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Is what Israel does really apartheid?

Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) is drawing to an end. This is an international series of events that seeks to raise awareness about Israel’s apartheid policies towards the Palestinians and to build support for the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

Defining Israel as a state which practices apartheid often hinges upon a tedious weighing-up of the similarities and differences between the Israel-Palestine scenario and that of apartheid as the ruling ideology in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. You often hear people say that Israel cannot be an apartheid state because it does not have a white population discriminating against a black population; that it is a question of religion not race; and that, unlike South Africa, the discrimination happens in a territory separate from the State of Israel itself.

Aside from the latter two statements not being quite accurate, in international law a regime commits apartheid when it institutionalises discrimination to create and maintain the domination of one “racial” group over another. In 1973, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. By doing so it had to describe in detail what apartheid looks like. Below are the “inhumane acts” considered to be crimes of apartheid as listed in the convention followed by a small fraction of the Israeli policies and practices that correlate with these crimes.

According to the convention, Crimes of Apartheid can be:

(a) Denial to a member or members of a racial group or groups of the right to life and liberty of person:

  1. By murder of members of a racial group or groups;
  2. By the infliction upon the members of a racial group or groups of serious bodily or mental harm, by the infringement of their freedom or dignity, or by subjecting them to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
  3. By arbitrary arrest and illegal imprisonment of the members of a racial group or groups.

Does Israel commit the above acts?

According to the Palestinian-Israeli human rights organisation Adalah, Palestinian citizens of Israel must contend with approximately 50 discriminatory state laws and bills. Jewish settlers living in the West Bank are protected by Israeli civil law while their Palestinian neighbours face over 3,000 harsh military laws. This means, for example, that if a West Bank Palestinian child is arrested, he or she can be detained for up to four days before seeing a military judge. An Israeli settler child living in the same territory would just have to wait up to 24 hours before seeing a civilian judge. The Palestinian child can also be held for 88 days longer before seeing a lawyer, has 67 per cent less chance of receiving bail, and can be sentenced to prison two years younger than a Jewish child, according to infographics produced by Visualizing Occupation.

Rights group Addameer says that Israel has detained approximately 800,000 Palestinians – that’s 20 per cent of the population – since 1967. Once arrested, Palestinians are tortured routinely by methods including solitary confinement and beatings. They are tried in Israeli military courts which have a conviction rate that is close to 100 per cent. Many are held under the Israeli administrative detention system which means that they can be held for an indefinitely renewable number of periods of up to six months each on the basis of “secret evidence”. They are neither charged nor brought to trial.

(b) Deliberate imposition on a racial group or groups of living conditions calculated to cause its or their physical destruction in whole or in part.

Does Israel commit the above acts?

The situation in Gaza is a prime example. Gaza has faced a blockade for the past 7 years. Unemployment stands at 43 per cent, leaving 80 per cent of the population dependent on humanitarian aid. Around 57 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza are food insecure; the Israelis admitted putting them on a “diet” by controlling the food imports allowed into the besieged territory. The borders are sealed so people cannot escape the situation; this is deadly when Israeli launches military offensives. During the latest attack in 2014 over 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza lost their lives. Restrictions on imports needed to repair the damaged infrastructure means that many more are still dying; some have even frozen to death in the harsh winter conditions.

(c) Any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups, in particular by denying to members of a racial group or groups basic human rights and freedoms, including the right to work, the right to form recognised trade unions, the right to education, the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Does Israel commit the above acts?

Let’s take the equal right to education as an example. The education systems for Jews and Palestinians in Israel (not to mention the occupied Palestinian territories) are kept largely separate and unequal. Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem are allocated a quarter of the budget of those in Jewish West Jerusalem, for example. Underfunded and poorly-resourced, these schools also have a 50 per cent drop-out rate past 9th grade, a much higher percentage than in the Jewish Israeli schools.

The Israeli military frequently launches aggressive raids on university campuses in the West Bank, arresting and injuring students and faculty members. In Area C specifically, a 60 per cent chunk of the West Bank which falls under complete Israeli administrative and military control, over 3,000 demolition orders are outstanding, including 18 against schools. Checkpoints, roadblocks, the wall and other obstacles prevent Palestinian students and teachers in the West Bank from accessing educational institutions freely. Meanwhile, the air strikes in Gaza over last summer destroyed and damaged numerous higher education centres. Movement restrictions and the blockade also hinder access to education for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

We can use the situation of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem as an example of Israel’s infringement of the right to leave and return to their country, or the right to freedom of movement and residence. Most are permanent residents of East Jerusalem, instead of Israeli citizens. They have no passports and cannot travel freely across Israel’s still non-defined borders. For them, staying in their city is hinged on what is called the “Centre of Life Policy”. This means that to retain residency you must prove continuously that the centre of your life is in Jerusalem.

Obtaining citizenship or permanent residency in another country, despite not being considered a citizen of any state, results in the revocation of Palestinian Jerusalem resident status. In 1995, after a change to legislation, all East Jerusalem Palestinians who had not lived there for seven years or more lost their right to return. Since 1967, more than 14, 000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem have had their status as permanent residents revoked by the State of Israel, even though East Jerusalem is recognised in international law as occupied territory and not part of Israel; it has no jurisdiction there. Those who have had their status revoked face a life in hiding if they wish to live in their own city; they are unable to register for university studies, apply for a job, sign-up for an HMO or open a bank account.

In contrast, seventy per cent of Jewish Israelis may hold two passports and can travel freely and relocate without fear that their citizenship will ever be revoked. The so-called Law of Return passed in 1950 gave Jews the right of “return” and the right to live in Israel and to gain citizenship. In 1970, the right of entry and settlement was extended to people of Jewish ancestry and their spouses. Just six months after the 1950 Law of Return, the Absentee Property Law was passed. It paved the way for the Israeli authorities to declare ownership over the property of Palestinians displaced forcibly in 1948. A comparison between the two laws passed in the same year show that while Jews from all over the world are welcomed and granted Israeli citizenship automatically, the Palestinians who already reside in the area are being forced to leave and prevented from returning, discrimination which is ongoing.

(d) Any measures including legislative measures, designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups, the prohibition of mixed marriages among members of various racial groups, the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group or groups or to members thereof…

Does Israel commit the above acts?

Housing planning policies govern where Palestinians can live both inside Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. In the West Bank, Jew-only settlement-colonies are built on expropriated Palestinian land. The 125 settlements have carved up the ever-diminishing West Bank, encircling the major cities. The remaining land of the West Bank is subject to further fracturing by a network of settler-only roads which connect the flourishing settlement-colonies, an 8 metre high Separation Wall cuts through Palestinian villages, and military checkpoints dotted across the West Bank. In Israel, admission committees ensure that entire communities stay Palestinian-free based upon “social suitability” criteria. In some places, military service is a prerequisite for certain housing or jobs; military service is compulsory for the majority of Israeli citizens although Palestinians are exempt.

In Israel it is not legally possible for a Jewish citizen to marry a non-Jewish citizen. Palestinian citizens of Israel face a law which prohibits their spouses from Gaza or the West Bank, or an “enemy state” like Lebanon, for example, from residing in Israel.

(e) Exploitation of the labour of the members of a racial group or groups, in particular by submitting them to forced labour.

Does Israel commit the above acts?

Take the example of the Jordan Valley in the West Bank. Only 6 per cent of the land in the Jordan Valley is currently available for Palestinian use and development. Today, 37 settlements in the valley are home to 9,500 Israelis. Settlement industry in this area largely revolves around agriculture. While settlement-colonies are supported by substantial Israeli government subsidies and incentives (eg for housing, education, water and transport), Palestinian farmers face systematic and discriminatory policies that restrict their freedom of movement, access to land, water and markets, and ability to build infrastructure to support their livelihoods. As a result of this discrimination, many Palestinians are left with few alternative ways to earn a living and so have to work on settlement farms where they are denied their labour rights.

f) Persecution of organisations and persons, by depriving them of fundamental rights and freedoms, because they oppose apartheid

Does Israel commit the above acts?

Palestinians regularly protest against Israel’s military occupation. Across Israel and the occupied territories these protests are met routinely with arrests, tear gas and bullets from Israeli soldiers. Amnesty International says that, “The frequency and persistence of arbitrary and abusive force against peaceful protesters in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers and police officers – and the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators – suggests that it is carried out as a matter of policy.”

Amnesty’s report entitled “Trigger Happy” documented the killings of 22 Palestinian civilians in the West Bank last year, at least 14 of whom were killed while taking part in protests. Most were young adults under the age of 25; at least four were children.

The human rights group highlights the case of Samir Awad, a 16-year-old boy from a village near Ramallah in the West Bank. He was shot dead near his school in January 2013 while attempting to stage a protest with friends against Israel’s 700km-long fence and wall, which cuts through their village. Three bullets struck him in the back of the head, the leg and shoulder as he fled from Israeli soldiers who ambushed his group. Witnesses said that the boy was targeted directly as he ran away.

Peaceful protesters, civilian bystanders, human rights activists and journalists are among those who have been killed or injured.

While there may not be a clearly marked segregation of spaces as in the case of South Africa (the banning of the black population from eating in certain restaurants or going to certain public conveniences, for example), the lives of Palestinians are controlled by a whole system of policies and practices based upon institutionalised discrimination. It is this that makes Israel an apartheid state.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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