This month’s publication of Amnesty International UK’s report on Israel and the occupied territories represents the latest declaration of Israel as an apartheid state by an established NGO. It can be read in the context of other such declarations made both in Israel and abroad. The question of where the country lies on a continuum from ‘democracy’ to ‘apartheid state’ is back on the international news agenda. The Israeli government’s response to the report with its accusations of antisemitism, has reinforced the story’s current newsworthiness. With Israel now fearing that the UN will take up the ‘narrative’ of apartheid, opponents of the occupation can be cautiously optimistic about a shifting framework of debate concerning Israel-Palestine.
Whilst asking what kind of a country Israel is, one can also address a related question: where is Israel? As a citizen of a country, you might expect to be sure where the borders lie, but here it’s not so simple. The absence of maps in most media coverage doesn’t help. Is Israel contained within the 1949 ceasefire lines or within the borders of Mandatory Palestine – up to the river Jordan? Or does Israel lie somewhere in between, or beyond; a project still in the process of being shaped with frontiers that are the fluid accidents of history?
The government of Israel seems unable or unwilling to offer a straightforward answer to the question of where the borders of the country lie. Perhaps because no one is demanding one. The ruling coalition is a famously broad one and it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that it represents a consensus of indifference towards the occupation – an agreement to ‘shrink the conflict’ or ignore it altogether as if it were the asteroid in Don’t Look Up.
Locally, beyond overheated messianic rhetoric, there is little discussion of what one might think of as the bigger questions; certainly not those relating to maps and borders. With the exception of recent announcements regarding the Golan Heights, there are very few long-term policy declarations from government that involve unequivocal specifics about land and the rights of those who live on it. But perhaps that’s the point. One identifiable policy strand that has run throughout the short history of the State of Israel is that of strategic ambiguity. This has not been restricted to the issue of nuclear capability. Ambiguity regarding borders may be the result of internal political division but from certain points of view, it has served Israel well.
As historian Tom Segev put it, Israel’s founding prime minister Ben-Gurion hoped to deliver Athens, but the outcome was Sparta. The traditional left-wing Zionist narrative has it that, following 19 years of democracy (which entailed martial law applied to Arab citizens until 1966), the conquest of 1967 represented a fall from innocence that led to the settlement project and the blurring of borderlines. All Israelis born after 1967 have lived with the occupation as the status quo for their entire lives. There are no demonstrations. The fact that the occupation is barely an issue in local media suggests a consensus that accepts a fluid, borderless country in a permanent state of war and non-negotiation. A country in search of a partner for peace, whilst at the same time building settlements.
The elusive borders of the State of Israel in the area of the West Bank reflect this Spartan reality. If they exist as fixed entities, it is only within the ideological imaginings of left and right. On the left, borders largely depend upon whether you envisage a two-state or a one-state solution. On the right, for mainstream settlers like Naftali Bennett, Israel undoubtedly includes Area C in the West Bank, as designated in the Oslo Accords, an area under full Israeli control and the focal point of much settler violence. Any envisaged Palestinian entity would consist of Areas A and B, some 39% of the West Bank, an archipelago of Bantustans. Further to the right, there are ideas about a greater Israel associated with the likes of Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich which encompass the West Bank, East Bank and beyond. Shlomo Sand has pointed out that, from the early days of Israel, many citizens regarded the borders of the infant state as flexible frontier areas rather than permanent boundaries. This seems now to be the prevalent attitude towards to the West Bank. Gaza, in contrast, is a fixed cage.
If the vision of the right defines the borders of the State of Israel, then there remains the question of the status of the Palestinians who live here. The notion of population transfer lies behind some of these rightist fantasies – Smotrich has said so much. Is Jewish supremacy to continue as the norm until there is a kind of ‘voluntary’ transfer of Palestinians when life becomes too unbearable? The Nation-State Law of 2018 makes it clear that Israel is the country of its Jewish citizens alone. What will be the future for Palestinians of a greater Israel? Precedent at best suggests something along the lines of the residency status of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, or the situation of the Druze of the Golan Heights with their laissez-passer documents. There are few voices talking about full citizenship with equal rights.
So, where is the State of Israel? Exactly? There seems to be no consensus other than a tacit commitment to a frontier state. At some point, someone worked out that annexation, in the formal sense, is unnecessary. Indeed, it’s undesirable if it leads to citizenship for all the Palestinians between the river and the sea. Fifty-plus years of ‘temporary’ occupation essentially boil down to de facto annexation. This is plain to see unless you’re a committed apartheid denialist. When you build houses, roads, a university, you are planning to stay. The West Bank is already Israel if we are to go by the investment, the notion of ‘state land’, the ‘legal’ settlements and their madly elaborate infrastructure. The fact is that all Israelis living within the current fluid borders can live a normal life and vote. Approximately 4.8 million Palestinians cannot and have not been able to for over 50 years. It is in this context that the likes of Amnesty International are publishing reports which dare to use the term apartheid.
If Israel is perceived as an apartheid state, then there is a link to this frontierism, to choices made by Israeli voters regarding borders. You can’t defend Israel against such accusations if you do not consider the West Bank to be ‘abroad’. The evidence of the last fifty years suggests that Israel is a frontier settler state set on expansion beyond ‘indefensible’ pre-1967 borders. How long can Palestinians live within these frontiers without rights? The international community and many Israeli citizens seem happy to avoid the question.
Anthony Fulton is a writer and blogger based in Israel-Palestine. He has contributed to Dissident Voice, CounterPoint, Anti-War.com, The Times of Israel, Mondoweiss and other media.