The idea of evoking the term "apartheid" to describe Israel's treatment of Palestinians was not invented by Israel's critics, but by Israel itself.
A recent U.N. report has found Israel guilty of apartheid, causing a diplomatic skirmish between Israel’s supporters and opponents. The report, published by the U.N.’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), compares Israel’s rule over Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank to South Africa’s treatment of non-whites during its apartheid phase.
Israeli officials and diplomats, meanwhile, rushed to slam the report as sheer Palestinian propaganda, an anti-Semitic slander akin to Nazi propaganda, and an Arab-led anti-Israel smear campaign aimed at tarnishing Israel’s international image.
Following suit, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley blasted the report as “anti-Israel propaganda,” demanding its immediate withdrawal, and pledging to block “biased and anti-Israel actions across the UN system and around the world.”
The irony is that the idea of evoking the term “apartheid” to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians was not invented by Israel’s enemies, let alone Arabs and Palestinians, but by Israel itself. For decades, Israeli officials have employed the Hebrew term Hafrada (“Separation” or “Segregation”) to describe Israel’s governing policy in the West Bank and Gaza, and its attempts to separate the Palestinian population from both the Israeli population and the Jewish settlers population in the occupied Palestinian territories. The so-called Israeli West Bank Barrier, known in Hebrew as “Gader Ha-Hafrada” (“Separation Fence”), was built on this Hafrada vision.
But the magic has apparently turned over the magician: By citing the term “apartheid” to describe Israel’s official policy towards Palestinians, Israel’s critics are simply using Israel’s own terminology against it. They have at their disposal a long series of official declarations, platforms and plans predicated on Israel’s commitment to the principle of Hafrada.
The beginning was in the early 1990s, when Yitzhak Rabin, the then Israeli prime minister, proposed to build a physical barrier to separate Israelis from Palestinians, before ordering the construction of a 30-mile barrier along the Gaza Strip. Rabin’s Hafrada vision was summed up in his famous pledge to “take Gaza out of Tel Aviv.” “We have to decide on separation [Hafrada] as a philosophy,” he declared in 1994. A year later, he told Israelis: “We have to reach a separation between us and them.” In 1995, Rabin established a special commission to discuss the implementation of Hafrada and formulate a ‘separation plan.’ Demanding a complete separation from Palestinians, he endorsed a plan to build a 200-mile ‘separation line’ of fences with the West Bank. Ironic as it may sound, Rabin often described the peace process with Palestinians as a form of Hafrada.
Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, seemingly conceded to the same Hafrada logic when, on the eve of the 1996 elections, he told Israelis: “Build a fence to keep out the Palestinians.”
In 1998, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak ran on a platform based openly on the Hafrada doctrine, campaigning under the slogan: “Us here. Them there.” In a famous speech to B’nai B’rith International (dated August 26, 1998), Barak declared: “We should separate ourselves from the Palestinians physically, following the recommendation of the American poet Robert Frost, who once wrote that good fences make good neighbors. Leave them behind the borders that will be agreed upon, and build Israel.”
Thanks to his unwavering devotion to the principle of Hafrada, Barak won the general election of 1999 in a landslide victory. From his new office, he sought to put his Hafrada vision to practice. To stimulate cabinet discussion of segregation, he handed his ministers copies of a separatist manifesto composed by the Israeli academic Dan Schueftan, titled Korach ha-Hafrada (The Necessity of Separation), which is said to have inspired Barak’s segregationist vision. Barak was shrewdly aligning himself with the dominant popular sentiment in Israel: A national poll conducted in late December that year showed 75 percent of Israelis in favor of Hafrada.
Come the 2000s, Hafrada rapidly became Israel’s raison d’être and founding ideology. In 2003, Ariel Sharon, who two years earlier had defeated Barak in a crushing landslide, proposed his own version of Hafrada: Unilateral separation, which translates in Hebrew as “Hafrada Had Tzdadit.” Sharon’s vision of Hafrada ultimately prevailed over Barak’s. It was adopted by the Israeli cabinet in June 2004, approved by the Knesset in February 2005, and enacted in August 2005, culminating in Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza.
Sharon’s “Unilateral Separation Plan”, or “Tokhnit Ha-Hafrada,” paved the way for the construction of the notorious separation wall, dubbed by Israeli officials as the physical incarnation of Sharon’s vision of Hafrada. Curiously, the original Hebrew term for the plan, “Tokhnit Ha-Hafrada” (Segregation Plan), was changed to “Tokhnit Ha-Hitnatkut” (Disengagement Plan), apparently for fear that the Hebrew “Hafrada” might echo the Afrikaans term “apartheid.”
Under Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s successor, Hafrada put on a new face: “The realignment plan”, or the “convergence plan,” which was coined to designate Israel’s plan to unilaterally disengage from most of the West Bank after annexing Jewish settlements into Israel. Notwithstanding the milder and lightly modified terminology, the new plan explicitly sought to continue the “segregation policy” (Medinyut ha-Hafrada) implemented by Olmert’s predecessors.
The current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shares his predecessors’ infatuation with the principle of Hafrada. In 2011, he told members of his cabinet: “The debate over how many Jews and how many Palestinians will be between the Jordan and the sea is irrelevant. It does not matter to me whether there are half a million more Palestinians or less because I have no wish to annex them into Israel. I want to separate from them so that they will not be Israeli citizens.”
While some Israelis tend to distinguish between “hard separation” (Rabin and Barak) and “soft separation” (Perez and Olmert) the result has been one and the same: A rigid form of physical separation where one ethnic group enjoys more freedom than the other.
This is not to suggest that Israel’s Hafrada is identical to South Africa’s apartheid, but that apartheid, or separateness, as a system of enforced segregation based on ethnicity and imposed by a sovereign and dominant group over an impoverished one, can take myriad forms.
The term “Hafrada” has rapidly dropped from official use, apparently to avoid association with the notorious term “apartheid.” In Israel’s public discourse, though, the term has lost none of its force. Today, “Hafrada” is used as a broad term to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, be they in the West Bank, Gaza, exile, or even in Israel. Indeed, as the U.N. report put it, Hafrada is no longer limited to describing Israel’s policy towards Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but also applies to its treatment of its own Palestinian citizens.
This form of internal Hafrada has its origins in the military regime period (1948-1966), when Israel imposed a formal military administration on the majority of its Arab citizenry, putting in place a repressive apparatus of ethnic and economic segregation, land appropriation, and restrictions on movement and political activity. While less visible, internal Hafrada persists today in various forms. In 2005, an art exhibition organized by an association of Israeli architects in the city of Jaffa, aptly titled “Hafrada” (“Separation”), featured images of a dozen separation sites inside Israel, not only between Jewish and Arab towns, but between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods within Israel’s so-called mixed cities, including Haifa, Jerusalem and Lod.
Hafrada, Israel’s equivalent for ethnic segregation, is a purely Israeli invention whose basic etymology was coined for want of a practical and descriptive term that would better account for Israel’s policy towards Palestinians on both sides of the border. In Israel, the term is evoked by supporters and opponents of segregation alike. While in official discourse the term has been cloaked in softer and gentler expressions–– such as “convergence” and “disengagement”––to the average Israeli, the term simply meant, and continues to mean, one thing: “Separation” and “segregation.” In other words, “apartheid.”
Ironically, whereas Israelis across the political spectrum insist on employing the term Hafrada to describe Israel’s policy towards Palestinians, in U.S. official discourse and mainstream media Hafrada is oftentimes wrapped in the rather milder terms of convergence and disengagement. U.S. diplomats need not look beyond Gader Ha-Hafrada to grasp the irony.