JERUSALEM (AP) – Benjamin Pogrund fought apartheid as a journalist in South Africa for decades. Since moving to Israel two decades ago, he has passionately defended the country against allegations that it is also an apartheid state.
But at the age of 87, Pogrund has doubts. He says that if Israel continues to plan to annex parts of the West Bank, he has no choice but to declare that his adopted homeland has become a modern version of the apartheid era in South Africa.
“There will be Israeli overlords in an occupied territory. And the people they will rule over have no basic rights, ”Pogrund said in an interview in his leafy backyard. “That will be apartheid. And we will earn the charges. And that worries me because it exposes us to enormous dangers. ”
Pogrund, a prolific author working on a new book on South African political history, says he feels so dispirited that he has been unable to write about impending annexation.
“I couldn’t get myself to do it. Frankly, I feel so sad about it that it’s so stupid, unwise and arrogant, ”he said.
For years, Israel’s hardest opponents have called it an apartheid state to describe its rule over Palestinians denied basic rights in occupied territories. For the most part, Israel has successfully pushed back against the loaded word.
But as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approaches his annexation moves as part of President Donald Trump’s plan in the Middle East – perhaps as early as next month – the term is increasingly becoming part of Israel’s political conversation.
Regular politicians who oppose annexation are beginning to use the term. Disillusioned former military personnel bounce with it. Israel’s most popular political satire show, “Wonderful Country” recently released a spoof ad for a fictional drone company that is lifting Palestinians away from annexed land. The name of the drone: “Apart-High.”
“When you start to carry out these one-sided actions, you’re actually on a very slippery slope,” said Gadi Shamni, a retired Israeli general who once commanded the West Bank. It is inevitable that Palestinians in attached areas will demand the rights of citizens, including the right to vote, which “will eventually create a kind of apartheid,” he warned.
Apartheid refers to the racial discrimination system applied by the white minority regime of South Africa from 1948 to 1994. It was characterized by separate housing and public facilities for blacks and whites, prohibition of interracial relations and the right to deprivation of the black majority. Labeled a pariah state, South Africa peacefully dismantled apartheid in 1994, when democratic elections prompted Nelson Mandela to become its first black president.
Supporters of the Israeli government are outraged at comparisons with South Africa. They note that the Arab minority of Israel, about 20% of the population, can vote and, even if there is some discrimination, has risen high in business, politics and entertainment. They say that the West Bank is “contested” and not occupied, and defend Israel’s presence in the West Bank in terms of security or the deep Jewish connection to what religious Jews call Biblical Judea and Samaria.
The comparison is “deeply offensive,” said Eugene Kontorovich, head of the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative Jerusalem think tank that regularly advises the Netanyahu government.
“Apartheid was a system in which a white minority government in South Africa ruled the black majority,” he said. “They taxed them. They drafted them and they passed all the laws under which they lived. ‘
He said none of these conditions apply, since most Palestinians are governed by the Palestinian Authority, which has self-government in parts of the West Bank.
Pogrund sees things differently, the result of his years of experience in South Africa.
As a reporter and editor at the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg, Pogrund documented many of the horrors of apartheid.
These included the infamous Sharpeville massacre, in which the South African police shot black protesters, killed 69 people, and released revelations about prison conditions and torture of prisoners in the black prison. He was jailed for refusing to identify an informant, was tried for his report, saw that his house was looted by the police and sometimes needed a bodyguard. He visited Mandela, a trusted source and friend, in prison. Last year he received a ‘National Order’, one of the most prestigious awards in South Africa.
Pogrund left South Africa after his newspaper closed in 1985 under government pressure. After a time in London and the United States, he moved to Israel in 1997.
Pogrund is a vocal critic of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. He describes the occupation of the West Bank – in which Israeli settlers and Palestinians live under different laws – with words such as “tyrannical,” “oppression,” and “cruelty.” But he always called it apartheid, because he believed the term is uniquely bad.
“It’s a deadly word,” he said.
Proponents of the term argue that it already applies to the West Bank because, despite the existence of the Palestinian Authority, Israel has ultimate actual control of the territory. It controls boarding and alighting, water and other sources, and general security. Under interim peace agreements, it also maintains full control of 60% of the West Bank where all settlements are located and where tens of thousands of Palestinians live but have no voice.
As horrible as he is to the occupation, Pogrund has argued for years in articles, lectures and a 2014 book that the situation lacks South Africa’s ‘intentional’ and ‘institutionalized’ racism.
While South Africa’s system is designed with the intention of creating second-class people based on their skin color, he believes Israel’s ill-treatment of Palestinians is rooted in security concerns.
“There is discrimination. There is oppression. It is not apartheid, ”he said.
Pogrund said he began to have doubts a few years ago when the Israeli parliament passed “ national state law, ” declaring that the country was the “ national home ” of the Jewish people, while it seemed to be demoting the status of the Arab minority.
“Annexation brings us over the edge,” he said.
In a recent interview, Netanyahu said that the Palestinians would remain in “enclaves” and “Palestinian subjects”. Some reports suggest Netanyahu can scale back annexation to minimize international criticism, but Pogrund says size doesn’t matter.
During his stay in London, he remembered a customer picking up a packet of grapes because he saw that they were a product of South Africa and put them down in horror. He fears that Israel will be in a similar position.
“You have the apartheid stigma,” he said. ‘We are directly going to ourselves (this) to ourselves. We apply apartheid, the hated word of the second half of the 20th century. “
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