03/09/2012 11:34 am ET Updated May 09, 2012

Israel Apartheid Week Sends Confusing Message

By Matt Moran, senior columnist

There it is again: Israel and Palestine. It is the perpetual issue, the issue that reappears consistently after a lull. The so-called "Israeli Apartheid Week" is right around the corner, and our own university is featuring a panel discussion on the issue.

Though the panel is not officially part of any Israeli Apartheid Week events, its timing is conspicuous -- as are its posters.

The issue of Palestinian sovereignty is serious, both as a human rights concern and for its regional implications.

However, Israel is not running an apartheid regime and the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is unlikely to improve if Israel feels isolated intentionally.

Incendiary rhetoric, as is generally the case, will only make an already toxic situation worse.

First to the comparison with apartheid in South Africa.

The apartheid state was implemented in 1948, when the National Party won the (whites only) South African elections.

Apartheid was characterized by policies of extreme racial segregation with the goal of white supremacy and social domination by the Afrikaaner minority.

During the 1970s, black South Africans were stripped of what few political rights they still had and saw their citizenship revoked.

Ten tribally administered "homelands," or Bantustans, were established for black residency, and some became officially independent countries, although they remained unrecognized internationally.

From the early 1950s, black anti-apartheid activists protested their increasing political and social marginalization with methods ranging from peaceful demonstrations to campaigns of terrorism.

The government security forces responded to these actions with violent crackdowns, torture, extrajudicial killing and disappearances.

When F.W. de Klerk and the African National Congress negotiated the end of the apartheid system in the early 1990s. The country's economy was wrecked by international sanctions and socially fragmented after decades of violence and protest.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip follow a very different story.

After the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, Jordan occupied and controlled the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip. What are now the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) were controlled by Arab governments -- without the creation of a Palestinian state -- for 19 years.

In 1967, Egyptian military forces began massing on the Israeli border following Soviet intelligence, which prompted a preemptive Israeli military strike.

In six days, Israel defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, as well as expeditionary forces sent by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Sudan, the PLO, Kuwait and Tunisia.

The Arab defeat ended with Israeli control of Golan Heights, the Sinai, West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

So is the comparison to South Africa justified? The manner in which Israel gained control over the territories certainly does not match Afrikaaner domination in South Africa.

Israel's declaration of independence was greeted with an invasion, three years after the end of the Holocaust.

Israel's acquisition of the territories came after Israel preempted an impending attack from the Arab states, following troop maneuvers and statements such as "the battle will be a general one and our basic goal will be to destroy Israel," made by Egyptian President Nasser on May 26, 1967.

The Afrikaaners, on the other hand, openly stole land from the black African ethnic groups in the region following no major act of aggression either internally or from a foreign state. The economic situation differs greatly as well.

Whereas the black South African majority was sequestered on 13 percent of the country's (worst) land, the Palestinian economy grew at a healthy 8 percent last year even though unemployment and inflation are fairly high.

Nor is the defining characteristic of the apartheid system, a legal racial hierarchy, at play in Israel or the OPT.

Israeli citizens come from a variety of ethnic groups that includes people of European, Latin American, African and Asian descent, all with equal political and social rights.

Arab citizens of Israel are legally equal to Jewish citizens and have more rights to freedom of speech, conscious and political participation than in any Arab country.

Palestinians in the territories obviously lack these rights, but not because of a racial distinction.

This columnist sees no reason to equate the situation between Israel and the Palestinians with the apartheid system.

So why is the week called "Israeli Apartheid Week?" The term "apartheid" obviously grabs one's attention, but its factually inappropriate to describe the issue.

So the result is a polarizing of opinion that prevents real conversation or solutions. I deeply sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians, but I also deeply admire the state that exiles from Eastern Europe, refugees from genocide and a motley collection of the world's Jews managed to build.

When confronted with language about "apartheid" or boycotting Israel, good progressives like myself respond with hawkishness.

Nearly all Israelis want peace, but the perception of international isolation (which did not end well for the Jewish people the last time around) prevents the Israelis from feeling secure enough to surrender the territories.