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Is Israel an Apartheid State?

Is Israel an Apartheid State?

Six months ago, the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) asked Virginia Tilley and me to write a study examining the applicability of the international criminal law concept of apartheid to Israel’s policies and practices toward the Palestinian people. We were glad to accept the assignment, and conceived of our role as engaging in an academic undertaking. ESCWA, one of several UN regional commissions, requested the study as a result of an uncontested motion adopted by its 18 Arab member governments.

Almost within hours of its release on March 15, our report [bearing the title “Israel’s Practices Toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid”] was greeted by what can only be described as hysteria and derision. The newly appointed US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, denounced the report and demanded that the UN repudiate it.

The newly elected Secretary General, Antonió Guterres, quickly and publicly called for ESCWA to withdraw the report from its website, and when Rima Khalaf, the head of the commission, resisted, Guterres insisted. Rather than comply, Khalaf resigned, explaining her reasons in a gracious, principled letter to the Secretary General, an eloquent expression of public conscience that is itself extremely rare in UN experience and worthy of the most favorable notice and commentary. [for text of letter see Soon thereafter, the report was withdrawn from the commission’s website, despite containing a very clear disclaimer at its outset noting that the report represents the views of its authors and not necessarily that of ESCWA or the UN.

What is striking about this pattern of action and reaction, which resembles in many respects the US government response to the Goldstone Report (the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict of 2008-9), is the degree to which Israel’s officials and supporters, in response to criticism, have sought to discredit and wound the messenger rather than address the message by offering a detailed substantive explanation and defense. Each time such a technique succeeds in this mission of discrediting, wounding, and diverting attention the role of the UN as a promoter of the public good is weakened, and the Organization becomes rather an instrument by which dominant geopolitical forces assert their will at the expense of truth, reason, and human wellbeing.

Virginia Tilley, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a leading world expert on apartheid, and I, as well as ESCWA, would welcome substantive discussion and critical feedback, and we had hoped that our analysis and conclusions would provide the basis for debate, dialogue, and further consideration of the recommendations appended at the end. ESCWA, for its part, took steps to ensure that the report lived up to scholarly standards, submitting the draft text to three prominent international jurists, who had been anonymously solicited to offer objective vetting. Each submitted a strong positive appraisal along with suggestions for revision, which we gratefully incorporated before the final text was released. Against this background, it is irresponsible for government officials and others to dismiss our report as a biased polemic, and to do so damage the authority of the UN and respect for international law.

It is also misleading to do what the American and Israeli diplomats did, as well as the media-- treating this study as if a report officially endorsed by the UN. Such treatment overlooks the disclaimer on the opening page of the report, which clearly states that the analysis and interpretations presented are those of the authors alone, and are not to be attributed to the UN. In effect, it is a document initiated by a UN agency, appraised for quality by reference to scholarly standards, but not adopted nor even endorsed at this point, although this might happen in the future, a step we as authors would welcome.

During my tenure as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories (2008-14), I witnessed how defenders of Israel attempted to discredit critics. My reports in that post often included sharp criticisms of Israel and other actors, ranging across various topics including defiance of international law, unlawful expansion of settlements, excessive use of force, and complicity of international corporations and banks that do business for profit with the settlements, and others.

 To my surprise, I never received substantive pushback regarding these specific allegations, but I did have the unpleasant experience of having my words on completely unrelated issues torn out of context, and brought to the attention of UN high officials and important diplomats representing member states. Among my harshest critics were not only the usual ultra-Zionist NGOs, but also Barack Obama’s diplomats at the UN, including Susan Rice and Samantha Power, as well as then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. I mention this personal experience only to note that it falls into a longstanding pattern of diversionary rebuttal that prefers to smear rather than engage in reasoned debate about the important issues of law and justice at stake.

Neither the 1973 Convention nor the 1998 Rome Statute underlying the International Criminal Court ties apartheid to South Africa, but rather treats its practice as a stand-alone crime against humanity.
The international crime of apartheid was authoritatively specified in the 1973 Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. The main elements of the crime consist of deliberate and systematic acts of racial discrimination with the purpose of maintaining unlawful structures of racial domination, that is, a dominant race subjugating another race. Our report also considered whether, in the context of inquiring into the presence of apartheid, it was appropriate to consider Jews and Palestinians as distinct races; we found that there were abundant grounds for doing so. As our report shows, “race” in this legal context is treated as a socially and politically constructed category developed to identify a distinct people. It has no necessary correlation with biogenetic realities, which in this case actually shows an overlap between Jews and Palestinians.

Even Palestinian citizens of Israel, who can vote and form political parties, are subject to many discriminatory laws that impair security and the quality of life. The report also proceeds from the proposition that whether apartheid exists or not depends on the overall treatment of the Palestinian people as a whole, and not by accepting the fragmentation that has been imposed by Israel. 

Adopting what we believe to be an innovative methodology, we approached this challenge by dividing the Palestinians into four domains that correspond to the manner in which Israel has exercises its authority over the course of many decades, although the specific tactics of control vary through time. In the past, a thorough study by international law scholars found that Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian territories are consistent with apartheid [See Virginia Tilley, ed., Beyond Occupation: apartheid, colonialism and international law in the occupied Palestinian territories [Pluto: London, 2012]. It called attention to the discriminatory treatment of Palestinians, who are subject to military administration as compared to the Jewish settler population, which enjoys the full benefit of the rule of law as it is observed in Israel in relation to Jewish nationals.

 That study found that “settler-only roads,” dual legal systems, and the draconian separation of the two populations into regions on the basis of race hallmarks of apartheid. Repressive practices that have made the lives of ordinary Palestinians a daily ordeal are a core dimension of this racially organized system of control. It should be also noted that according to preferred readings of international law, penalizing and criminalizing nonviolent forms of resistance to apartheid itself constitutes the crime of apartheid.

A second domain investigated in the report involves Palestinians who are residents of Jerusalem. Here the apartheid character of Israeli rule is exhibited in the way the government of Israel severely undermines the human security of Palestinians living in Jerusalem, manipulating their rights of residence as well as imposing a variety of discriminatory practices, ranging from fiscal measures, demolitions, to the arbitrary withholding of building permits.

The third domain deals with the Palestinian minority living in Israel, perhaps the most problematic component in terms of establishing a definition of apartheid that encompasses the entire Palestinian population. In this category are some 1.7 million citizens of Israel, who are allowed to form political parties and vote in elections. But this minority, which makes up about 20 percent of the overall Israeli population, is prohibited by law from challenging the proclaimed Jewish character of the state and is subject to a wide range of discriminatory nationality laws as well as administrative practices that severely restrict their rights, with effects on land acquisition, property, immigration, family reunification, and marital freedom.

International law has detached apartheid from its South African origins; it’s now a stand-alone crime against humanity that does not stand or fall by whether it contains similar features to those that constituted the apartheid regime in South Africa.

A fourth domain, and the one affecting the largest demographic segment, is made up of Palestinians registered as refugees by UN procedures or living under conditions of involuntary exile. In the background is Israel’s rejection of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (1948), which confirms that Palestinians dispossessed or displaced by Israel in 1948 enjoy a right of return. General Assembly Resolution 3236 declares this right of return or repatriation to be an “inalienable right,” which thus presumably incorporates those additional several hundred thousand Palestinians later displaced by the 1967 war. As far as is known, no Palestinian displaced since the establishment of Israel in 1948 has been granted a right of return to resume residence.

The report argues that the crime of apartheid has been detached from its historical origins in South Africa. Neither the 1973 Convention nor the 1998 Rome Statute underlying the International Criminal Court ties apartheid to South Africa, but rather treats its practice as a stand-alone crime against humanity. Thus, there are important differences between the way apartheid operated in South Africa and the way it is currently being imposed on the Palestinians, but these differences are not relevant to the question of whether it fairly and accurately applies to Israel.

One notable difference is that in South Africa the Afrikaner leadership forthrightly proclaimed apartheid as a reflection of its ideological belief in the separation of races, whereas for Israel such a structure of separation on the basis of race is denied and repudiated, and its attribution is treated as an inflammatory insult. There are other differences as well, relating to degrees of labor dependence and the demographic ratio between Jews and Palestinians.

This quasi-permanent structure of domination cannot be justified or explained by reference to Israel’s legitimate security needs.

Our report concludes that Israel has deliberately fragmented the Palestinian people in relation to these four demographic domains, relying on systematic discrimination, including “inhuman acts,” primarily to maintain its control and render resistance more difficult, while continuing to expand territorially at the expense of prospects for Palestinian self-determination. On the basis of these findings—backed up by detailed presentations of empirical data, including reliance on Israeli official sources—we conclude that the allegation of apartheid as applied to the Palestinian people is well founded and descriptive of the present situation, more so than the terminology of occupation.

As earlier suggested, we are keenly aware that our report is the work of academic investigators and does not represent an authoritative finding of apartheid by a formal judicial or governmental institution. As mentioned—contrary to media coverage and diplomatic denunciations—the report has never been endorsed or accepted by the UN, or even ESCWA. We do recommend such an endorsement, and we urge the UN, national governments, and civil society to take measures designed to encourage Israel to dismantle its apartheid regime and treat the Palestinian people in accord with the dictates of international law and human rights, as well as elementary morality.

The broader setting associated with our contention that Israel has become an apartheid state draws on the reality that there is no peaceful resolution to the conflict on the diplomatic horizon, and thus no foreseeable prospect for ending the discriminatory regime and the attendant suffering of the Palestinian people. This quasi-permanent structure of domination cannot be justified indefinitely by invoking Israeli security needs, which are themselves partly created by the unwillingness of Israel to respect Palestinian rights under international law. A people cannot be permanently repressed in by military force and administrative coercion ways without viewing the structure that has emerged as an apartheid regime. Indeed, part of the reason for not awaiting a more formal assessment of these charges of apartheid is our sense of urgency in ending a set of arrangements that have for so long been responsible for so much suffering and denial of basic rights, above all the right of self-determination.

It remains our central hope, one shared with ESCWA, that the widespread availability of this report will lead to a clearer understanding of the Palestinian plight and encourage more effective responses by the UN, by governments, and by civil society. Beyond this, it is our continuing wish that people of good will throughout the world, especially within Israel, will work toward a political solution that will finally allow Jews and Palestinians to live together in peace, with justice.


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