JERUSALEM – John Kerry's warning that Israel could become an "apartheid state" if it doesn't reach a peace deal with the Palestinians has set off an uproar from Israel's allies in Washington.
The U.S. secretary of state backtracked from his comments, but he had voiced an opinion that is frequently heard in Israel itself and tapped into a debate that has become increasingly heated.
Israel is a democracy whose Arab minority holds full citizenship rights. Israeli Arabs often complain of discrimination but nonetheless have reached senior positions in government, the judiciary, the foreign service, entertainment, sports, academia, medicine and even the military.
But it is the situation in the West Bank that sparks comparisons to apartheid. The territory is home to two populations — a Palestinian majority of some 2.4 million people and a Jewish settler minority of 350,000 — that are subject to two vastly different systems. Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war. The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank as the heartland of an independent state.
Israel vehemently rejects any comparison to apartheid-era South Africa. While South Africa's was a system rooted in race, Israel says the differences in the West Bank stem from legal issues and security needs. Its leaders have also endorsed the idea of establishing a Palestinian state.
"We see the system as something temporary until peace," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said. "Israel seeks a solution of two states for two peoples. Israel seeks peace and reconciliation with our Palestinian neighbors. We strive for such a solution and hope it will be possible to achieve."
After the uproar over his comments, Kerry said he should have used a word other than "apartheid" and said his remarks were only an expression of his firm belief that a two-state resolution is the only viable way to end the long-running conflict. And, he stressed, he does not believe Israel is, or is definitely on track to become, an "apartheid state."
In Israel, leftists have long claimed that aspects of life in the West Bank resemble apartheid. A number of prominent centrist figures, including former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, and the current chief peace negotiator, Tzipi Livni, have invoked the apartheid analogy in their calls for peace agreement and change the status quo.
Here are a few examples of the separate — and often unequal — rules and standards for Israeli settlers and Palestinian civilians:
CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM: Settlers are considered Israeli civilians and subject to Israeli law, which tends to be more lenient and focus on rehabilitation. Palestinians are subject to Israeli military law, which provides fewer protections and tougher penalties for defendants. Israel says it cannot enforce Israeli law on the Palestinian population because that would be tantamount to annexation. Instead, it says the status of the West Bank must be determined through peace talks.
LAND: Under interim peace accords reached in the 1990s, the Palestinians were granted full or partial control over day-to-day affairs in major population centers that are home to roughly 95 percent of the West Bank's Palestinians. Yet this territory comprises just 40 percent of the West Bank, and the Palestinian-run region is divided into pockets.
In contrast, 60 percent of the West Bank — areas home to all Jewish settlements, army bases and nature reserves — remains under full Israeli control. An estimated 180,000 Palestinians live in Israeli-controlled areas.
MOVEMENT: Israeli settlers can travel freely in and out of Israel and pass quickly through military checkpoints set up to protect their communities. Palestinians need permits to enter Israel, as well as Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, and must pass through Israeli-controlled border crossings to enter neighboring Jordan. Businesses in settlements can bring in merchandise freely from Israel, but all imports to Palestinian-run areas pass through Israeli control, sometimes meaning delays, though Israeli authorities rarely outright block them.
Movement within the West Bank is also largely kept separate. Israel lay down well-maintained, high-speed roads to serve settlements and connect them to each other and Israel. Palestinians are not expressly barred from using these roads, but the highways usually bypass Palestinian communities. Many of the roads connecting Palestinian areas are decrepit and in poor condition. In times of conflict, Israel also puts up military checkpoints that can slow — or halt — movement between Palestinian towns.
Israel argues that most restrictions on Palestinian movement are either codified in interim peace accords or were imposed on security grounds during a Palestinian uprising a decade ago. Israeli officials note that the number of military checkpoints has been greatly reduced as fighting has subsided.
VOTING: Israeli settlers are permitted to vote in Israeli elections, although they do not live in sovereign Israeli territory and Israel does not permit absentee voting for citizens living abroad. Palestinians are not permitted to vote in Israeli elections. They do have their own elections for the Palestinian Authority parliament and presidency. The powers of these bodies, however, are limited and the Palestinians have not held legislative or presidential elections for years.
PLANNING: Israeli settlements routinely grow as part of organized master plans. Palestinians living in territory under full Israeli control face great restrictions. It is virtually impossible for them to receive building permits, and demolitions of illegally built structures are common, according to the Israeli advocacy group Bimkom.
Palestinians are generally free to develop areas in the West Bank under their control. But the fragmented geography, with Palestinian-run regions separated by areas of Israeli control, makes it difficult to build large-scale projects such as roads or infrastructure.
WATER: Israel controls the "Mountain Aquifer," the West Bank's primary source of drinking water, and apportions water to the Palestinians. Under the nearly 20-year-old interim peace accords, Israel was permitted to use 80 percent of the aquifer's resources, while the Palestinians got 20 percent. The aquifer stretches into Israel.
This agreement was supposed to be revised after five years. But after two decades of failed peace efforts, the terms remain in place. Israel has granted some increases in allocations, but the system has not kept up with Palestinian growth and development needs.
Israelis consume more than three times the amount of water that Palestinians do per capita, roughly 240 liters (63 gallons) per person each day in Israel, compared to 70 liters (18 gallons) a day in the West Bank, according to the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth Middle East.
Settlements have access to Israel's modern water carrier, and settler farmers enjoy generous subsidies, while Palestinian communities, even major cities, suffer from frequent shortages. Some villages in Israeli-controlled areas have no access to water, forcing residents to collect rainwater or rely on tanker trucks in warmer weather, according to the human rights group B'tselem.
Restrictions on development, combined with mismanagement and a creaky infrastructure, have worsened the shortages. Israel, in the meantime, has built ultramodern desalination plants and become a world leader in recycling water, more than solving its own needs.
To cover the shortfall, the Palestinians now purchase roughly 50 million cubic meters of water from Israel each year, covering roughly one-third of their needs, a "dramatic increase" from just a few years ago, according to Gidon Bromberg, the Israel director of Friends of the Earth Middle East.
"Basically the whole allocation and management structure has been held hostage by the failure to move forward on the peace process," Bromberg said.