Israel fears the ‘apartheid’ label as it reveals its gruesome tactics

Launching the second edition of "Israeli Apartheid', Ben White argues that the comparison with South Africa highlights an important aspect of the Palestinian occupation

Pep Montserrat for The National
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In recent years, Israeli leaders and advocates have repeatedly warned of the threat posed by so-called “delegitimisation”. Yosef Kuperwasser, the current director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, has claimed it is the country’s most important challenge.

“Delegitimisation” is frequently used to variously describe Palestine solidarity activism, boycott and divestment campaigns, and opposition to Israel’s definition as a Jewish state. The term is intended to rally the faithful, and place the targeted critics beyond the pale. To describe Israeli policies in terms of apartheid is also considered a form of “delegitimisation”.

Apartheid, outlawed as a crime against humanity in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, is when “inhumane acts” are “committed in the context of an institutionalised 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”.

The term itself comes from the defeated South African system – but it can take place anywhere independent of comparisons. Some academics and activists have long described Israeli policies as a form of apartheid: Uri Davis, for example, was writing on the topic in the 1980s. More recently the term has been used by former US president Jimmy Carter, while Archbishop Desmond Tutu – in 2002 and again just this month – has criticised Israeli policies in terms of apartheid.

I was delighted to have Mr Tutu endorse my book Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide, just published as an updated second edition. In the foreword, South African jurist and former UN special rapporteur John Dugard put it in the following terms: “It is Israel’s own version of a system that has been universally condemned.”

Examples abound. There is the legislative framework of ethnocracy embodied in the Absentee Property Law, Law of Return, and Citizenship Law, crucial for maintaining an artificial Jewish majority achieved through violent displacement.

There are the admission committees filtering residents in hundreds of communities used, according to Human Rights Watch, “to exclude Arabs”.

Across the West Bank, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens live in a network of illegal settlements, while around them, Palestinian homes are demolished in a process EU officials have called the “forced transfer of the native population”.

This is a country whose housing minister in 2009 declared it a “national duty” to “prevent the spread” of Palestinian citizens, whose president, Shimon Peres, called Bedouin citizens a “demographic threat”, and whose former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, as mayor of Jerusalem, said was “a matter of concern when the non-Jewish population rises a lot faster than the Jewish population”.

I marked the publication of my book with a well-attended launch event last night at Amnesty International UK, chaired by David Hearst, former chief foreign leader writer for The Guardian.

In the weeks before the event, the Israeli embassy itself directly contacted Amnesty UK to ask them to cancel the launch, and also pressured Mr Hearst to withdraw his participation.

In targeting my book launch, Israeli diplomats in London resorted to crude smear tactics, the sort that are familiar fare for lobby groups, but rather more extraordinary coming from senior embassy officials. Thankfully, neither Amnesty UK nor Mr Hearst gave them the time of day, but the clumsy efforts by Israel’s official representatives to make certain topics “off limits” only drew attention to the issues my book is intended to address.

Of course, that pales in significance compared to the repression of Palestinian dissent by Israeli authorities, where tools like house arrest, travel bans, detention without trial and the use of deadly force are routinely used against both Palestinian citizens and those under military occupation.

But what is it about the apartheid analysis that Israel finds so threatening? Firstly, identifying Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians in such a way shifts the discussion from a “security” paradigm – where Israel feels far more comfortable in defending its conduct – to a paradigm of racial discrimination.

It means that the likes of home demolitions and unequal education budgets are seen not as regrettable excesses or errors, but rather as elements of a regime designed to protect Jewish privilege. The characteristics, in other words, of an ethnocracy, not a democracy.

This is what Israel finds so troubling about the increasingly frequent conclusions of leading human rights groups, legal experts and observers, who frame the situation on the ground in terms of institutionalised racism.

Human Rights Watch has spoken of “systematic discrimination merely because of [the Palestinians’] race, ethnicity, and national origin”, and Amnesty has spoken of “discrimination” in Israel “becoming increasingly formalised”.

The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in their 2012 concluding observations following Israel’s periodic review, condemned a host of policies on both sides of the Green Line, repeatedly urging Israeli authorities to prohibit and eradicate practices that breach the prohibition of racial segregation and apartheid.

Secondly, the apartheid analysis throws a spanner in the works of the US-led peace process that the more savvy Israeli leaders – like Tzipi Livni – see as an opportunity to preserve a Jewish state in the majority of historic Palestine, in defiance of international law and the Palestinian right to self-determination.

What the apartheid framework does – that the peace process most definitely does not – is shed light on the entirety of the Palestinian people’s experiences under Zionist settler-colonialism: the expelled and denationalised refugees, the Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinians with East Jerusalem residency, and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.

As I write in Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide, and also in my other book Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy, Israeli policies towards the Palestinians have the same overarching goal in mind, whether in the hills of the West Bank or Galilee. Similar colonisation strategies have been pursued on both sides of the Green Line, for similar reasons.

Thanks to the steadfastness and political mobilisation by many Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, as well as the continued work of Palestinian refugee organisations, increasing numbers of people in the West are aware that the question of Palestine did not begin in 1967, and nor is it restricted to – or even primarily about – removing some settlements in the West Bank.

We can also thank Netanyahu for his insistence on putting Israel as a “Jewish state” on the agenda, a decision which, however the Israeli prime minister intended it, has helped foster unparalleled discussions about the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba and the discrimination faced by non-Jewish citizens in mainstream circles.

The Britain Israel Communications Centre (BICOM), a key UK-based Israel lobby group, recently published a booklet called The Apartheid Smear. The publication’s flaws aside, it is instructive that BICOM even published it at all (and Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is apparently keen to distribute it globally). It reveals not an “Apartheid Smear” but an “Apartheid Fear” – a fear of the mainstreaming of what Palestinians have always known to be true: that for decades Israel has been guilty of systematic discrimination and institutionalised racism.

This reality will not be challenged by a disingenuous “peace process” but by a real process of justice and accountability – Apartheid Israel’s ultimate fear.

Ben White is a journalist and author. A new edition of his book Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide is out now

On Twitter: @benabyad