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Do Palestinians In Israeli-Occupied West Bank Live Under Apartheid?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Do Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank live under apartheid? That word is taboo in Israel, but Israelis confronted that question when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to annex parts of the territory this summer. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports on the debate.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Israel has occupied the West Bank for 53 years, and Palestinians there don't have the privileges and rights that their Israeli neighbors have in settlements guarded by the military. Most Israelis say it's wrong to compare this to apartheid, defined by international conventions as one racial group dominating another. But I drove through the West Bank with one Israeli who's changed his mind.

MICHAEL SFARD: Look here. You see we have here a great view of the apartheid. You have a road from the - that we're on it. This the road for Jews. And underneath us now is the road for Palestinians that connects Habla and Qalqilya - in a tunnel underneath us now, here.

ESTRIN: That's prominent Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard. There's no law making this an Israeli-only road, but it's designed to skirt Palestinian villages. He says that separation is a hallmark of apartheid. We make our way to the village of Arab Ramadin. Israeli officers have come here and asked villagers to pack up and leave. The Israeli lawyer thinks Israel wants the land to expand a nearby settlement. Palestinian village leader Kasab Sha'ur.

KASAB SHA'UR: (Through interpreter) They come here and promise us money and land somewhere else. There is daily pressure on people here to try to get us to leave.

ESTRIN: He hands me the permit paper he has to show Israeli guards whenever he comes and goes. Israeli settlers don't need these permits, but they're not allowed into many Palestinian areas either. Most Israelis believe these control measures are not racist; they're for security after years of Palestinian attacks. The human rights lawyer Sfard says it reminds him of the past laws for Blacks under South Africa's old apartheid regime.

SFARD: I do not deny that much of the things that Israel is doing is motivated by security considerations. But the policy of separation, the multilayered practices and policies which deny Palestinians development, the drive to forcibly remove small hamlets of Palestinians from their locations - all of these have nothing to do with security.

ESTRIN: The debate shifted this year when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to annex some of the West Bank into Israel without giving Palestinians there voting rights in Israel. That got some Israelis reconsidering the apartheid question. One is Benjamin Pogrund. He's originally from South Africa and covered apartheid there as a journalist. He used to reject the comparison.

BENJAMIN POGRUND: Once you annex, though, and you then have people subject to your control who don't have a say in their lives, that's apartheid.

ESTRIN: Israel has now shelved annexation plans but has not ruled it out for the future. Pogrund is still wary of the word apartheid because of the unique stigma it carries internationally, potentially singling out Israel from other countries' rights abuses. Most Israelis consider the apartheid comparison unfair.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID AMSALEM: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Netanyahu's representative in government, David Amsalem, railed against Arab lawmakers in a parliament debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMSALEM: (Through interpreter) How dare you call it apartheid? You travel where you want. What Jew is going to your villages? If they do go by mistake, God forbid, we have to rescue them with army force.

ESTRIN: Israeli political science professor Avraham Diskin says the comparison to apartheid is...

AVRAHAM DISKIN: Nonsense. We all work with Arabs. I have Arab students. I have Arab colleagues.

ESTRIN: He's mostly talking about the fifth of Israel's population who are Arab citizens with Israeli voting rights. Palestinians in the West Bank are different. They can't enter Israel without permission. They're separated by a cement wall and high-tech fences. Diskin blames most of this on the Palestinians.

DISKIN: But I think what we have is an outcome of circumstances, most of them caused by Arab terrorism and basic Arab refusal to reach any kind of reasonable agreement that will establish at the end of the road a Palestinian state.

ESTRIN: Back at the Palestinian village, village leader Kasab Sha'ur doesn't use the term apartheid much. He uses other words.

SHA'UR: (Through interpreter) You feel like you live in jail. Your whole life is dependent on a piece of paper from the Israeli occupation.

ESTRIN: Whatever apartheid means to the world, he's focused on what life is like for his village.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, the West Bank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.