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It's time to call a spade a spade: Israel and apartheid

By Paul Duffill - posted Wednesday, 21 May 2014


South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon's comments following his recent trip to the Palestine will have come as a shock to many. Describing his experiences of visiting the West Bank city of Hebron, he declared "What I saw in Hebron was heartbreaking - the division, the segregation, the palpable fear in the community". He went on to offer a rather blunt prognosis: "It seems unsustainable that you have two different legal systems for people living in the same community".

Xenophon's words come in the wake of similar comments made in private (but since widely publicised) just a couple of weeks earlier, by US Secretary of State John Kerry. Israel, Kerry said, risked becoming "an apartheid state" should a two-state solution remain elusive. His comments have since been widely criticised by the Israeli government and their supporters. However in subsequent clarifications Kerry, expressed regret merely for the choice of the word "apartheid" but was otherwise unapologetic over his concerns about developments on the ground word. He continued to stress that "in the long term, a unitary, binational state cannot be the democratic Jewish state that Israel deserves or the prosperous state with full rights that the Palestinian people deserve." In fact Kerry's clarification concludes with a veiled challenge to Israeli government policies: "While Justice Minister Livni, former Prime Ministers Barak and Ohlmert have all invoked the spectre of apartheid to underscore the dangers of a unitary state for the future, it is a word best left out of the debate here at home."

With all this focus on the A-Word, it is important to be clear that in a legal sense apartheid is not limited to the South African context, but is defined in international law by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Apartheid describes acts committed with ones' knowledge "as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population…committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime".

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The settlements are of course considered illegal under international law by a large range of states, while Israel, and its chief ally the US (and now Australia) continue to contest this. However now even US officials reportedly blame Israeli settlements for the collapse of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Kerry's comments may well to be the first time a senior US official has used the term apartheid to describe the situation in Israel-Palestine. Yet for all the controversy, what is most surprising and significant about Kerry's and Senator Nick Xenophon's similar comments, is that their statements reflect an emerging consensus of a type very rare in one of the modern world's most intractable and internationalised conflicts. What we are seeing is emerging agreement among US, Palestinian and even Israeli government officials, and their predecessors, that the situation in Israel - Palestine amounts to - or is rapidly descending into – apartheid.

Kerry is right that Ehud Barak as Israeli Defense Minister and former Prime Minister warned of impending apartheid. Ehud Olmert as Israeli Prime Minister also identified the threat of a South African-style anti-apartheid struggle should Palestinians in occupied territory continue to be denied the vote. Recently Israeli Justice Minister and lead peace negotiator Tzipi Livni gave a similar warning. In fact one can go back as early as the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, reportedly declared that "Israel will become an Apartheid State" if the occupation was allowed to continue.

Kerry is also not alone among US officialdom. Official analysis of Israel's human rights situation by the US State Department also closely aligns with a situation of apartheid.

Outside the highly coded and sensitive language of diplomacy, a range of former top-level Israeli government officials have also shared their concerns over the reality of apartheid for Palestinians under occupation. These include former admiral, internal security chief and Knesset member Ami Ayalon, as well as Yuval Diskin who is also a former internal security chief, former Israeli attorney general Michael Ben-Yair, former Israeli ambassador to South Africa Alon Liel, and former education ministers Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid.

Former top-level US officials also equate Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory with apartheid, including former US CENTCOM commander General James Mattis and former US President Jimmy Carter.

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Palestinian leaders have also voiced serious concerns around Israeli apartheid, including PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi, chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat, and Palestinian legislator Mustafa Barghouthi.

These findings from Israeli, Palestinian and US officials and their predecessors are supported by reports from a range of NGO, activist, legal and journalistic sources. Nobel Peace Prize laureate and iconic anti-apartheid activist Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu and fellow veteran anti-apartheid activists have equated Israel's treatment of Palestinians with apartheid, as have distinguished legal experts John Dugard from South Africa and Jewish legal scholar Richard Falk, and South Africa's Human Sciences Research Council. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has also criticised Israeli apartheid policies. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Israeli NGOs Rabbis for Human Rights, B'Tselem, and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions have all reported on the discriminatory system of separate laws and policies applied to Jews and non-Jews in Israel and especially in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Specific examples include racially segregated public transport, a large network of Jewish-only road roads, and even a ban on Palestinians travelling in Israeli vehicles.

Other apartheid-based policies include large scale forceful demolition of Palestinian homes and businesses in occupied Palestinian territory (also see here).

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About the Author

Paul Duffill is a part-time acvisiting scholar at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. His research and teaching focuses on peacebuilding and dialogue, evaluation, pedagogy and non-violent civil society initiatives in response to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He has worked as a trainer in inter-cultural communication and dialogue in Japan, Australia and the West Bank in Palestine.

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