Is Israel guilty of apartheid?

When Putin decided to invade Ukraine with zero grounds or provocation it was the natural order for the international community to ‘Stand with Ukraine’ and start isolating Russia through sanctions and other measures. People around the world were appalled and they expected to see immediate action taken to defend innocent people.

Not all aggressors use such blunt instruments as full-scale invasion however, and in recent decades Israel has instead delicately balanced a war of attrition against the Palestinians. It’s been waged in such a sophisticated manner that most Israelis have recently been entirely sheltered from it. The average Tel Aviv resident will never need to cross a check point, won’t see the Separation Barrier let alone the people who live behind it, and the world of police brutality, arrests, shootings, evictions and demolitions are as foreign to them as what they might watch in a Netflix drama.

On a recent trip to Tel Aviv, we only saw two police cars in two days. One was being beeped out of the way by a flashy Range Rover and the other was a police officer on a weird Segway type vehicle. Hardly hard-nosed policing. Yet just 75km to the South of Tel Aviv lies Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison, home to over two million Palestinians and one of the most densely populated places in the world. And 60km to the East of Tel Aviv lies Jerusalem, where its common to be staring down the barrel of a soldier’s machine gun, hearing stun grenades break up protests and where acts of unnecessary brutality occur on a regular basis.

The contrast is astounding and unless you’ve seen evidence of the systematic persecution of Palestinians first-hand, I imagine it would be tempting to think the situation isn’t as grave as it is.

On 1st February, following four years of research, Amnesty International attempted to give the world a wake-up call when they published their report, ‘Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians: Cruel system of domination and crime against humanity’.

The 280-page report presents the internationally accepted legal definitions of apartheid and alongside evidence of Israel’s oppression and domination over the Palestinians as well as inhumane acts. The report concludes that:

‘The totality of the regime of laws, policies and practices described in this report demonstrates that Israel has established and maintained an institutionalized regime of oppression and domination of the Palestinian population for the benefit of Jewish Israelis – a system of apartheid – wherever it has exercised control over Palestinians’ lives since 1948.’

(‘Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians: Cruel system of domination and crime against humanity’, p266, Amnesty International, 2022)

It is not the first time that the term apartheid has been used to describe Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Edward Said was already using the term back in the 1990s. More recently, Human Rights Watch published a report last year which also concluded that treatment of the Palestinians amounted to a system of apartheid and Btselem and Yesh Din, two Israeli human rights organisations agree.  

3 min video by Human Rights Watch which summarises the issue

Despite the wealth of evidence being offered, many, and none more so than the international community, are not ready to face up to the term. The term apartheid is so stark, so black and white, so hard to hide from or diminish. To label the situation as ‘apartheid’ puts it in the highest tiers of inhumanity and once it has been established as such there are only two camps to stand in: you are either suffering under it, or you’re allowing it.

It’s not hard to imagine the squirming within government press offices caused by the report and the fear of having to comment on it. To agree is to be instantly labelled as antisemitic as the reports authors were, and yet how can the growing pile of evidence be ignored or discredited? There is always one get out clause that governments can depend on however and that is to argue the semantics. A UK spokesman (note: not the Foreign Secretary or an elected representative) is quoted as saying ‘we do not agree with the use of this terminology’, and goes on to say that “Any judgment on whether serious crimes under international law have occurred is a matter for judicial decision, rather than for governments or non-judicial bodies,”.  

To just read the press reviews you might think the report had failed to make its mark, but I take a deep reassurance in the fact that it will have made a lot of people at both an institutional and individual level feel deeply uncomfortable.

The use of the term apartheid to describe the situation in Palestine is becoming more common-place, and that can only be a good thing in helping to explain the Palestinian situation to people around the world in a way that acknowledges the systematic oppression and persecution. Palestinians are themselves starting to own the term and on Thursday the Palestinian UN Ambassador attended the UN Security Council meeting wearing a facemask printed with the words: End Apartheid.   

One of the many recommendations made by the Amnesty International report was the call for other governments to, ‘Publicly recognize that international crimes, including the crime of apartheid, are being committed in Israel and the OPT’ (p277).

If there is a need for more evidence: lets gather it. If there is a need for formal legal proceedings: lets commission them but please don’t sit on the fence, hiding behind the semantics as children are shot dead. These reports and the claims they make should hold a mirror up for all of us – both nationally and as human beings.

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