Israel and the ‘A’ Word

Between March 7th and March 20th, campuses in Canada, the United States, Europe, South Africa, the Palestinian territories, and elsewhere, will host Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) in an effort to raise consciousness about the nature of Israel’s rule over Palestinians. While use of the apartheid analogy is mainstream elsewhere in the world, IAW is routinely criticized by Canadian politicians and media outlets. In 2010 and 2011, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff–the same Michael Ignatieff who in 2002 compared the WestBank to a “Bantustan”–has condemned IAW. Meanwhile, the Ontario legislature unanimously passed a resolution denouncing IAW as “borderline hate speech.” Canadian IAW activists, and their few public supporters, are put on the defensive and the debate becomes about whether organizers have the right to hold the events at all. The consequence is that there is very little discussion of whether Israel actually has established a system of apartheid and my aim here is to rectify that.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) defines apartheid as “systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any racial group or groups” and the United Nations’ definition is effectively the same. Israel practices apartheid policies toward Palestinians and other minority groups, particularly in the Occupied Territories, but don’t believe it’s true because I say so. Don’t believe critical Israeli journalists like Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, or Danny Rubinstein. Don’t believe Nobel Prize winners Jimmy Carter or Desmond Tutu or UN representatives Richard Falk and John Dugard. Believe Israel’s ruling elite. Believe Shulamit Aloni, a former Minister of Education in Israel, that “The state of Israel practices its own, quite violent form of apartheid with the native Palestinian population.” Believe Ami Ayalon, former head of the ShinBet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, who says that Israel is “guilty of apartheid policies.”

The “systematic oppression and domination by one racial group” over another is most tragically evident on the Gaza Strip. The blockade of Gaza has been characterized as illegal by the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam. Even the Red Cross, a traditionally neutral organization, characterizes Israel’s policy in the Gaza Strip as “a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.” The organization notes that the blockade has created living conditions in Gaza that are “dire” and points out that Gazans deal with lengthy power cuts each day, hospitals short of equipment, inadequate sewage systems, and unsafe drinking water. According to the World Food Program, 61% of Gazans are “food insecure” and 65% of these persons are under the age of 18.

Meanwhile, the UN Relief Works Agency points out that because of the blockade Gaza has “the highest level of anaemia in the region, with alarming rates of childhood stunting due to inadequate nutrition.” Professor Stephen Shalom notes that “Israel, of course, claims the blockade is necessary to prevent the importation of weapons into Gaza, but this claim is easily refuted by noting one essential fact: the blockade restricts exports as well as import … a ban whose only purpose is to crush the Gazan economy as a form of collective punishment.”[1] Gisha, the Israeli human rights group, points out that “critical manufacturing sectors in Gaza are dependent upon selling their goods outside the Strip” and that these have been “heavily hit” by the blockade.

However, the situation is scarcely better on the West Bank. The World Health Organization says that a population requires 100 litres of water per capita. B’Tselem, another Israeli human rights group, notes that while the average Israeli living as an illegal settler on the West Bank consumes 282 litres, the Palestinians of the West Bank get only 66 litres per capita or two thirds of the necessary amount. Meanwhile, Maxwell Gaylard, the UN’s Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, reports that Israeli officials have been destroying Palestinian water cisterns on the West Bank.

Furthermore, a December 2010 report from Human Rights Watch notes the “two-tier system of laws, rules, and services that Israel operates for the two populations in areas in the West Bank under its exclusive control, which provide preferential services, development, and benefits for Jewish settlers while imposing harsh conditions on Palestinians.” And B’Tselem reports that “Israel’s severe restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement in the West Bank are enforced by a system of fixed checkpoints, surprise flying checkpoints, physical obstructions, roads on which Palestinians are forbidden to travel, and gates along the Separation Barrier. The restrictions enable Israel to control Palestinian movement…in a sweeping breach of Palestinians’ rights.”

Though minorities within Israel have some rights not granted to their sisters and brothers in the Occupied Territories or to the black population of South Africa, there is still evidence of “systematic oppression” in Israel proper. Land and development issues highlight some of the differences. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) controls 13% of the land in Israel and its charter prevents it from leasing land to people who aren’t Jewish. Though Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that this practice is discriminatory, it also decided that the Israeli government should compensate the JNF for land won by non-Jewish citizens in government tenders, which would allow the JNF to keep the same percentage of land Arab-free.

Meanwhile, there are examples of policies designed to foster divisions along ethnic lines. Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, reports that in 2009 schools in the city Kiryat Gat launched a program with “the expressed purpose of preventing Jewish girls from becoming romantically involved with Israeli Bedouin.” Similarly, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek points out that in 2009 “the city of Petah Tikva created a hotline that parents and friends can use to inform on Jewish women who mix with Arab men; the women are then treated as pathological cases and sent to a psychologist.” The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law provides another example. Whereas a non-Israeli who marries an Israeli is normally entitled citizenship and residency permits, under this law that right is not extended to people who live in the West Bank or Gaza. Amnesty International notes that the “the law is discriminatory and violates fundamental principles of equality, human dignity, personal freedom and privacy…as well as the right of children to live with both parents.” Moreover, in September 2010, the government of Israel endorsed an amendment to its citizenship laws that would require all new citizens of Israel to take an oath of allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” Not only does this place immigrants of different ethno-cultural origins in a rather uncomfortable position, it also marginalizes the roughly 20% of Israeli citizens who are Arab, the vast majority of whom are Muslim, Druze or Christian.

You may not believe me that this adds up to apartheid. But believe Michael Ben-Yair, Israel’s former attorney general, who points out: “We enthusiastically chose to become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the Occupied Territories, engaging in theft….We developed two judicial systems: one–progressive, liberal in Israel. The other–cruel, injurious in the Occupied Territories. In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the Occupied Territories.”[2]

Greg Shupak is a PhD student, a writer, and an activist involved in organizing Israeli Apartheid Week and other issues.

[1] My article owes a great deal to Stephen Shalom’s piece, “Why we need to divest from the U.S.-backed Israeli Occupation.”

[2] A version of this article has appeared in The Ontarion.