Israel tries to dodge apartheid bullet

Not everyone agrees with the Israeli apartheid terminology and the UN had never - until last week - officially called it apartheid, says the writer. Picture: Oded Balilty/AP

Not everyone agrees with the Israeli apartheid terminology and the UN had never - until last week - officially called it apartheid, says the writer. Picture: Oded Balilty/AP

Published Mar 22, 2017


Fierce attempts to bury a UN report labelling the country an apartheid state cannot obfuscate the truth, writes Azad Essa.

Over the first week of this month, activists, writers and journalists across the world looked to spread the word that Israel is an apartheid state. Their core argument: until and unless justice and dignity were returned to the Palestinian people, Israel ought to be shunned for the pariah it was.

And unsurprisingly, it was, as I wrote early this month, the description that Israelis hate most. The use of apartheid removes the victimhood gifted by the “Holocaust industry” and gives Israeli oppression a name. It also gives onlookers a form and prism to decode Israeli propaganda that turns every crime into a matter of “defence” and “survival”.

Apartheid is a brutal terminology because it draws immediate parallels with a shamed, failed system. After a 2004 visit to the occupied territories, Denis Goldberg and Ronnie Kasrils famously declared that the occupation “makes apartheid look like a picnic”.

“We never had jets attacking our townships. We never had sieges that lasted month after month. We never had tanks destroying houses. We had armoured vehicles and police using small arms to shoot people, but not on this scale,” they said.

Nevertheless, the response to Israeli Apartheid Week is usually swift. The arguments are usually the same: “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East” and “What about inequality in Saudi Arabia or Yemen? The direct allegations of the structural prejudice within Israeli society are never addressed. The counter-allegations of the tyranny of Israel’s neighbours are neither relevant nor necessary in deciding if Israel is indeed a state that discriminates against different groups, based on race or religion. In truth, the same arguments were used to justify South Africa’s tyranny when Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique were burning in the 1970s.

No one wanted the gold and diamonds of the beloved country to fall into the hand of black communists.

Not everyone agrees with the Israeli apartheid terminology, despite its rising legitimacy among many academics and scholars in the field. As a contentious analogy, the UN had never – until last week – officially called it apartheid.

In a bid to ascertain if the apartheid analogy was fair, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) conducted a detailed analysis of Israeli legislation, policies and practices.

The thoroughly researched report, "Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid", found that Israeli policies enable Israel to “operate an apartheid regime” that “dominates the Palestinian people as a whole”. It concluded that “Israel is guilty of policies and practices that constitute the crime of apartheid as legally defined in instruments of international law”.

Crucially, it moved beyond Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories and concluded that even Palestinian citizens of Israel are “subjected to oppression on the basis of not being Jewish”.

The report is important because it adds tremendous weight to the analogy. As a UN report, it compels member states and international civil society, who may otherwise turn a blind eye to the injustices, to engage with the findings, and even forces them to take action. “The authors hope that this report will assist UN member states in making responsible and full use of their national legal systems in the service of the global common good,” the report said.

As soon as the report was published, the backlash began. UN secretary-general António Guterres distanced himself from the report. According to Rima Khalaf, the UN under-secretary-general and ESCWA executive secretary, she was asked by the top UN leadership, at the behest of the US and Israeli demands, to withdraw the report. She refused. The report was removed from UN’s website and Khalaf resigned.

The UN contends that the report was published without authorisation.

But the sequence of events since the publication of the report is hardly surprising.

President Donald Trump has promised that the US would be closer to Israel than at any other time, and he has warned that he would be cutting funding to the UN. Guterres knows that endorsing the report would hurt the functioning of the larger body, so the Palestinians would have to take a back seat.

As for precedent, it would not be the first time the UN bends over resources. Last year, it dropped Saudi Arabia from a list of countries or rebel movements that killed or abused children in conflict after Riyadh threatened to withdraw funding. In fact, here, Saudi Arabia followed what had transpired a year earlier.

In 2015, Israel had been placed on the same list, but when the US said Congress would cut off support if Israel was included in the report, they were immediately removed. That there has been this fierce attempt to bury the report is significant, but that the facts are out there is a lot more important.

* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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