Apartheid by Any Other Name

Israeli Border Police officers stand guard as Palestinians wait to cross through the Qalandiyah checkpoint, June 2016. Mohama
Israeli Border Police officers stand guard as Palestinians wait to cross through the Qalandiyah checkpoint, June 2016. Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

This week the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, pressured the silencing of an important report:

A senior U.N. official resigned on Friday over the withdrawal of a report accusing Israel of imposing an "apartheid regime" on Palestinians, saying "powerful member states" pressured the world body and its chief with "vicious attacks and threats." United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary for the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), Rima Khalaf, announced her resignation at a news conference in Beirut after U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked for the report to be taken off the ESCWA website. ESCWA, which comprises 18 Arab states, published the report on Wednesday and said it was the first time a U.N. body had clearly charged that Israel "has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole."

Rather than address the findings of the report, however, the document was attacked by UN and American leadership and denounced as anti-Semitic. This silencing of criticism of Israeli policies - not it’s right to exist - comes at the cost of helping the vulnerable and suffering population of Palestinians in the occupied territories. I should say, the illegally occupied territories:

The West Bank is divided into three areas – A, B, and C. Area A, which includes about 18% of the land of the West Bank but 55% of the Arab population, includes cities like Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem, and is under sole Palestinian control – administrative and security. Area B, about 21% of the West Bank, is under joint Israeli and Palestinian control. And Area C, about 61% of the land, including all of the Jewish communities on post-1967 land, is under complete Israeli control.

No discussion was had about the possibility of the other Semites (Arabs and ethnic Jews are both Semites) in the region who face systematic discrimination and violent oppression on a daily basis. The anti-Semitism Palestinians endure is not in the form of an offensively-titled text, but in the form of bullets, bombs, checkpoints, invasions, sieges, blockade, criminalization, and securitization.

My sincere question is, why isn't the energy that was put into denouncing one of the findings of the report instead being applied toward alleviating the all-too-real and well-documented circumstances that Palestinians suffer under? The apartheid conditions they face are undeniably real. So why can’t we call a thing what it is?

Using the word “apartheid” to describe an apartheid should not be considered an anti-Semitic position. It is a historical fact and, yes, indeed it is a critique of the Israeli occupation and also of its mistreatment of the 20% of its citizens who are Palestinians. Their ID cards resemble those of their Jewish compatriots, with the notable exception that the “nationality” line is blank. Their Palestinian identity is erased.

The problems addressed in the report are about Israeli policy and do not aim to delegitimize the existence of the state of Israel or the safety and security of Jewish people.

In the international community, and especially in America, a great deal of care rightfully goes toward establishing the safety of Jewish people everywhere. In the 1930s and 40s European fascists, under Nazi Germany, attempted to exterminate all Jews and killed over 6 million human beings because of their religion. That number represented 1/3 of the Jewish population of the world. That loss is one of the darkest stains in human history. It is an undeniable calamity, that cannot be forgotten. I would argue that assuring that its history is taught around the world is one critical piece of our commitment as humanity to remember the Holocaust. Another important piece of this “never forgetting” is to equally honor the dignity, sacredness, and the human and civil rights of all human lives.

The question I ask now is about the humanity and the safety and security of Palestinians.

Palestinians in the occupied territories and those living in refugee camps around the region undoubtedly face a set of laws that limit their rights in ways that the Jewish population of Israel does not. The Arab Israelis are second-class citizens in their own country. Their status as minorities is also artificial. The ADL holds that the second-class citizenship charge about Arab Israelis is inaccurate. That may be so in terms of the extent of the claim - but it is a fact that Arab Israelis self-report feeling that they are not treated as equals in Israel.

The ADL argues that Palestinians in the occupied territories are not Israelis and that Israel was forced, after the 1967 war, to administer the 1 million Palestinians it was “faced with”. It says Israel did not annex the West Bank and Gaza. That is true. But it says nothing of what it means for Israel to “administer” a land and a people without treating them as citizens. It means that Palestinians in the occupied territories live under military law. They have done so for over seven decades. Why, then, have seven decades passed wherein Israel has expanded its settlement-building campaign and not recognized the Palestinian state?

It seems to many observers that Israel may not want to annex the occupied territories because the influx of Palestinian citizens would challenge its definition of its identity as the "Jewish state". There could be more Arabs in Israel than Jews. That is what it comes down to.

Many have pointed out that a policy of demographic Jewishness is incompatible with democracy.

I am not advocating for the annexation of the occupied territories by Israel (the ‘one-state solution’). I am pointing out that military law has perpetuated a brutal, illegal, and untenable occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. These policies at once keep the Palestinians physically outside of Israel proper (pre-1967 borders) and avoid designating them as Israeli citizens while also denying them statehood and the many benefits Palestinians would accrue if they had their own recognized state. Israelis rightfully celebrate and cherish their state and know better than most the value of self-determination. Why, then, deny this same privilege to another people who have long suffered deprivations, inequities, violence, and vulnerability?

But the most urgent suffering is due to the grossly inferior living conditions in the occupied territories and especially Gaza (often described by human rights groups as the world's largest open-air prison) and, of course, the camps around the region that took in and continue to host millions of Palestinian refugees whose parents or grandparents were originally forced out of their homes in 1948. New generations of Palestinians were born into refugeedom and, in many states, so as not to lighten Israel's burden or be accused of erasure, they are refused citizenship or working rights or access to regular schools and other public services. UNRWA almost exclusively functions to administer their lives.

The Palestinian refugee crisis has been the largest in history and has continued for nearly seven decades. It is a big part of the answer to the question of why so many Syrian refugees have traveled to Europe and North America and why the Arab states sent taking (more) of them in. Of course, the question usually assumes none have been admitted into Arab countries. That is patently false. But there is a critical question of capacity and also one of not repeating history. Israel doesn't provide one penny of support for any of the Palestinian refugee camps. It never did and it has maintained an unbendable policy of never granting refugees the right to return to their homes - their land deeds were unilaterally nullified by Israeli courts. When Israel was established its founders claimed it would be the solution for "a people without a land and a land without a people." European Jews would move to an ostensibly empty part of the Earth. It would've been elegant if it weren't so deeply untrue. This piece of propaganda became and remains a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the creation and ongoing existence of refugees is denied and, in fact, repudiated.

For Israel's founders, the Palestinians were not a people, they were "Arabs" - part of an undifferentiated ethnic mass who should have gone to one of the ”other” 22 Arab states. This deracination is offensive and obtuse, and has contributed to the cynical status quo of occupation and dispossession that Palestinians continue to endure.

I have in the past and still do admit that calling apartheid what it is helps but, in and of itself, doesn't solve the problem if instead of action it leads to reactionary defensiveness and more, not less, fighting and misunderstanding. The Palestinians and their supporters do not use the word “apartheid” to insult Israelis. That interpretation illustrates the cynicism this exceedingly-long conflict has produced.

Rather than pressure the UN to recant the report, which the UN did, Israel should have (and still can) change(d) the conditions on the ground so no one could accuse it of such atrocities. For even if the Israeli government and its UN representatives and supporters therein succeed in the war of words, the tragic and devastating reality that Palestinians live through every day won't have changed one iota. And not Israel, nor any other state, can carry on oppressing a people without some day facing the consequences, be they legal, material, or emotional and psychological. Israelis can keep putting it off and kicking the can down the road, being an apartheid state by another name, but they may not so easily shake off the moral and material inequities Israel’s policies have wrought.

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