A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid | Front cover | Counterfire A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid | Front cover | Counterfire

In this introduction, Alex Snowdon explains the roots of the apartheid state, laying out the ground that the book covers

Israel was established in 1948 by ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians on a massive scale. Over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes: forced off their own land, with more than 500 Palestinian villages destroyed. They were removed to make way for a new state that explicitly privileged the rights of one group (Jews) over those of another (the indigenous Palestinian Arabs). This was the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe.

Israel was created as an ethnocracy, an apartheid state, characterised by a regime of Jewish supremacy. At a time of widespread decolonisation, with India gaining independence in 1947, Israel was a new settler-colonial state. Zionism was a movement, emerging in the late nineteenth century, that focused on Jewish settlement in historic Palestine, with a view to it becoming a national home for Jews. It was, according to the Zionists, a land without a people for a people without a land.

Zionism was a response to widespread antisemitism in Europe. Antisemitism reached its horrifying climax in the Holocaust, which galvanised international sympathy for the Zionist project. However, Palestine was not a land without a people. Rather than being the desert of Zionist imagination, it was a cosmopolitan society with a substantial Palestinian population.

Zionist terror gangs killed Palestinians and forced huge numbers out of their homes during 1947-9. The result was a state that treated those Palestinians who remained inside Israel’s borders as second-class citizens. Palestinians outside Israel became the world’s largest refugee community. In 1967, Israel further expanded its territory, bringing large numbers of Palestinians under its military rule. The logic of expansion is built into the very foundation of Israel as a settler-colonial state, seeking land at the expense of the indigenous population.

Israel has always required Western imperialist backing. In 1917, Zionist ambitions were boosted by the Balfour Declaration, which pledged Britain’s support for the aspiration to a Jewish national home. Jewish settlement in Palestine grew under the British Mandate after World War One. Once Israel was established, it was the US that became the primary imperial sponsor, especially from the 1960s onwards. The US increasingly saw Israel as a crucial strategic ally in the Middle East.

The Oslo ‘peace process’ of the 1990s did nothing to redress the historic injustices faced by the Palestinians. It entrenched the idea that Palestinians could only aspire to a separate state occupying a fraction of historic Palestine, while Israel greatly expanded its settlements in the occupied West Bank. It had nothing to offer the Palestinians suffering inequality and discrimination inside Israel or those living in east Jerusalem. It was silent on the Palestinian refugees (or their right of return) exiled outside of Palestine altogether.

Today’s reality is a system of apartheid. There is, in truth, a single apartheid state stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Israel controls all this territory and subjects Palestinians to oppression that varies in form. Israel systematically treats the Palestinians as an unwanted presence and a demographic threat, so racism is inevitably a core part of its ideology.

Nearly two million Palestinians live as second-class citizens inside Israel. A further five million Palestinians live in the West Bank or Gaza, the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, or in east Jerusalem (which was annexed in the same year). An estimated six million more Palestinians live as refugees outside historic Palestine, many of them in neighbouring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, denied the right of return to their homeland.

The West Bank is under Israeli military occupation with over 500 checkpoints, hundreds of miles of separation wall, and thousands of Israeli Defence Force soldiers protecting the settlements in which ever-increasing numbers of Jewish Israelis reside. The settlements are deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice. Gaza is under siege by land, air and sea, strangled by Israel’s crippling economic blockade and repeatedly subjected to deadly military assaults. East Jerusalem is squeezed by Israel’s determination to move its own Jewish citizens in and the Palestinians out.

There is huge economic inequality between Israelis and Palestinians. Acute poverty is widespread in the Occupied Territories; the Palestinian economy as a whole is prevented from developing, as part of a broader process of exploitation and subjugation.

Israel is famously a recipient of a vast amount of US ‘overseas aid’ (£2.7 billion in 2020 alone), while international aid of a different kind is essential for many desperately poor Palestinians. Israeli policy towards Gaza has been to keep it permanently on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe, as a deliberate policy intended to suppress resistance and self-organisation.

It is the Palestinians inside Israel who have been most overlooked in discussions about Palestine, especially since the Oslo process firmly reduced the officially approved horizons for Palestinian advance to the occupied territories alone. They have often been perceived as passive and quiescent; it has even been suggested that they have been successfully incorporated into Israeli politics, and neutered as a source of opposition through a process of ‘Israelisation’. Passivity has never been the whole picture, however, and it was certainly never true that Palestinians in Israel had become entirely cut off from the Palestinian struggle.

In a 2021 Guardian article, Nimer Sultany (now based in London) wrote of his own experiences as a Palestinian inside Israel. He recalled being educated in separate Arab schools (from kindergarten to high school), being blocked from renting a flat while at university due to his Palestinian background, needing medical attention after an assault by Israeli police officers when he was a young lawyer, and the routine nature of being racially profiled at the airport whenever he travelled abroad. All of these experiences are testament to the systemic nature of inequality, discrimination and racism in Israel.

Sultany wrote that ‘coexistence is a fiction that conceals a reality of separate and unequal lives’.[1] In hundreds of Jewish Israeli communities, there are neighbourhood committees that can – and do – legitimately deny Palestinians permission to move there. The notion of Israel as a Jewish state is enshrined in Israeli law and in the constitution. Israeli courts routinely sanction the transfer of Palestinian land to Jews. Nearly half of Palestinians live below the poverty line, while unemployment for the Palestinian minority is around 25%.

Diana Buttu, Palestinian lawyer and citizen of Israel, refers to ‘coexistence’ by Palestinians and Jewish Israelis as a myth. She writes: ‘We Palestinians living in Israel “subexist,” living under a system of discrimination and racism with laws that enshrine our second-class status and with policies that ensure we are never equals.’ Palestinians are 20% of Israel’s population of around nine million, yet over sixty discriminatory laws have been enacted to enforce Palestinians’ second-class status.[2]

This little book is, among other things, about changing the narrative on Israel and Palestine. It is the story of an apartheid state: how it was constructed, what it means for those who suffer under it, and how it is sustained to this day. It is not, as politicians and media would have us believe, a two-sided conflict between different camps that requires a ‘peace process’ to resolve the conflict, and separate states for the two sides. It is a story of colonisation, of dispossession through violence, that starts before Israel’s foundation in 1948 and continues to this day.

To make sense of today’s grim reality, we must return to the Nakba and to the processes of colonialism, nationalism and Zionism that fed into the expulsion of the Palestinians from their land. This historical perspective is the focus of the next four chapters. I will move on to examine the injustices facing Palestinians today, Palestinian responses to those injustices, and the role of international solidarity movements in later chapters.

Understanding the truth about Palestine provides the basis for charting a way forward. When we frame the issues correctly, we can start to see how things might be done differently. The case for what is often called a ‘one-state solution’, a secular and equal state across historic Palestine, arises from this analysis.

Ultimately, a single democratic state, which would respect the rights of Palestinians and Jews alike, is required across the whole of Palestine. Only such an alternative can fulfil the rights, aspirations and needs of all the Palestinian people.


[1] Nimer Sultany, ‘Peaceful coexistence in Israel hasn’t been shattered – it’s always been a myth’, The Guardian, 19 May 2021.

[2] Diana Buttu, ‘The Myth of Coexistence in Israel’, New York Times, 25 May 2021.


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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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