This article examines the need to avoid overly simplified notions of “apartheid” when considering Israeli treatment of Palestinians. It argues that the Zionist apartheid project is global in its aspirations, requiring total global consensus with and acceptance of Zionist policy against Palestinians, which are predicated upon colonial ideas of humanity. It uses several televised flashpoints of collective Zionist violence against Palestinians to build this argument, ending with a reflection on the importance of challenging internalized notions of colonial humanity.
The Fiction of Israeli “Democracy”
On Wednesday, January 19th, 2022, in the deadness of morning retaining the cover of night, Zionist occupation forces descended upon the Salhiya family home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. They beat Mahmoud Sahlhiya’s nine year old daughter and forcibly seized the entire family before proceeding to demolish the house. Like other Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, the Salhiya family had been initially dispossessed by the first waves of ethnic cleansing that directly facilitated the so-called founding of the colonial Zionist Israeli state.
Just prior to the harrowing violence of the 19th, many committed to Palestinian liberation from around the world had witnessed Mahmoud Salhiya’s heroic declaration that he would set himself ablaze before leaving another one of his homes to the alien colonial occupiers. Humiliated by this display of unwavering resolve broadcasted to the world via social media, Zionist colonizers shifted their strategy to an early morning raid, hoping to seize and lock down Sheikh Jarrah to better enable a speedy demolition while the rest of the world slept.
Again, however, Palestinian resistance foiled their illusions of colonial impunity. A brave coterie of Palestinian journalists including Muna El-Kurd arrived on the scene and began sharing everything to Instagram live. Initially, Instagram blocked Muna El-Kurd from going live completely; then, after eventually granting her access, continued to interfere with the sound and visuals.
I have written elsewhere about how Silicon Valley tech companies like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter proudly practice what I refer to as “digital apartheid”, allowing for their ostensibly “neutral” platforms to better enable and facilitate the Zionist regime’s ethnic cleansing by censoring outspoken Palestinians who attempt to document Israeli violence and their dispossession via social media.
Palestinian journalists pressed on. The stream eventually materialized despite multiple, relentless forces of oppression: on the one side Silicon Valley tech censorship, and on the other the physical presence of Zionist occupation forces, hellbent on preventing as much access to the scene as possible. Occupation forces blocked ambulances from attending to the wounded as well as journalists from being able to get a good angle to film; on the stream, people repeatedly remarked that they were blocked from advancing despite their press credentials.
The most important thing for the Zionist occupation forces was to ensure that no agents of amelioration interfered with the colonial imperative to beat and completely dispossess yet another Palestinian family. The gathered crowd of resisters and the rest of us who tuned in virtually with bated breath needed to be told through the vicious vocabulary of unconscionable violence that the Zionist state was accountable to no one, would dispense violence without thought whenever—and on whomever—it pleased.
As I watched from my phone, I had a peculiar reaction: it was not the ruins of the Salhiya family home or the militarized callousness of the occupation forces that stood out to me most. In fact, compared with each of these, the actual focus of my attention appears initially to be of secondary importance: in an attempt to prevent journalists from getting detailed shots on their cameras and phones, the occupation forces had lined the road with thick metal plates.
These inspired a bizarre epiphany for me; in their crude simplicity, their unadorned obstructiveness, these plates, placed as they were in service of preventing a home demolition from being recorded in real time by Palestinians, became symbolic prisms refracting, through the unrefined materials of settler-colonial brutality, the defining contours of colonial Zionist apartheid: to broadcast to the world a manicured, Omelas-like image of a triumphing “democracy” while actively obfuscating its concomitant abuses of Palestinian life and land.
Every circulated image, every proud proclamation of Zionist nationalist achievement is suffused with the spirits of murdered Palestinians, the strangled weeping of ancient, uprooted olive trees, the phantom moaning of demolished homes. Whether or not occupation forces are actively engaged in the process of repressing Palestinian attempts to document their oppression, every media representation of the Israeli state is made possible by this a priori silencing. That is the silencing of ethnic cleansing, military occupation, and the physical, social, and symbolic architectures of apartheid. In an increasingly globalized context, the success of the fictional image of Israeli democracy depends directly upon the Zionist state’s ability to continue “globalizing” its apartheid, an undertaking that has naturally been subjected to increasing challenges as the colonized and all those acting in solidarity realize the means of capturing images and footage of their own, unbeholden to hegemonic colonial and imperial powers.
Globalizing Apartheid, Palestinian Resistance, and “Humanitarian” Consensus
Palestinian resistance to Zionist colonization has a rich and powerful timeline, one that precedes the literal formation of the Zionist state upon the carnage and the rubble authored by marauding militias. Indeed, the timeline begins during the era of the imperial British mandate, when one occupying power, with all of the arrogance and racial humanism that characterizes colonial modernity, saw no issue with handing over the Palestinians’ land to the burgeoning settler-colonial European Zionist movement as easily and callously as though it were some shiny bauble of charity.
When in the end the British were unwilling to render explicit the details of their envisioned partition, the United Nations stepped in to submit a “partition plan” of their own devising, unfavorable to the colonized for patently obvious reasons, to the colonizer because it did not realize the totality of their own vision, which today continues to be realized through home demolitions, “settlements” (really, colonies), and various other forms of de facto “annexation”—i.e., good, old-fashioned land theft.
The 1936 uprisings, whereby Palestinians withheld labor and participated in a 7-month general strike—possibly the longest in history—is one resplendent instance of Palestinian resistance to imperial and colonial designs upon their land and livelihood that remains rightly celebrated to this day.
In 1982, Zionist forces seized Beirut, determined to drive out the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The climax of their vicious occupation was the massacres of the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp and the nearby neighborhood of Sabra. Thousands of Palestinians and working-class Lebanese had been slaughtered in a massacre carried out by fascist Phalangist forces that were directly aided and abetted by Zionist occupation forces. Later revelations would eventually prove not only that the Zionist state had played a direct role in facilitating this genocidal behavior, but also that the US had had full knowledge it would occur and chose to do nothing to intervene.
At the time of the massacre, independent journalists were on the ground in Lebanon, and thus capable of recording what they saw and heard without mediation from their networks or sponsors. This meant that footage of Israeli-backed brutality could be immediately transmitted for all to see, and was impossible to censor completely. For the first time since the entrenchment of the geo-imperial relationship between Israel, the US and the UK, the world would see images and footage that had not been subjected to the cosmetic filtering of corporate media. There was, therefore, no way to deny that violence had occurred.
So, as the Palestinian intellectual Steven Salaita writes, the colonial Zionist government participated in another classic colonial gesture—owning its involvement in a fake show of anguished contrition. The resulting Kahan-Commission report, as Salaita notes, concedes that violence occurred, but that it occurred “in spite of Israel’s best intentions.” This move was roundly celebrated; the New York Times hailed the Kahan-Commission report as “a new exercise in democracy.” But as Salaita rightfully observes, such an occurrence would have been unthinkable if Palestinian humanity were truly taken for granted in corporate media circles. The fact that it is not clearly allowed for the Zionist state to present an instance of butchery as simply the regrettable result of political-national growing pains. The dead had had their claim denied through the very act of admission into concerned global consciousness (1).
On December 8th, 1987, an Israeli army truck ran over a bus carrying four Palestinian workers in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza strip. All four were killed, a final indignity that ignited the 1987 Intifada as protests flooded from Gaza to the West Bank.
The artful innovation of the colonized once more outwitted the brutal sophistication of the colonizers as the Israeli regime, for all of its technocratic prowess, was humbled by heroic feats of civil disobedience. Images of brave Palestinian youths armed only with stones facing down hulking tanks rendered in visual terms the stark, undeniable contrast between colonizer and colonized. So the Zionist state did what it often does in such situations: resort to indiscriminate, state-sanctioned cruelty. Then Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered occupation force soldiers to break the bones of Palestinian protestors in an attempt to chill any further inclination to resist among the colonized populace.
But this plan failed in two respects: first, resistance continued. Second, footage of soldiers engaged in such atrocities began circulating, resulting in mounting international outrage. In some instances, the media attention was enough to help secure the release of Palestinians arrested for protesting.
Logic of Colonial Strategy
Readers may wonder about the logic underlying Zionism’s “globalizing apartheid.” How, that is, can an image or video be disputed outright? Of course, the Israeli state is adept at such denials. Magritte’s classic “The Treachery of Images”, a meta work of art calling into question the image’s capacity for authentic representation with the classic phrase, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” is nothing short of imitative when juxtaposed with the audacity of arrogance informing Zionism’s war on representation.
A paramount example of this is the Zionist state report rejecting the accuracy of video footage showing 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura crouched in terror beside his father Jamal in 2000, who was trying to shield his son from the gunfire of Zionist occupation forces. Muhammad was killed, and the image of him and his father trying to find refuge amidst a barrage of occupiers’ bullets became one of the defining images of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, which was initiated when then-Zionist opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, stormed the Al Aqsa Mosque with heavily armed occupation police forces in a deliberate show of provocation just two days prior.
In 2013, a Zionist state commission established by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found that the video of Muhammad al-Dura, which had originally been shown on the channel French 2 but soon spread rapidly, was “staged” and that “the narrative spawned by the France 2 report has served as an inspiration and justification for terrorism, antisemitism, and the delegitimization of Israel”.
Palestinian literary critic Bashir Abu-Manneh notes that such disputations have become increasingly commonplace from the Al-Aqsa Intifada up to the present moment. As the asymmetrical nature of Zionist colonial violence becomes more apparent to a global audience, and as the Israeli state itself becomes increasingly vicious in its assaults upon Palestinians, the collective criminalization of all Palestinians as de facto “terrorists” becomes a staple component of Zionist policy.
Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism are core stratagems within the Zionist playbook: as footage of the Israeli state engaged in collective violence against Palestinians has been frequently and repeatedly shown to the world, Zionists turn to patently racist arguments about why collective violence is collectively warranted. The question that remains, and that should haunt the consciousness of every person who claims to care about freedom and liberation for all peoples, is how long will such arguments continue to be met with any measure of credulity? And how long will it take for the Zionist state’s violent impunity to be dealt a substantial blow by the rest of the world?
Coda: Apartheid in Creative Motion
Apartheid is not only a political structure, nor merely the extent to which colonial strategies of dehumanization continue to be effectively implemented. It is also the stuff of dreams, part of the magic dust of creative inspiration.
Though not interchangeable with the Black liberation struggle, the Palestinian liberation struggle is similarly undermined by the dehumanizing notion that Palestinian freedom from Zionist colonial racism must be arbitrated according to the whims, assumptions, attitudes, and general feelings of the dominant group. And even when individuals believe they are engaging the Palestinian liberation struggle “objectively” and in good faith, these dehumanizing notions are often baked into the very frameworks common to liberalism and international law—frameworks such as that of a “conflict” (as opposed to an anti-colonial liberation struggle) or the difficulty of “coexistence” (as though Palestinians are not being colonized, but simply intransigent zombies locked into religiously-fueled animosity) or “equality” for “both sides” (as though there are no disparities in power and privilege between Palestinians, the colonized, and Israelis, the colonizers).
This is the substance of the critique that Palestinian novelist Susan Abulhawa makes of Irish writer Colum McCann’s 2020 novel Apeirogon (2). Abulhawa argues that McCann’s novel, which is based on the actual friendship of a Palestinian man whose child is murdered by an occupation forces soldier, and an Israeli man whose child is killed in a suicide bombing, is “a kind of infinite boost to Israel’s ‘two sides’ discourse”. According to Abulhawa, the novel uses the personal relationship between two men, and a generalized, liberal notion of “shared humanity” to gloss over the power dynamics that exist between colonizer and colonized.
Of course, not everyone agrees with Abulhawa’s reading. Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh considers Abulhawa’s review “unfair” and claims that “We cannot as Palestinians take umbrage at anyone trying to portray Israelis and Palestinians as human. Abulhawa seems to do that”. But this argument overlooks a crucial question: who exactly asked an undoubtedly well-meaning Irish writer to use the Palestinian liberation struggle as a blank canvas upon which to muse about the “universality” of the human condition? More to the point—from whence came the entitlement to commence such an undertaking?
We may be at a new crossroads when it comes to international awareness of the Palestinian liberation struggle, but as apartheid becomes a more mainstream label for the Zionist state’s treatment of Palestinians, we need to be careful not to underestimate the extent of the oppression to which apartheid refers. Apartheid is also symbolic. It is also epistemological. And like a devil in disguise, it tells concerned artists and activists that the “conflict” depends upon “both sides” engaging in “negotiations” and “dialogue.”
If we truly want to challenge the Zionist state’s attempts to globalize its apartheid systems and logic, individuals also need to look deeply within themselves and interrogate the extent to which their notions of Palestinian humanity are conditioned by colonial/liberal-colonial notions of humanity.
- Salaita, S. and Gran, P., “The Kahan Commission Report and A Balcony Over the Fakihani”. The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 2006.
- McCann, C., “Apeirogon: A Novel”, 2020.