Opinion: Why We Call it Apartheid
Monday, March 12, 20122 Comments
Image Credit: IAW Guelph
The United Nations’ Convention Against Apartheid defines the system as one characterized by “Acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” Israeli policy toward the Palestinians meets every criteria set out by the convention and I will examine a few of these in the limited space I have here.
One characteristic of apartheid the convention points to is the “denial to a member or members of a racial group or groups of the right to life and liberty of person,” which happened on a large scale during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009. In its report on the attack, Amnesty International notes that 1400 Palestinians were killed in just 22 days, including hundreds of children and civilians and that “Much of the destruction was wanton and resulted from direct attacks on civilian objects.... Such attacks violated fundamental provisions of international humanitarian law, notably the prohibition on direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects . . ., the prohibition on indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, and the prohibition on collective punishment.” The report goes on to say that “Even though Israeli officials knew from the first days of Operation ‘Cast Lead’ that civilians were killed and wounded in significant numbers, Israeli forces continued to employ the same tactics.”
Perhaps the feature of the apartheid convention that most obviously characterizes Israeli policy is that which deals with the “expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group or groups.” Yinon Cohen, Professor of Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia, and the Israeli Political Scientist Neve Gordon note that “Currently, there are about half a million Jewish settlers.” UN Resolution 465 characterizes all of the settlements in the Occupied Territories as illegal and specifically calls on Israel to dismantle them.
The UN convention points to the infliction of torture on one racial group by another as another aspect of apartheid. The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), an Israeli human rights group, tells us that “many Palestinians who undergo interrogation by [Israel] are exposed to torture and ill treatment.” Palestinian prisoners continue to experience “beatings, slapping, kicking, threats, verbal abuse and degradation” as well as “choking,” “various forms of psychological torture,” “sleep prevention, exposure to extreme heat and cold” and “detention in sub-standard conditions that are contrary to the basic standards set by the UN.” Relatedly, the convention notes that apartheid is characterized by the arbitrary arrest and illegal imprisonment of members of a racial group. Israel’s policy of administrative detention, which means detention without charge or trial, provides a clear case of this. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem points out that the practice “denies detainees the possibility of mounting a proper defense. Over the years, Israel has administratively detained thousands of Palestinian for prolonged periods of time, without prosecuting them, without informing them of the charges against them, and without allowing them or their attorneys to study the evidence, making a mockery of the protections specified in Israeli and international law to protect the right to liberty and due process, the right of defendants to state their case, and the presumption of innocence.” And Ilan Pappé, the Israeli historian, notes that whereas Israelis suspected of committing a crime have to be brought before a judge within 24 hours, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories can be held for up to eight days before this happens.
Furthermore, the “deliberate imposition on a racial group or groups of living conditions calculated to cause its or their physical destruction in whole or in part” is a feature of apartheid that is clearly evident in the vicious siege that Israel has imposed on Gaza since 2007. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs notes that the siege, which prevents a huge range of goods from entering the territory and also blocks exports, has at times stopped Gazans from importing “wheelchairs, dry food items, and crayons, stationary, soccer balls, and musical instruments.” Construction materials have also been barred from entering the territory, which has prevented Gaza residents from rebuilding the massive destruction of their infrastructure that occurred during Cast Lead. Red Cross spokeswoman Cecilia Goin notes that because of Israeli control of imports the main hospital in Gaza remains chronically short of spare parts for its machines, which means they’re frequently off-line, and that “every day thousands of liters of untreated sewage is dumped into the Wadi Gaza River, which is a major health problem. Local water authorities want to repair and improve water and sanitation in the Gaza Strip, but if you can’t access building materials then you can't do it.” Goin stresses that the situation is “dire” and that the Red Cross views the blockade on Gaza by Israel as the principal cause.
Denying members of a racial group residency rights is also a characteristic of apartheid, the UN convention says. Hamoked, an Israeli NGO, points out that from 1967-1994 Israel permanently stripped 130,000 Palestinians of their right to live in the West Bank, forcing most of them into permanent exile. This means that these 130,000 people left the West Bank for work or study and Israel prevented them from returning to live in their homes. And as The Guardian notes, “the practice of revoking the residency rights of Palestinians in east Jerusalem has accelerated in recent years....[I]f they leave the city for more than seven years, their east Jerusalem residency rights are revoked. Israeli citizens are allowed to leave indefinitely without penalty.” In other words, we have here citizenship and residency laws that differ along ethnic lines.
As Yves Engler shows in his book, Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid, Canada has long been complicit in the dispossession of and violence against Palestinians, a process that has been taken to new extremes under Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. Canadian citizens, therefore, have a particular obligation to work for Palestinian rights. While the situation is in many respects grim, one must keep in mind Edward Said’s reminder, in Representations of the Intellectual, to “Look at situations as contingent, not as inevitable, look at them as the result of a series of historical choices made by men and women, as facts of society made by human beings, and not as natural or god-given, therefore unchangeable, permanent, irreversible.”
Greg Shupak is an activist, a writer and a Sessional Lecturer.
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