Controversy over apartheid charges continues after 50 years of Israeli occupation
Amman - Labelling Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid” is like flinging a burning match into spilled gasoline so combustible are the passions on both sides.
Rima Khalaf did just that when a report commissioned by her UN agency at the request of 18 Arab members accused Israel of having established an apartheid regime designed to dominate the Palestinian people as a whole.
In a swift outcry, Israel slammed the 65-page document as anti-Semitic. The United States demanded its removal and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ordered it taken off the agency’s website, saying it did not reflect his views.
Rather than comply, Khalaf resigned as head of the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA), a Beirut-based agency, one of several UN regional bodies dealing with economic and social issues.
More than a month later, Khalaf said she has no regrets. The report’s charge of apartheid — a “crime against humanity” in the eyes of the International Criminal Court (ICC) — deserves serious examination, she said.
“We are not here for defamation,” Khalaf said. “We are here for solving the problem.” The former UN undersecretary-general said the international community has failed the Palestinians and must sanction Israel if it wants to regain credibility.
Israeli government official Michael Oren disputed the apartheid charge as a “big lie,” portraying the report as the latest attempt to “apply a completely unique standard to Israel which by definition is anti- Semitic.”
Israel and its supporters are outraged at comparisons to apartheid-era South Africa, pointing to the many differences: Unlike disenfranchised blacks in segregated South Africa, Israel’s Arab citizens, about 20% of the population, can vote, are represented in parliament and on the Supreme Court and easily mingle with Jewish Israelis in daily life.
“There are no separate bathrooms; there is no apartheid here,” said Oren, a deputy minister of diplomacy. “It’s not just deeply offensive to Israelis. It is deeply offensive to the real victims of apartheid.”
The report said apartheid is more than an exact replica of conditions in pre-1994 South Africa. It notes that international conventions and the ICC define it more broadly as “inhumane acts” committed in the context of institutionalised and systematic oppression of one racial group by another, with the intention of maintaining that regime.
Such expanded parameters could conceivably apply at least in some of the Israeli-controlled territories, critics of Israeli policy said.
In the West Bank, military rule has sharply curtailed the Palestinian movement, trade and access to resources, while Jewish settlers in the same territory enjoy full rights of Israeli citizens. Jews and Arabs in the West Bank live under different legal systems, with Jews having far more protections.
A Palestinian state carved from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, has been touted as the redress but, 50 years on, a partition deal appears distant.
The report goes well beyond past warnings by some, including former US Secretary of State John Kerry, that an apartheid-like situation could emerge unless a two-state solution is reached. It suggests that beyond the question of the occupied areas, Israel itself must eliminate laws that discriminate among Jewish and Arab citizens.
Israel “can be a Jewish state” provided all citizens enjoy equal rights, according to Khalaf, who is of Palestinian origin. “If this is the case, then the label really doesn’t matter,” she said.
Detailing the most controversial charge of apartheid in Israel itself, the report argues that voting rights of Arab citizens lose significance because Israel’s Basic Law bars any political parties that deny Israel’s identity as both Jewish and democratic. This prevents Arab citizens from “challenging laws that perpetuate inequality,” it said.
Arab politicians in Israel appear divided on the issue.
Some avoid using seemingly provocative terms such as apartheid. They prefer to work within the system to try to alleviate what has been widely acknowledged as longstanding official discrimination, such as preferential state spending on Jewish communities.
Others, like parliament member Jamal Zahalka of the Joint List, an alliance of four Arab-dominated parties, said Israel has created a version of apartheid, including discriminatory rules on immigration and land use, even if it differs from the former South African system.
He noted that Jews from anywhere in the world can claim Israeli citizenship while Arab citizens are barred from bringing Palestinian spouses from the occupied territories to live with them in Israel.
Many Israelis feel singled out because only their country has suffered the apartheid allegations, despite many cases of discrimination elsewhere, including in the Arab world.
Legally, the crime of apartheid is largely uncharted territory, said Sari Bashi, the Israel/Palestine advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. Also, the ICC has not made such a charge and evidence of racial discrimination is not sufficient to make the case.
Khalaf said she hoped the debate started by the report will continue.
(The Associated Press)