Expressions of racial discrimination are multiple and widespread across Israeli society, and are particularly evident between Jews and Arabs. There is also evidence of racism between Jews themselves. May 2012 has evidenced further complexities of racism in Israeli society, including the ongoing racial discrimination against African refugees who come to work in Israel. This has resulted in a night of violence against African refugees on 23 May, including Molotov cocktails being thrown and arson attacks on buildings in which African refugees are staying in Tel Aviv.
One may suggest that such an outpouring of Israeli violence towards African refugees is in direct correlation with Prime Minister Netanyahu's approach to protecting his core constituency. Netanyahu revealed this at a recent cabinet meeting in which he likened African refugees to "infiltrators" and announced that their presence in the country would "cause the negation of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state". Interior Minister Eli Yishai claimed that "most African infiltrators are involved in crime", despite statistics suggesting otherwise. According to sources in Israel, the number of hate crimes carried out by Israelis against Africans has risen dramatically in the past few weeks, especially in the wake of Netanyahu stoking the explosive debate about refugees and migrant workers from Africa. Such claims are both inflammatory and irresponsible, and resulted in the violence of 23 May which has been widely described as a "race riot".
The question of Israeli racism is not new. On 10 November 1975, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination" (Resolution 3379), although pressure was applied to have that resolution revoked later. Elements of the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory and the visible apartheid within the State of Israel are contrary to international law. However, belligerent occupation in itself is not an unlawful situation; it is accepted as a possible consequence of armed conflict. At the same time, under the law of armed conflict, occupation is intended to be a temporary state of affairs. Israel's occupation, however, has mutated into a prolonged illegal affair that breaches the rights of the Palestinian people.
Racism-driven attempts at segregation in Israel are reminiscent of South Africa's apartheid era, with trends in Israel accelerating towards segregating non-Jews – for which read Palestinians and African migrant workers, for example – from what are claimed to be public facilities "open to all".
I have personal experience of this: the Dead Sea beach resort at Kalia is a popular destination for Israelis and tourists alike. The resort is owned by Kibbutz Kalia, an illegal Israeli settlement on the North shore of the Dead Sea, and the beach itself is located within the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) of the West Bank. Websites advertising tourism in the area fail to make this clear. One reviewer on Trip Advisor suggests that a visit to the Kalia Beach is "an unusual and fun experience". However on visiting the resort last month, I noted that the racist policies of the management were neither unusual nor fun for the Palestinian families attempting to enjoy the beaches of their homeland. Soon after our arrival it became apparent that whilst Israeli Jews (and their pet dogs), Europeans, and Westerners could enter the resort unhindered, Palestinians were being stopped immediately upon leaving the car park and were turned away. When the "guard" was challenged he claimed to be acting under the instructions of the resort's management. When questioned in an office within the resort the management claimed that their policies were dictated by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and ultimately the State of Israel.
The racist character of the State of Israel was confirmed as being similar to that suffered in apartheid South Africa at the UN Durban Conference on Racism in 2001. More recently, the 3rd session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RTP) was held in Cape Town last November and concluded that "Israel subjects the Palestinian people to an institutionalised regime of domination amounting to apartheid as defined under international law".
Further concerns about the racist policies of the State of Israel have been documented in the Amnesty International World report (2012) released at the end of May. This includes concerns over the ability of Israeli settlers and security forces accused of abuses against Palestinians to more or less avoid being brought to account. On Friday, 25th May, for example, six female Palestinian students from the Al-Tur School for Girls were injured when a group of Jewish Israelis attacked them in Yarkon in Tel Aviv. The attack occurred while the students were on a field trip in Manachem Begin Park. Two Jewish men and two Jewish women threw stones at the girls and beat them with sticks while they were playing in paddleboats. Instances of settler violence are abundant, but official investigations by the Israeli authorities rarely result in prosecutions. Yesh Din, an Israeli NGO, reported that almost 90 per cent of official investigations into alleged settler violence that it had monitored since 2005 were closed, apparently because of investigatory failures; only 3.5 per cent of complaints to the Israeli military authorities made by Palestinians alleging rights violations by Israeli soldiers between 2000 and 2010 resulted in indictments. Three Palestinians have been killed by settlers during the past year yet the Israeli government has failed to provide justice for Palestinians or take steps to prevent attacks on them by settlers.
A further concern of Amnesty is the sheer number of Palestinians held by Israel without charge or trial. This practice continues, despite it being a violation of human rights. At dawn on Wednesday 23 May, Israeli occupation forces arrested nine Palestinians from different governorates of the occupied West Bank. According to Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, the IDF transferred the detainees to unknown locations for interrogation, usually places in Israel (itself a contravention of international law, which prohibits transferring detainees beyond their own land), claiming that they are "wanted". Palestinians in the OPTs continue to be tried before military courts and are denied access to lawyers during pre-trial interrogation as a matter of routine, in further violation of their human rights. There were 307 Palestinians from the OPTs held without charge or trial during 2011 under renewable administrative detention orders based on secret information withheld from the detainees and their lawyers.
Racist policies are also thriving unimpeded in the construction restrictions placed on Palestinians in the West Bank. A report in Haaretz claimed that the Israeli civil administration have issued 13,000 demolition orders against Palestinians accused of unlicensed construction in Area C of the West Bank. Israel is currently intensifying its construction restrictions on Palestinians in the villages and towns of the occupied West Bank and stops them from building using various means. Moreover, the demolition of Palestinian homes is also used as a means of collective punishment; this is also illegal under international law.
It is significant to note that the civil administration has recently been active in the demolition of many Palestinian structures, including schools in Al-Khalil (Hebron) on the pretext of unlicensed construction. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has condemned Israel's restrictions on construction permits for Palestinians and its demolition of their homes and other structures, while continuing to encourage illegal settlement construction. The Israeli authorities generally withhold construction permits from Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and Area C of the West Bank, where Israel retains full authority for planning and zoning, impeding their right to adequate housing.
The issuance of demolition orders is a weekly occurrence in the West Bank and on Wednesday 16 May, houses and shops in Jenin were presented with such documents. More than 620 structures were demolished during 2011, resulting in almost 1,100 Palestinians being displaced, an 80 per cent increase over 2010.
Last week Israel celebrated its 64th year of independence whilst the Palestinians remembered the Nakba (Catastrophe). Two generations later, echoes of the Nakba remain because of discriminatory Israeli policies. Israel still seeks to safeguard its image by claiming to be a bastion of democracy which treats its Palestinian citizens well; all, of course, while continuing to implement its illiberal policies against this significant sector of its population and, more recently, African refugees.
Israel has a long history of such discrimination and acts with apparent impunity. As such, it cannot be recognised as a democracy until its leaders are willing to acknowledge Palestinians as equals, not just in theory but also in law and practice, and treat migrant workers and refugees humanely.
There are options open to the international community and international organisations in order to address the criminal behaviour of the State of Israel, but they appear to remain as willing bystanders to the oppression of the people of Palestine and Israel's migrant population. This is an unacceptable situation.
*Hazel Cameron is lecturer in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, attached to the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. Hazel is also affiliated to the International State Crime Initiative (statecrime.org), a community of scholars working to further our understanding of state crime based at King's College London in association with Harvard University and the University of Hull. The International State Crime Initiative has just published the first issue of State Crime Journal.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.