for many years. The so-called “peace-process” (negotiations toward a conflict-resolving treaty) has for many years been a sham, a sort of “peace theater” conducted in a theater built and managed by Israel, to be conducted openly while Israel slyly usurped more and more of occupied Palestine . (As to why it was a sham, more later under “History”.)

The Paradox

And yet there are forlorn voices still crying in the dark, the voices of “liberal Zionists” mostly, saying that the two-state “solution” is still both necessary (because today, more than ever before, Jews and Arabs cannot live together in The Land) and possible. See, for example, Tzipi Livni in The New York Times.

And so the paradox: two-states is both possible and dead. How can this be? In my view, both views are defensible, but only under widely differing circumstances. Under current circumstances, two-states is dead. But under imaginable changed circumstances, two-states is imaginable.

Let me begin my discussion of this paradox by making a small analogy.

For medicinal reasons I require a solution of salt and baking soda as a gargle. To make it, I first place salt and baking soda together in a cup. These powders sit together peaceably in the cup, unlike the Zionists and Palestinian Arabs who inhabit Israel-Palestine. But these two powders are not yet in a “solution”. Left to themselves, these powders will never reach a “solution”. To get to a “solution” I pour boiling water into the cup and stir. To get to a “solution” I must apply a major disturbance from outside the cup: in this case, the disturbance is boiling water and stirring.

In my analogy, The Land is the cup, salt and baking soda are the Zionists and the Palestinian Arabs, and the boiling water and stirring are the application of power and pressure from outside, presumably by the USA and the UN.

Various One-State Solutions

It is abundantly clear to all observers that if Israel, as now, continue to be preserved unaffected by any sufficient outside pressures and disturbances, it will continue on its present course, either expelling, killing, or confining to tiny “Bantustans” the Palestinians who live in the occupied territories. Israel is headed toward, if in fact it has not already achieved, a one-state “solution”. A neat trick, done without the disagreeable distractions of negotiations or treaties.

This single apartheid state is not the democratic, multi-confessional, and non-discriminatory state occupying all The Land that the Palestinians who long for a one-state “solution” are hoping for or demanding. But, undoubtedly, it is a single state, existing today, solely of Israeli manufacture.

Is another “one-state” solution imaginable?

I believe that, with massive pressure from outside—from the USA and the UN, this single apartheid state could, perhaps, be transformed into a single democratic state. It would be very hard to accomplish, and would take a very long time, after all the recent bloodshed, the long-term cruel siege of Gaza and the many, many Palestinians killed, dispossessed, tortured, and imprisoned since 1967. But with long enough international supervision it might just be possible. (Just as, in the USA, tension between white supremacists and people of color and immigrants might disappear given a powerful enough intervention over a long enough time.)

But the prospect of such international intervention in Israel-Palestine is not yet in evidence.

Various Two-State Solutions

Nevertheless, while we are busily imagining things not yet in evidence, why not imagine a massive outside pressure—again from the USA and the UN—applied to transform The Land into two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian Arab, side by side, and at peace? People have spoken of this for many years. Why not do it?

And if we imagine such wonderful, genie-from-a-bottle, deus-ex-machina, pressure, let us spend at least a moment asking what such pressure should be exercised to accomplish.

If there are to be two states, they must have well-defined territories and boundaries. What should these be?

First, we may notice that The Land is home to from 1/3 to 1/2 of the Jews in the world, and is already home to the vast majority who would wish to live in Israel.

The Land contains about 1/2 the Palestinians in the world, the rest largely living in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, these camps having been filled originally by refugees from the ethnic cleansing (expulsions) of Arabs by Jews done as part of the war of 1947-1950 (“war of 1948”) and from the 1967 war.

The number of Jews who do or would wish to live in The Land, and the number of Palestinians who do or would wish to live in The Land, are very roughly equal in number, each group about 10 million.

So, if each group were to have territory proportional to its population, it would make sense to divide The Land into two equal parts, possibly equal not only as to size but also, perhaps, as to mountains, deserts, plains, and sea-coasts. And water resources.

Such a re-division of The Land would, of course, displace many Israeli Jews, particularly (one imagines) those now living in the (illegal) settlements in the occupied territories. This would be a great hardship for them, but Israel itself created the model for such displacement when, in the 1947-1950 war, without shedding any tears, it expelled (displaced) about 85% of the Palestinian Arabs then living in the territory which became Israel. The expulsions of 1948 were the centerpiece of what the Palestinians called the “Nakba”, meaning the “catastrophe”. If the 50-50 redistribution of land just suggested were to occur, it might call forth Israeli cries of “antisemitism”, but by the time the USA and UN had so far overcome their lassitude of the last 75 years and got themselves to the point of acting on Israel/Palestine at all—and any action would be against Israel’s perceived interests and desires—such cries could easily be ignored as the usual Zionist cry-babyism and propaganda (“hasbara”).

When imagining a two-state solution, a 50-50 division of The Land is not the only division of land that can be imagined. It is, however, very close to the 55%-45% proposal to divide the land that the UNGA produced in 1947 and which, as a proposal needing to be accepted by both sides, was ineffective, having been accepted by the Jewish Agency (speaking for the Jews in Palestine), but having been rejected by the Palestinians who couldn’t see why the Jews, then a minority in Palestine, should get 55% of the territory.

After 1967, the Palestinians, imagining that the military occupation begun in 1967 would come to a speedy end, came to imagine a two-state “solution” based on the then existing 78%-22% division of The Land, with Israel the state to get all of Israel the territory (78%) and the Palestinians to get the rest (Gaza, West Bank, a land-bridge between: 22%), Jerusalem to be divided as before 1967.

In the many years of “peace-process” negotiations, Israel never contemplated allowing the Palestinians even so much as 22% of The Land. As to this, more below at “History”.

Over the many years of “peace-processing”, Israel has offered many divisions of The Land, but always in ways unacceptable to the Palestinians, who believed that accepting the 78%-22% division of what was once entirely their own land, was as much sacrifice as they were prepared to make.

So, in summary, Israel has from time to time acquiesced in or proposed divisions of The Land in which Palestine got less than 1/2 (or much less than 1/2).

What other ideas could be considered?

Above, I have suggested a 50-50 split. Is any other division of The Land imaginable?


I have also sometimes suggested, a bit tongue-in-cheek, that The Land be divided so that Israel got about 2 or three times the territory of New York City, which would easily accommodate its population, and would leave the rest of The Land to the Palestinians, who are historically and presently a more agricultural people. And why not? If a massive outside power was applied to resolve the conflict, that power could be used in all kinds of ways and this is one of them.


For readers who are new to the Israel/Palestine conflict, a bit of history may be helpful.

Zionism, the political movement to establish a homeland for the Jewish People, began about 1900 as a response to Eastern European pogroms (massacres) of Jews and other antisemitic acts. Its leaders felt that Jews needed their own country or at least a country that would be generously hospitable to any Jews who wished to live there.

The Nazi Holocaust (1933-45) turned a low-energy political program into a high-energy one. The Zionist leaders had already settled upon Palestine as the place they wanted for their homeland and had talked Great Britain—which controlled Palestine after capturing it from the Ottoman Empire in World War I—into issuing the Balfour Declaration and later into maneuvering the League of Nations into folding the Balfour declaration into the British Mandate for Palestine.

Both the Declaration and the Mandate promised that Palestine would become a welcoming home for Jewish immigrants. The word “state” was not used. The rights of the Palestinian Arab people were mentioned only slightly and were far from fully protected.

Britain, as Mandatory power, was established by the League of Nations as a sort of regent for a still-to-be-born Palestinian state, promised but never delivered. Because of the promise of a Jewish homeland, massive Jewish immigration was permitted. From time to time Palestinian objection to this flood of immigrants erupted into violence and, from time to time, Britain cut back the number of Jewish immigrants it would allow to enter, in the effort to reduce this violence. The term “settler colonialism” had not yet been invented, but the Palestinians knew what was happening and didn’t like it. Palestine was, in their view, still their own country, even under British (Mandatory) regency (supposedly temporary political control).

After World War II, Zionists terrorist gangs attacked the British soldiers and government, aiming to induce Britain to leave Palestine. It worked. In 1947 Britain told the UN that it was abandoning its Mandate and would remove its army and the government.

The UNGA passed UNGA Res. 181 in late November of 1947, which was an invitation to the two sides to create two states side by side in Palestine. To the Zionists, this was an offer of territory (and not merely an invitation to seek agreement with the Palestinians). Never mind that it was not an offer of territory and that the UNGA had no sovereignty, no ownership, over Palestine which would justify the offer that the Zionists insisted it constituted.

War broke out. The Zionist terrorist gangs and the Zionist clandestine army (Haganah) both fought the Palestinians, who were mostly untrained in military affairs and badly armed if armed at all.

The Zionist leadership evidently decided that they were unwilling to share Palestine with the Arabs, that they needed a state of their own, and that they could never get and hold such a state unless they expelled most of the Palestinians living in the territory they wished to seize.

The idea of living with Palestinians in a bi-national state occurred to many Zionists, and appealed to some, but had no appeal for the leaderships of the Zionist terrorist gangs, of the Army(Haganah), or of the Jewish Agency.

A grand expulsion of Palestinians ensued.

One of the most well known incidents was the April 9, 1948, massacre at Deir Yassin, wherein Zionist terrorists murdered most of the villagers of this peaceful village and spread the news of the massacre far and wide.
News of the killings sparked terror among Palestinians, frightening them to flee their homes in the face of Jewish troop advances and it strengthened the resolve of Arab governments to intervene, which they did five weeks later.
On May 14, 1948, The Zionists declared the existence of a new state, Israel, and that state was promptly attacked by armies from nearby Arab countries. These attacks were ineffectual, Israel easily triumphed, and the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs continued.

When the war ended, in 1950, Israel had no agreed boundaries with any other country, but only trucial boundaries (armistice lines) which were regarded by all parties as temporary and subject to rectification by final treaties. (See here.) Since then, Israel has signed peace treaties with Egypt and with Jordan, so that some agreed and final international boundaries for Israel have been established, but Israel has no agreed boundaries with Lebanon, with Syria (whose Golan Heights it has held since 1967 and has claimed to have annexed, contrary to international law), and most important has no treaty or boundaries with the Palestinian Arab people.

After the war (1948) and until 1966, Israel ruled its Arab citizens through a system of military governors, very much as if its territory were what we now refer to as “occupied territory” or “belligerently occupied territory”.

In its relations with the Palestinian people, Israel has applied various ratchets, a ratchet being a device for maintaining and increasing pressure. A ratchet is usually a one-way device.

The explanation of why the so-called peace-process was a sham (as claimed above) is that Israel kept tightening the ratchets in its bargaining in such a way as to guarantee that the Palestinians (sometimes the PLO) would not agree to the terms that Israel offered.

Since the (apparent) peace-process bargaining began with Palestine seeking to take 22% of The Land (i.e., the entirety of the Palestinian land that Israel occupied in 1967) and Israel began by ratcheting downwards from 22%, that is why Palestine never got an offer it could accept.

Israel’s Territorial Ratchet

Israel’s approach to the exchange of territories with the Palestinians is that the exchange goes only one way: territory goes toward Israel, not from Israel. This the territorial ratchet.

Originally, before 1947, pre-Israeli Zionists held no territory. After UNGA Res. 181, they acted as if they had received a deed in fee simple to the 55% of territory mentioned in that resolution, and the terrorist and Haganah groups acted in accord with this. During the course of the pre-state war and after the state was declared, the Israeli armed forces (the Haganah became the IDF, Israeli Defense Forces) continued to expel Palestinians, destroy villages, and generally grab territory. By the end of the war, the armistice lines surrounded 78% of The Land. Israel has never for a moment suggested relinquishing any of this territory, even though its boundaries are merely armistice lines. The ratchet continued.

The war of 1967 had an ambiguous beginning, but the first shots were fired by Israel. After six days, Israel had captured a great deal: all the rest of The Land, Syria’s Golan, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Israel claimed that it had to attack Egypt and the others, that it had to pre-empt an attack by them. But this account is contradicted by the statement of Menachem Begin, a prime minister of Israel:
Menachem Begin, the first Likud Prime Minister of Israel, also said: “In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”
The reason this matters, if it matters at all, is that Israel thereafter treated the captured Golan and West Bank as if they’d been captured as a legitimate prize from an attacking force, and deserved to be kept—rather than acquired by an illegitimate war of aggression, and should be returned.

International law appears to regard the acquisition of territory by war as inadmissible without regard to “who started it.” UNSC Res 242 (1967):
The preamble refers to the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East in which every State in the area can live in security”.[3]

After the war of 1948, Jordan had captured and occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem and held these territories until 1967, claiming to have annexed them to Jordan. (Israel claimed to have extended its political control and government to all of “Israel” after the 1948 war, but for whatever reason this acquisition of territory by war was regarded generally as state-building whereas Jordan’s occupation was described as such, annexation by war being disfavored.

After 1967, Israel began a program of slow take-over of the West Bank and of occupied East Jerusalem (as well as over the Golan) by the building of settlements populated by Israeli Jews, and the building of highways to connect these settlements to Israel-proper. This process of settlement continued until today and accelerated until, today, about 10% of Israel’s Jewish population resides as settlers in the occupied West Bank.

Israel sometimes claimed that the settlements were temporary, mere bargaining chips in the peace negotiations, but the enormous expense of the settlements and the highways belied this claim.

Thus the ratchet of territorial acquisition continued, always building Israel and diminishing what might remain for the Palestinians.


As most readers will know already, international law and opinion deem the settlements illegal. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 (Civilians Convention) provides:
Article 49. Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive.
and Israel’s whole settlement program has been understood to fall within this prohibition.

Illustrative of this international opinion, UNGA Res. 465 (1980) demands (but without enforcement provisions) that Israel remove its settlers and dismantle the settlements:
5. Determines that all measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, or any part thereof, have no legal validity and that Israelís policy and practices of settling parts of its population and new immigrants in those territories constitute a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War and also constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East;

6. Strongly deplores the continuation and persistence of Israel in pursuing those policies and practices and calls upon the Government and people of Israel to rescind those measures, to dismantle the existing settlements and in particular to cease, on an urgent basis, the establishment, construction and planning of settlements in the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem;

Egypt, stung by its defeat in the 1967 war, attacked Israel by surprise in 1973 and had such good success (though not victory) that Israel finally agreed, in 1978, to a peace treaty by which the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt and final boundaries between the states were agreed. However, Egypt’s boundary with Gaza was not a boundary with Israel, and thus a hole in Israel’s agreed-by-treaty boundary with Egypt exists along the edge of Gaza.

Evidently Israel’s territorial ratchet works (so far) on Palestine but not necessarily with other (more powerful) parties.

Israel’s Ratchet Regarding Previous Agreements

In dealing with Palestinians during the endless so-called peace-process, Israel has generally insisted on “preconditions” to negotiation, and those preconditions include a “ratchet” provision, that Palestinians not back-up from agreements earlier made. Thus the Palestinians (PA: Palestine Authority) are caught and held fast in the Oslo Accords despite the fact that Oslo promised progress within 5 years, progress which never happened. Oslo allowed settlement (or failed to forbid it). Tough luck, PA. Hamas wanted to join the negotiation process at some point and Israel refused unless and until Hamas renounced armed struggle (which it wouldn’t), recognized Israel’s legitimacy (which it wouldn’t, perhaps particularly in light of Israel’s too-flexible and self-generous notion of boundaries), and agreed to all agreements previously made between Israel and the PA, e.g., Oslo, (which Hamas wouldn’t). So Israel refused to negotiate with Hamas and called it a terrorist organization with which it was inappropriate to negotiate. (Source: Livni article, cited above).


What’s striking about this is that Israel refuses to be bound by the Fourth Geneva Convention which seeks to protect civilian persons in time of war (and under belligerent occupation). Israel is a signatory of this Convention, but renounces it. No “ratchet” for Israel, only for others.

Israel’s Settlement Ratchet

Israel has built settlements throughout the occupied West Bank. More settlements, more buildings,more highways (for Israeli Jews only to use!), more settlers: all are added all the time. They are all—buildings, towns, people—present illegally (discussed above), but Israel only adds to the settlement project, which aims to make a re-division of The Land impossible, because it is well established that under no circumstances whatever would any Israeli government force the removal of any settlement or settler. The Israeli government and army are both thoroughly infiltrated (if that is a suitable word) by settlers! This is the principal reason that most knowledgeable people say that two-states is “dead”.

Part of Israel’s settlement project has been the building of a very long, very curly wall or fence which means to separate Palestinian territory from territory which Israel would like to claim as its own. Although some of this wall merely follows the border between Israel and the West Bank (that is, follows the “green line” of 1948), much of the wall goes deeply into the West Bank and walls off a lot of territory (formerly) lived in or farmed by Palestinians. The International Court of Justice ruled on the legality of the wall:
The International Court of Justiceís July 9, 2004, advisory opinion declares Israelís separation (apartheid) wall illegal, calls for its dismantlement, and makes enforcement of Israelís accomplishing this a duty of all states.
(NB: UN documents seem off-line just now and I cannot find electronic versions of the ICJ decision or the UNSC and UNGA Resolutions.)

This constant increase in the settlement presence in the West Bank is yet another ratchet, making a peace treaty impossible.


The USA As Israel’s Protector

The USA protects Israel in three important ways.

First the USA gives Israel about $4B every year in (unrestricted) aid. The USA also gives Palestine some money, but far, far less.

Second, the USA has intense military co-operation with Israel including selling (or giving) Israel lots of advanced weapons. The USA gives Palestine no weapons as far as I know.

Third, and most important because most damaging to international law and peace, the USA protects Israel by vetoing all draft resolutions in the UNSC that Israel dislikes. Thus, if a draft resolution proposes that Israel’s illegal settlements be required to be removed and also proposes enforcement mechanisms, the USA would veto it. (The USA did not veto UNSC 465 to Jimmy Carter’s credit but did, after the fact, say that they really didn’t mean it.)

Some attribute these strong supports for Israel to some benefit (military, espionage) that Israel provides to the USA, but many suppose that the strong mover is the enormous amount of political money given by AIPAC and its members—and the large voting blok of Evangelical Christians which support Israel even more strongly than Jewish voters do.


There is a bit of movement these days away from the knee-jerk approval of Israel and all its doings that has marked USA politics since 1967 if not before. The progressive movement that began with Bernie Sanders before the 2016 election and has continued with The Squad and AOC and Rashida Tlaib, herself of Palestinian descent, is part of this change. There is a fall-off of support for Israel among young Jews and among younger members of the Evangelical faction. In recent days, there has been a great deal of press coverage of Israel’s bombing of Gaza, which marks a shift in mainstream media coverage of Israel/Palestine.

Whether this small movement is enough to make any significant change in USA policy is easy to say: not yet! But as time goes on, such changes might amount to something.

Watch this space!


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