I STILL recall when I first used the word “apartheid” to describe the State of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians. It was more than a decade ago now during a reporting stint in Jerusalem and after an Israeli colleague had told me of the Hebrew word, hafrada, which refers to the concept of separation.

Half-jokingly my colleague went on to explain how up until that time, hafrada might have been used in a fairly benign context, like separation with regard to a person’s marriage breakup.

But all that had changed he continued, telling me how its everyday use had now entered Israel’s mainstream political lexicon to describe the separation and segregation policies towards the Palestinian population in the occupied territories.

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“If apartheid was South Africa’s airbrushed term for policies of racial segregation then hafrada is Israel’s equivalent for policies of ethnic segregation,” was how another Israeli subsequently summed up the word’s use to me.

Calling Israel an apartheid state has of course always been instantly rounded on.

Both inside and outside the country there is no shortage of those vociferous voices that instantly succumb to paroxysms of rage whenever someone has the audacity to suggest Israel today is on a par with South Africa at the height of its racist past.

But for those who still doubt Israel is deserving of that pariah status they need look no further than its parliament’s backing this week of controversial legislation that declares Jews alone have the right to national self-determination in Israel.

The nation-state bill, as it is called, which Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described as a “defining moment in the annals of Zionism”, is something of a victory for Jewish hardliners and ultranationalists.

With its implementation, the bill aims also to strip Arabic of its designation as an official language, downgrading it to a “special status” that enables its continued use within Israeli institutions. The bill too, encourages the building of Jewish settlements on Arab land, a move already recognised as in breach of international law.

Bad enough as all of this is, early drafts of the legislation actually aimed to go further. Some clauses were dropped for fear they would be seen as discrimination towards Israel’s Arabs, who while having full rights under the law, in reality have long been treated as second-class citizens. Unbelievably, one such clause would have enshrined in law the creation of Jewish-only communities.

If ever further proof was needed of Israel’s determination to implement an apartheid system with regards to Arabs then the nation-state bill is just that.

The malign intent of Netanyahu’s government both to Palestinians and to Israel’s Arabs, who comprise 20% of Israel’s population, could not now be clearer.

A sense of just how controversial and disquieting the passing of this bill has been is evident in the response of some Israelis themselves and others within the Jewish diaspora.

The mood of many was caught in a headline run in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz which declared The Israel You Know Just Ended. You Can Thank Netanyahu. It asked its readers to “Look around. The country looks the same. But it doesn’t feel the same. Not even close. A day of mourning has come”.

Disquiet was to be found even in the most unexpected quarters. Benny Begin, son of former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, the founder of Israel’s ruling Likud party, and a politician not known for his liberal views abstained from voting, warning of the party’s growing disconnect from human rights.

Among the diaspora meanwhile, the American Jewish Committee, said it was “deeply disappointed”, adding the law “put at risk the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic”.

Here in the UK the Jewish pro-Israel group Yachad too was pulling no punches in its criticism.

“As British Jews who enjoy the protection of our rights as a minority in the UK, we must speak up in opposition to this racist bill which turns minorities in Israel into second-class citizens,” the group declared.

Many Israelis have long been concerned as to what they see as their country’s drift toward the extreme right and ultranationalism. A few years ago during a visit to Jerusalem I met two former Israeli ambassadors to South Africa who even back then were warning of just such a slide.

Ilan Baruch and Dr Alon Liel both told me of their fears over how the marginal views espoused by extremists in Israeli society were now becoming well entrenched in the political mainstream.

“Israel runs the risk of turning into a pariah state and faces growing delegitimisation,” Baruch warned.

Both men in turn also made the case that Europe and the international community had a key role to play in the process of pressurising the Netanyahu government and help create a shift in direction away from the country’s current pernicious political mindset.

To that end these last few weeks the Republic of Ireland has admirably shown just what pressure can be brought if the political will is there. Last week Ireland’s senate voted in favour of its own bill banning the importation of products from Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, effectively paving the way for the country to become the first EU nation to enforce a boycott.

It was a bold move, one leading by example and accurately summed up by Frances Black, the independent senator who sponsored the bill, when she said that “trade in settlement goods sustains injustice”.

“In the occupied territories, people are forcibly kicked out of their homes, fertile farming land is seized, and the fruit and vegetables produced are then sold on Irish shelves to pay for it all,” Black correctly highlighted.

For its part of course the Israeli government was none to happy, with Netanyahu denouncing the Irish move saying it “gives a tailwind to those who seek to boycott Israel and is utterly contrary to the principles of free trade and justice”.

In light of Netanyahu’s own welcoming of the nation-state bill there is more than a certain irony in his remarks. For once though here’s hoping the Israeli prime minister is right and that “tailwind” does indeed gather momentum.