An Israeli mother passes by a bomb shelter as she accompanies her girl to school in the Israeli southern city of Sderot, after schools started to reopen, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009. Schools in and around Sderot had been closed for more then three weeks following rockets attacks from the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

On Saturday and Sunday, the so-called Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RToP) will be meeting in Cape Town, its purpose being to consider whether “Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people fits the international legal definitions of the crime of apartheid”.

It can safely be said that no one is waiting with bated breath to see what the conclusion will be. For all that it cloaks itself in a veneer of due legal process, the RToP very obviously intends conducting itself on a “verdict first, trial afterwards” basis.

Exclusively comprised of hardline anti-Israel activists of many years standing, it has already assumed a certain conclusion to be true and intends working backwards to “prove” it. There is no intention of putting its assumptions to the test through the presentation and objective consideration of contrary evidence.

While it can be taken as read that the RToP will in due course solemnly conclude that Israel is indeed practising apartheid against the Palestinians, the question does arise as to how a bona fide, non-politicised investigative body ought to proceed on this question.

Here, it goes without saying that this would have to scrupulously take into account the claims, grievances and concerns of all parties involved, and put aside any personal sympathies or preconceived notions.

Looking at the whole apartheid question, it should be recalled how it meant subjecting the majority black population to a complex system of discriminatory legislation based entirely on racial criteria. How law-abiding, industrious and generally respectable a person might have been was irrelevant… the determining factor was that person’s racial classification. Is this the situation that applies against Palestinians in the West Bank?

In other words, have the actual actions of the Palestinians played no meaningful role in determining Israel’s policies?

Here, one of the determining factors must surely be whether such restrictive measures as roadblocks, security barriers and separate roads for Palestinians and Jews have been the cause of Palestinian terrorism or a response to it.

In the South African case, after all, the decision to turn to “Armed Struggle” came about as a last resort in response to apartheid laws and the failure to effect change through peaceful means.

As the chronology of events shows, Israel’s West Bank crackdowns came about after the onset of a sustained Palestinian terror campaign and not prior to it.


A credible tribunal, should it object to how Israel responded to thousands of attacks against its citizens, would then have to suggest plausible alternative arrangements that could have been implemented.

Israel’s right to self-defence not being in dispute, it is not enough simply to condemn how it has gone about this without identifying acceptable but still effective measures that could have been taken.

Additionally, due recognition would have to be given to how Israel has significantly lessened restrictions in response to declining levels of violence, most notably in the dismantling of checkpoints and the opening of roads.

The internal policies of the Palestinians themselves also need close scrutiny. If apartheid means unfair discrimination based on race (or even other criteria, such as ethnicity or religion), then surely the Palestinian law imposing the death penalty on anyone who sells land to Jews or the demand that all Jewish people be expelled from a future Palestinian state, fall into that category?

The increasingly tenuous position of the Christian minority in the Palestinian territories is another area that can hardly be overlooked.

If violent unrest and security considerations, rather than racial criteria, have been behind Israeli actions in the West Bank, it has then to be asked whether the term “apartheid” is in any way useful in describing the situation.

Apartheid, after all, was a system of population control and exploitation quintessentially based on race.

This is not the case in the West Bank. If one wished to draw a South African parallel, one might up to a point compare the situation there to South Africa’s occupation of South West Africa-Namibia from 1916-1989, but even here there are crucial differences.

The Namibian people only wanted their independence; they did not seek to take over the whole of South Africa, never insisted on the mass expulsion of Namibia’s white residents and never carried out cross-border terrorist raids.

Palestinian aims and strategies have been decidedly different.

Another essential line of investigation is whether the Israeli-Palestinian dispute should be treated as somehow generically different from other conflict situations revolving around disputes over territory. An obvious example is the fraught question of India and its presence in Kashmir, which in terms of the scale of the unrest and the forms that it takes – restrictions on movement, border separation fences, attacks on religious minorities, continual clashes between the military and civilians, etc – is really the Israel-West Bank situation writ large.

Why should the Israel-Palestine case be characterised as an apartheid situation when this and other global hotspots (Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara is another one) are not? Without a measure of consistency, bandying about the “apartheid” slur becomes merely a convenient propaganda slogan.

None of these and other relevant avenues are going to be explored by the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. Whatever emerges from this body, and notwithstanding the august reputations of some of those involved, its findings will need to be viewed with considerable scepticism, even by those not particularly disposed to take Israel’s side.

Ultimately, what such partisan public jamborees do is make a mockery of fair judicial process, and in subverting and abusing the principles of human rights for purposes of carrying out political vendettas, they do no more than discredit them.

* Saks is associate director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies.