When we say apartheid

Haidar Eid

We need to envisage a future where colonial privileges between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea are completely dismantled.

Photo by Ash Hayes on Unsplash.

Interview by
C.A. Davids

I belong there. I have many memories. I was born as everyone is born.
I have a mother, a house with many windows, brothers, friends, and a prison cell with a chilly window!

– “I Belong There” by Mahmoud Darwish (translated and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein)

You who will emerge from the flood
In which we have gone under
When you speak of our failings
The dark time too
Which you have escaped.

– “To Those Born Later” by Bertolt Brecht (translated by John Willett, Ralph Manheim, and Erich Fried)

If times were different, I might ask scholar of literature Haidar Eid about the books he finds most pleasurable to teach. About reading. Perhaps we’d discuss the enduring prescience of Brecht or Darwish … after covering conversational necessities: Tea or coffee? How many children? Names? Pets? And the occupation? For us both: the meaning of 1948.

Haidar no longer teaches postcolonial and postmodern literature at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza, Palestine. Like those who could, he has had to flee the endless onslaught of Israel’s warfare—a plausible genocide, according to the International Court of Justice—that came fast and brutal in response to the Hamas-led attacks of October 7. After six months of bombing, starvation, sniper fire, humiliation, dispossession—every kind of human rights abuse—little remains of Al-Aqsa University. The hostages have not been freed. Little remains of Gaza.

Over the course of a few weeks, Haidar and I exchanged emails about his most recent book, Decolonising the Palestinian Mind, which, despite the darkness of this time, asserts an inextinguishable hope: the right to Palestinian life and freedom and the restoration of full citizenship with return. Haidar makes the argument for a secular democracy as an alternative to the stalled—and in his view, racist—two-state solution. Pertinently, Haidar reminds us of the parallels between apartheid South Africa and Israel, and how the world (ultimately) forged a global solidarity to help bring down the former.


Haidar, your book Decolonising the Palestinian Mind opens at the end of October 2023. At that time, you were still living in Gaza. It feels inadequate to ask how you are, but please tell me how you are managing from day to day in this unspeakable time?


Thank you so much for interviewing me. I am a fan of Africa Is a Country. Let me start by introducing myself properly: I am a literature professor with a wife and two small daughters, my neighborhood was bombed, and I have been displaced four times. Since Saturday, 7 October 2023, Israel has flattened neighborhoods—including mine, Rimal—and destroyed vital bridges, roads, residential towers, and villas on top of their owners, water, and electricity stations. As a consequence, more than two-thirds of the population has been displaced and denied access to water and electricity. Children, the sick, and the elderly are the first to be affected. The latest from the Ministry of Health is that 32,700 civilians have been killed, including more than 14,200 children, with 9,400 women being among the dead. Eight thousand are still missing, 70 percent of whom are children and women, most of them still under the rubble. Two-thirds of the population have been displaced more than once.*

Personally, like the more than two million Palestinians of Gaza, I have lost everything. Thanks to my South African citizenship, I was repatriated with my small family to South Africa. But it has not been easy at all. We are still conflicted, living with nightmares, and are extremely worried about our families back home. 


In this book, you resurrect the word “apartheid” from the slogan it has in some ways become, linking it to its conceptual and ideological roots in South Africa when the racist apartheid government ruled. You explain how the very apparatus of apartheid is employed in multiple ways today in contemporary Israel/Palestine and compare it to South Africa, dating back to even before 1948 (when apartheid was instituted). Please explain why the term is relevant.


All South African activists who have visited occupied Palestine tell us that they felt a sense of déjà vu. As defined by the 1973 United Nations convention, apartheid is a policy of racial or ethnic segregation, founded on a set of discriminatory practices that favors a specific group in order to ensure its racial supremacy over another group. 

In Israel, all human beings are not equal. Israel now defines itself as a “Jewish state.” Almost 22 percent of the citizens of Israel are Palestinians, but they are excluded from being citizens of that state. (Let alone the four million Palestinians living under direct military occupation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.) Israel is not a state of its citizens, but one of the Jewish people, most of whom have no birthright connection to it. So, one can be a citizen of any country in the world, yet as Jewish people they enjoy full rights in Israe—rights that Israel denies to us Palestinians, the indigenous people of this land. They also refer to us as “Israeli Arabs,” “Jerusalem residents,” and “Arabs of the territories.” 

Moreover, there is no Israeli nationality. Instead, there is Jewish nationality much like there was a white nationality in apartheid South Africa. So, if one is born to Palestinian parents living in Israel, you too would be denied the rights of Jewish nationality and be forced to submit to institutionalized inferiority. Or choose to resist it, which is the natural reaction of any decent human being, like the choice made by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.


There are several laws in contemporary Israel/Palestine that virtually mirror South African apartheid law and, as a black South African who grew up under apartheid, I found your book a great clarification about what it means when we say apartheid. Laws like the Land Act, which prohibited the ownership of land by black people; the Group Areas Act, which confined different races to different townships and suburbs—and therefore to eternally separate lives; the hated Pass Laws, which constricted black peoples’ movement and the ability to travel into certain areas and at certain hours; the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, which forbade interracial marriage. You also remind us that white South Africans controlled and owned 87 percent of the land. Please tell us about the equivalent laws that make Palestinians into second-class, or non-citizens.


Currently, in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories there are two road systems, two housing systems, two educational systems, and different legal and administrative systems for Jews and non-Jews. As you said, every law enacted during the South African apartheid system has a corresponding law in Israel: the Law of Return, the 2003 “temporary” laws prohibiting mixed marriages, the Population Registry Law, the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, the Israeli Nationality Law and land and property laws.



One of the results of the Oslo Accords and peace process—which came into being on the White House Lawn in 1993 when Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) came to, in your view, an unjust solution—was the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which had the power to enact limited self-governance in Gaza and parts of the West Bank. It was through this that Hamas came to power in the 2006 elections. 

You compare this to the process of the Bantuization of South Africa, where parts of South Africa (13 percent) were set aside by the National Party for black people. A few of these so-called homelands were also ostensibly independent and had their own governments, who were given authority to rule over “their people.” These institutions were, however, reviled as puppet administrations, as collaborationist, and rejected as an attempt to legitimize the apartheid apparatus. Because, really, the homelands displaced black people, cutting them off from the heart of South Africa and alienating them from their rights as citizens, while extracting only their labor. In this book, you make this comparison with Gaza and the West Bank. 


This is absolutely correct. The Bantustans were part of the South Africa apartheid regime’s racist formula to separate the black population and preserve white supremacy. Although the Bantustans were called independent homelands, their inhabitants were not granted equal rights or even independent political decision-making power—a harbinger of what would come for the so-called independent Palestinian state within the June 1967 borders. In South Africa, the debate was about eleven states that could live side by side in peace. The Bantustans gained no international recognition save from Israel.

 Like South Africa, Israel’s brand of apartheid is mixed with settler colonialism. As in the United States and Australia, settler colonialism in Israel and South Africa has also involved the ethnic cleansing or genocide of the indigenous people influenced by a racist and/or religious ideology of supremacy. Indigenous Palestinian citizens of Israel are not only prohibited from living on land owned by Jewish institutions but are also not allowed to reside in any areas designated “Jewish” either. I, myself, have legal title to my parents’ land in Israel, but have no legal right to it, because my parents’ property, along with millions of other Palestinians’, was taken away from us and given over to Jewish ownership. 

But I would like to draw your attention to the fact that whereas apartheid wanted to benefit from the cheap labor of black South Africans, in Palestine, Israel wants to annihilate native Palestinians. The difference here is between exploitation and annihilation.


You advocate for a single secular state with the recognition of full humanity to every person, full equality, as well as a return of Palestinian refugees. Given the last six months, where it would appear a second Nakba is in progress … this seems difficult to imagine in the moment. Do you still believe this is possible?


In fact, it is the only solution that can guarantee our rights under international law—namely, freedom, equality, and justice. This is a moment of hopelessness where genocidal Israel, enabled by the colonial West, is committing the first live-streamed genocide in broad daylight. One of the darkest moments in Palestinian history! But you cannot claim that all those sacrifices offered by the heroic people of Palestine are in vain. One of the main reasons Israel is exterminating the people of Gaza is that two-thirds of them are refugees entitled to their right of return in accordance with UN Resolution 194. In other words, they are a constant reminder of the original sin committed by Zionist gangs in 1948. 

What is needed right now is a solution that counters the Nakba. The racist two-state solution fails to do that. Edward Said, amongst other activists and intellectuals, made it absolutely clear that we need to envisage a future where colonial privileges between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean are completely dismantled, not camouflaged and presented as “the only viable solution!” A secular, democratic state on the historic land of Palestine is an ethical solution that is offered as a huge compromise, made by the colonized natives of Palestine. The whole world should endorse it. It offers a glimpse of hope to those Palestinians who have come to the conclusion that the two-state solution has been used to delay justice. 


Since October—despite the fact that most Western governments have only recently started to be openly critical of Israel—an invigorated global solidarity movement for a free Palestine has taken shape, made up mostly of ordinary people around the world. That the vast majority of Americans favor a ceasefire, although the Joe Biden administration continues to supply weapons to Israel, is in itself something of a turning point. Would you agree? 

What does this rift between ordinary people and their governments … this outpouring of support for the bravery of the people of Gaza, the adulation of the medics and journalists—mean? What does it portend for the future of the region, if anything?


There’s a very clear narrative shift in favor of the Palestinian people. People all over the world are boycotting companies directly benefiting from Israel’s war crimes and crimes against humanity. More universities and cultural institutions have joined them. Look at the weekly protests in London, New York, Cape Town, Spain, France, even Berlin, Amman, Morocco … this is a moment similar to what South Africans witnessed in the late 1980s. 

But I must also mention the unprecedented, bold step taken by the South African government at the Hague, accusing Israel of committing the crime of genocide and the International Court of Justice ruling thereafter. Charging Israel with the crime of genocide at the ICJ could bring an end to Israel’s impunity, create the conditions for a much-needed military embargo, and leave Israel isolated on the world stage. By bravely standing up for what is right, South Africa showed us that another world is possible: a world where no state is above the law, most heinous crimes like genocide and apartheid are never accepted, and the peoples of the world stand together shoulder to shoulder against injustice. 

In sum, it is forbidden to feel helpless, and the pressure of the people will break Israeli aggression and the hypocrisy of the complicit governments. As with apartheid South Africa and the ultimately successful campaign to end its repressive regime in 1994, global civil society today will need to play a crucial role in mobilizing support to pressure and sanction Israel. 


You use South Africa’s struggle against apartheid as a vision for the way Palestinian freedom might be pursued. Certainly, the struggle was a cohesive, well-orchestrated movement, and in many ways heroic. Today, we also know that despite freedom, equality at the voting booth, and many significant gains since 1994, vestiges of apartheid persist, and poverty and inequality remain deep, in part because of extensive corruption. There have been administrative collapses and failures at several institutions and in some provinces. Even the wonderful city of Johannesburg, where you now live, has multiple ongoing crises of water, electricity, billing, violent crime. What might Palestinians learn from all of this?


I totally agree. And I think there are many lessons to learn from this critical perspective. One serious problem is the South African solution only took race as the point of departure in the negotiations conducted between the ANC and the apartheid regime, at the expense of critiquing the economic aspects of apartheid. But there is an alternative understanding of apartheid that grew out of the struggle in South Africa during the 1980s and has gained support among activists due to the limits of decolonization in South Africa after 1994; this understanding looks at apartheid as a system of racial capitalism. Theories of racial capitalism insist on confronting the state and the racial capitalist system. In fact, unless racism and capitalism are not confronted together, the country remains divided and unequal. 


Do you think you will return to Gaza some day?


Of course! In fact, I am certain that I will return to Zarnouqa, the village from which my family, together with other Zarnouqis, were ethnically cleansed in 1948. I have inherited my refugee status from them, but my right of return is sacred and comes in accordance with international law. More than half of the Palestinian people are refugees, entitled to that right. I think that if the international community is serious about solving the Palestinian question, it has to understand that without the right of return, there will not be a solution; you cannot have peace without justice. Gazans have the right to return to Gaza now, and Israel must be held accountable for all the crimes it has committed.

Another world is possible.

*The Gaza Health Ministry revises the number of people killed by Israeli attacks each day. These numbers have increased substantially since this article was written.

Decolonising the Palestinian Mind (2023) by Haidar Eid is available from Inkani Books in South Africa and 1804 Books in the US.

About the Interviewee

Haidar Eid is an associate professor of postcolonial and postmodern literature at Gaza’s al-Aqsa University. Decolonising the Palestinian Mind is published by Left World Books and Inkani Books in India and South Africa, respectively. Haidar Eid is also the author of ‘Worlding’ Postmodernism: Interpretive Possibilities of Critical Theory and Countering the Palestinian Nakba: One State for All.

About the Interviewer

C.A. Davids is a novelist and author of How to be a Revolutionary (2022, Verso and PRH South Africa) and The Blacks of Cape Town (2013, Modjaji Books).

Further Reading

We too are culpable

Israel’s impugnity in Gaza and the West Bank is enabled not only by its backers in the West, but by the widespread indifference of large parts of society.