Apartheid and occupation

By Michelle Chen Jun 12, 2009

Using the word “apartheid” to describe the Israel-Palestine issue is a sure way to ignite more acrimony over human rights under the occupation. But, with language being inseparable from the politics of the region, is it accurate? According to a research body based in the country that coined the term, the contours of Israeli aggression fit the textbook definition of an apartheid state. The Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa brought together scholars from South Africa, the United Kingdom, Israel and the West Bank to study Israel’s actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories [OPT]. The team produced a 300-page report, “Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid?: A re-assessment of Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian territories under international law”–which is being incorporated into an international conference on Israel-Palestine. The researchers conclude:

Israel’s administration of the OPT systematically breaches the law of armed conflict, both by disregarding the prohibition imposed on an Occupying Power not to alter the laws in force in occupied territory and by enforcing a dual and discriminatory legal regime on Jewish and Palestinian residents of the OPT. Israel grants to Jewish residents of the settlements in the OPT the protections of Israeli domestic law and subjects them to the jurisdiction of Israeli civil courts, while Palestinians living in the same territory are ruled under military law and subjected to the jurisdiction of military courts whose procedures violate international standards for the prosecution of justice. As a consequence of this bifurcated system, Jewish residents of the OPT enjoy freedom of movement, civil protections, and services denied to Palestinians. Palestinians are simultaneously denied the protections accorded to protected persons by international humanitarian law…. This system has entailed serious violations of the law of armed conflict, but, as this study shows, also involves violations of the international legal prohibitions of colonialism and apartheid.

In the context of international law, the report also ties Israeli annexation to "colonial intent” and concludes that the occupation has produced a stratified society in which Palestinians are systemically denied cultural, social and economic rights. The authors draw parallels between the tiered societal structures established in apartheid South Africa and the Occupied Territories:

Jewish and Palestinian identities function as racial identities in the sense provided by [International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination], the Apartheid Convention, and the jurisprudence of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Israel’s status as a ‘Jewish State’ is inscribed in its Basic Law and it has developed legal and institutional mechanisms by which the State seeks to ensure its enduring Jewish character. These laws and institutions are channelled into the OPT to convey privileges to Jewish settlers and disadvantage Palestinians on the basis of their respective group identities. This domination is associated principally with transferring control over land in the OPT to exclusively Jewish use, thus also altering the demographic status of the territory. … this study finds that the State of Israel exercises control in the OPT with the purpose of maintaining a system of domination by Jews over Palestinians and that this system constitutes a breach of the prohibition of apartheid. Israeli practices privilege the language and cultural referents of the occupier, while materially hampering the cultural development and expression of the Palestinian population. This last issue renders Israel’s denial of the right to self-determination in the OPT comprehensive.

The study, presented as a relatively objective endeavor, doesn’t dwell on the role of the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But America does make a few notable appearances in the footnotes, in citations of legal doctrines and issues of race and human rights. And the timing of the report is itself a pointed political reference—roughly coinciding with President Obama’s tense visit to the Middle East; following the political fiasco surrounding Israel-Palestine at the United Nations conference on racism; coming around the 15th anniversary of the end of South Africa’s apartheid era. So the report’s key policy recommendation for the international community should be read as a not-so-subtle hint that global action is required to uproot a global shame:

When faced with a serious breach of an obligation arising under a peremptory norm, all States have the duty not to recognise this situation as lawful and have the duty not to aid or assist the maintenance of this situation. Further, all States must co-operate to bring this situation to an end. If a State fails to fulfil these duties, axiomatically it commits an internationally wrongful act. If a State aids or assists another State in maintaining that unlawful situation, knowing it to be unlawful, then it becomes complicit in its commission and itself commits an internationally wrongful act.

That’s just the opinion of one group of researchers, and their analysis certainly isn’t isolated from their political leanings. But if this scholarship is originating from ground zero of the historical struggle against apartheid, maybe policymakers should consider taking their word for it. (h/t Electronic Intifada) Image: Palestinian woman and Israeli soldiers in the West Bank (Musa al-Shaer / AFP)