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Critics say it’s apartheid. Do Israelis and Palestinians think it is?

A 2021 survey reveals surprising points of agreement.

- May 6, 2021
Security fence at the border of the Gaza Strip courtesy of © Joyclynn, via Canva.com

Editors’ note: As the war between Israeli forces and Hamas continues, we revisit an earlier piece by Dahlia Scheindlin This work, published in the Washington Post in May 2021, is based on an independent survey of how Israelis and Palestinians view Israeli government policies, and the extent of Israel’s control over the West Bank and Gaza.

In 2021, two reports accusing Israel of apartheid against Palestinians unleashed feverish debate.

Critics claim that by using the charged term “apartheid,” B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch merely provoked partisans, while the two human rights advocacy groups argue that Israel meets substantive criteria. B’Tselem wrote in January 2021, “A regime that uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another is an apartheid regime.”

The Human Rights Watch study, released in April 2021, used the definition of apartheid under international law: a policy intended to maintain domination of one group over another; systematic oppression of one group by another; and inhumane acts.

What do Israelis and Palestinians themselves think?

A unique survey

In February, B’Tselem commissioned Dr. Khalil Shikaki and me to conduct a public opinion study among Israelis and Palestinians about the substance of Israeli policy, beyond the question of what to call it.

The survey was conducted among a representative sample of 800 Israeli citizens and 913 Palestinians in the occupied territories, 1,713 adult respondents in total. We drew samples based on standard methodology, using data from the Central Bureau of Statistics to weight the total adult population. While some questions were asked only of each national group, others were identical for all. To analyze those questions, we weighted all respondents in Israel and the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza as one population. To our knowledge, this has never been done before (see data and methodology here).

As independent researchers not affiliated with B’Tselem, we worked carefully to avoid bias. For instance, the questionnaire used both terms, “West Bank” and “Judea/Samaria,” to reflect the language of different political communities, without signaling a preference. Since the mention of “apartheid” could imply far-left attitudes, we asked the direct question with this word near the end of the questionnaire, in order not to influence responses to other questions. Here’s what we found.

Who controls the territory?

Israelis and Palestinians agree on little. But our findings showed significant agreement that Israel is predominantly in control of the whole area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. Two-thirds of the entire sample believes that in practice, Israel controls the West Bank (34 percent), or Israel controls it together with the Palestinian Authority, the PA (33 percent). And 23 percent believe that the PA alone controls the West Bank.

Even half of Israeli Jews agree with one of the two responses citing Israeli control; just 37 percent think the PA runs its own affairs. Among West Bank Palestinians, 93 percent say Israel controls alone or with the PA; 5 percent believed the PA rules on its own.

About half of all respondents, with minimal variation, say Israel controls who enters or exits the Gaza Strip. Another one-quarter responded “Israel together with Hamas” — in total three-quarters view Israel as exclusively or partly in control of Gaza’s border. Palestinians from Gaza and Israeli Jews showed no significant difference in their responses to that question.

Who has the greatest authority?

We then asked whether the Israeli or the Palestinian government had the greatest authority over civilian aspects of Palestinian life, including local and international travel; access to water, electricity, land, jobs, health and education services; building rights; election of representatives; and access to holy sites.

Among Israelis, including Palestinian citizens, 57 percent said that Israel “fully” or “mostly” controls these aspects (63 percent of Jews cited Israel); just 20 percent cited the Palestinian government. Seventy-five percent of Palestinians said Israel controls these areas of life. Of the weighted total population, more than 60 percent believe the Israeli government controls these items.

What about the future?

The survey asked respondents to assess three possible long-term Israeli aims for the Palestinian territories. Just 13 percent, with almost no variation, believe Israel is seeking a two-state solution.

But national groups differed widely about what they believe Israel does want: Among Jews, the largest portion (43 percent) responded that Israel seeks to “perpetuate military rule like today,” while 18 percent think Israel wishes to annex the West Bank. By contrast, nearly 60 percent of Palestinians believe Israel seeks annexation; 27 percent cited “perpetuate military rule.” But both responses represent systems of inequality; combined, 61 percent of Israeli Jews, 57 percent of Palestinian citizens and 85 percent of Palestinians under occupation believe Israel seeks to perpetuate its control through one of these means.

Yet Israel’s annexation plans of 2020 may have backfired. We asked Israelis whether the country should annex the West Bank, while Palestinians would remain noncitizens, separated from Jews through physical infrastructure and movement restrictions. My previous surveys for B’Tselem asked nearly identical questions in 2017 and 2018. Support declined 10 points over that time, to 37 percent in 2021 (41 percent among Jews). Very few Palestinian citizens supported unequal annexation at any time.

Do Israelis and Palestinians call it apartheid?

Near the end of the survey, we asked one question about apartheid, using B’Tselem’s description:

A regime in which one group controls, and perpetuates its control over another, through laws, practices and coercive means is considered an apartheid regime. In your opinion, does this description fit or not fit Israel?

Overall, 45 percent of whole population say the description fits Israel well or very well. Unsurprisingly, the communities differ widely: 77 percent of Palestinians say the description fits, but just 28 percent of Israelis — this includes 25 percent among Jews and 41 percent among Palestinians in Israel. Among Palestinians under occupation, the finding mirrors the trends noted earlier regarding Palestinians’ experience that Israel in fact controls many aspects of their lives.

Our survey found that 74 percent of Israeli Jews rejected the word “apartheid,” despite significant agreement that Israel dominates in reality. But permanent policies of inequality may generate some concern. As noted, support for unequal annexation declined. Additionally, 36 percent of Israelis support repealing the country’s 2018 discriminatory Nation State law, including 29 percent of Jews and 72 percent of Palestinian citizens. Less than half (46 percent) of all Israelis chose to uphold the law.

Israelis and Palestinians may disagree on whether the term apartheid applies, but the study shows that they are largely or completely aware, respectively, of realities on the ground.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a public opinion researcher and a policy analyst; she is a nonresident policy fellow at The Century Foundation.