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The Apartheid Fear

January 29, 2016 at 2:14 pm

Apartheid, in the words of the Rome Statute, is when inhumane acts are committed “in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

Increasingly, Israel’s “inhumane acts” against the Palestinians are being understood not as mere aberrations or excesses, but as part of a system of discrimination and segregation: an Israeli form ofapartheid. In response, support for campaigns like Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) is growing.

Recognising these developments, pro-Israel lobby groups are worried. In 2014, one such organisation, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, orBICOM, published a booklet called ‘ The Apartheid Smear’, written by staffer Alan Johnson.

The publication, intended to be “a vital tool” in fighting BDS, has been “circulated [worldwide] by Israel’s foreign ministry”, and distributed on British campuses. Yet this so-called ‘significant’ booklet is strewn with easily identifiable errors, distortions and omissions. The following are three examples – there are many more.

1. Disappearing international law

It is difficult to put a positive spin on Israel’s deliberate and persistent violations of international law. Alan Johnson’s strategy is to ignore it and hope that no one notices. In a booklet straining to appear serious and academic, the illegality of Israel’s settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) is not mentioned once.

The only indication that the settlements might have, at the very least, a legal question mark over them is a quotation by Robbie Sabel, former adviser to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he describes the “issue” of settlements as “a matter of debate in the international community.” To an extent, this is true – Israel debates it with everyone else.

  • UN Security Council: “The policy of Israel in establishing settlements in the occupied Arab territories has no legal validity and constitutes a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention”.
  • UN General Assembly: “Israeli settlement activities involve…the confiscation of land, the exploitation of natural resources and other actions against the Palestinian civilian population that are contrary to international law”.
  • Conference of High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention: “The participating High Contracting Parties… reaffirm the illegality of the settlements in the said territories and of the extension thereof.”
  • International Court of Justice (ICJ): “The Court concludes that the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (including East Jerusalem) have been established in breach of international law.”
  • International Committee of the Red Cross: “For decades, restrictions linked to the settlements, which are illegal under international humanitarian law, have resulted in Palestinian farmers losing land and income.”
  • European Union: “The EU continues to oppose Israeli settlement activities in the Occupied Territories as being illegal under international law and damaging for the Peace Process as they prejudge the outcome of the Final Status Negotiations.”
  • UK government: “Settlements are not only illegal under international law and in direct contravention of Israel’s Roadmap commitments, but more practically they represent an attempt to create ‘facts on the ground’ which make a two-state solution harder to achieve.”

The ICJ’s 2004 advisory opinion is in fact cited (though not quoted) by Johnson, but in such a way as to wilfully mislead. According to Johnson, the court was merely “critical” of Israel’s Separation Wall; in fact, the judges (14-1) described “construction of the wall” in the occupied territories as “contrary to international law”, and stated that Israel should immediately “dismantle” it.

Search ‘The Apartheid Smear’ for references to the Fourth Geneva Convention or Israel’s obligations as an occupying power, and you will find absolutely nothing. Johnson and BICOM demonstrate that to defend Israel, you need to live in a world where international law does not exist.

2. Dishonest with the data

Even Johnson must have been embarrassed by some of what he wrote in ‘The Apartheid Smear’. At one point, for example, he claims that Israel’s 49-year-old occupation of the OPT “persists…not because Israel wants to rule over the Territories but because peace talks…have failed thus far.” Five decades of settlements and colonisation do not, however, suggest a ‘reluctant’ occupier.

Johnson also describes “Israel’s actions” in the OPT as “security measures” or even “emergency security measures”, which, he concedes, might cause Palestinians some “discomforts”. The history of the occupation, Israel’s military laws, the settlement enterprise, and the impact of this network of illegal colonies on the lives of the occupied population, does not allow for such an interpretation.

The publication’s treatment of Israel’s checkpoints and travel permit regime is instructive. Johnson begins by getting his timeline wrong, writing that “Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement came in response to terrorist attacks that occurred initially after the signing of the [1993 & 1995] Oslo Accords”. In fact, Israeli restrictions began in the late 1980s, during the First Intifada.

Johnson also states that “Israeli restrictions on movement and access have been considerably reduced” in recent years. To support such a boast, he wrote the following: “In the period 2003-2006 there were between 376 and 735 checkpoints. By February 2013, there were 98 fixed checkpoints, according to the Israeli anti-occupation NGO B’tselem.”

The figures Johnson cites for 2003-2006 are inclusive of fixed checkpoints and other obstacles. For February 2013, however, he only cites the number of “fixed checkpoints”; the equivalent figure, including all types of obstacles, would have been around 500.

In fact, a likely source for Johnson’s (unreferenced) statistic is a fact page which states: “between 2003 and 2006 the total number of checkpoints and roadblocks hindering Palestinian movement in the West Bank ranged between 376 and 735” (my emphasis). This text is almost identical to what Johnson wrote – except he omitted mention of ‘roadblocks’.

By way of bringing this more up to date, as of December 2014, according to UN OCHA’s 2015 ‘Humanitarian Atlas’, there were some 490 different, Israeli-imposed physical obstacles to Palestinian freedom of movement in the Occupied West Bank.

3. Downplaying discrimination

When it comes to the issue of discrimination facing Palestinian citizens of Israel, Johnson is caught in two minds. The BICOM booklet acknowledges “disadvantages” faced by non-Jews, but does not provide detailed examples. Johnson claims “racism is not…institutionalised”, but at another point, concedes that “minorities” are not “completely free of institutionalised discrimination”.

‘The Apartheid Smear’ also attempts to explain away specific policies. One such example is Israel’s admission committees, which as Human Rights Watch noted in 2008, “have notoriously been used to exclude Arabs from living in rural Jewish communities” by filtering out applicants based on their “incompatibility with the social and cultural fabric.”

Johnson downplays the committees’ impact, claiming that they operate in merely “some small rural communities” numbering “a few dozen or a few hundred families.” Johnson omits that they actually exist, by law, in 42 per cent of all Israeli communities. In addition, through the regional councils of which they are part, these communities “exercise  control over a significant amount of land.”

A second policy Johnson tackles is the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, which denies status in Israel to Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens. This has the effect of separating Palestinian husbands and wives when one has Israeli citizenship and one is from the OPT.

When the law was passed as a ‘temporary’ measure in 2003, the Head of the Delegation of the European Commission to the State of Israel described the law as establishing “a discriminatory regime to the detriment of Palestinians in the highly sensitive area of family rights.”

For Alan Johnson, this is an example of Israel “wrestling with the excruciating dilemma of striking the correct balance between terror and rights.” Clearly desperate, he adds: “It would have been absurd, for example, to demand of Britain that it allow German or Japanese citizens to immigrate there during World War Two, and to accuse it of racism for not agreeing to do so.”

This analogy really is ‘excruciating’. Israel’s racist law serves to prevent family unification between Palestinians living a few miles away from each other; one an Israeli citizen, and one under Israeli military occupation. It is not even remotely comparable to a German or Japanese citizen emigrating to Britain during World War Two.

The ‘security’ rationale is easily debunked: the Israeli authorities have no trouble vetting and processing thousands of entry permits for individual Palestinian workers. But Israeli officials have been more honest than BICOM about the real motivation for the law.

Listen to former Shin Bet deputy head Gideon Ezra, who put it like this: “the state of Israel is not prepared to accept a creeping right of return; no one wants our state to cease to be a Jewish state.” Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon similarly admitted: “There is no need to hide behind security arguments. There is a need for the existence of a Jewish state.”

Israel’s Supreme Court upheld the law in 2012, stating: “human rights are not a prescription for national suicide.” The Association for Civil Rights in Israel called it a “dark day for the protection of human rights”, saying the Court had “stamped its approval on a racist law, one that will harm the very texture of the lives of families whose only sin is the Palestinian blood that runs in their veins.”

Finally, Johnson also downplays the amount of public racism targeting Palestinian citizens, dismissing the issue as a problem with a “small number of extremists.” This is laughable; anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia is commonplace – from elected officials to the Jewish Israeli general public.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is himself a good example. In 2003, Bibi called Palestinian citizens the real “demographic problem”, and in 2010, as premier,told a government meeting that a Negev “without a Jewish majority” would pose “a palpable threat.” His successful campaign for re-election in 2015 was shot through with anti-Palestinian incitement.

Other examples abound. Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat explicitly seeks to maintain a Jewish majority in the city; when Ehud Olmert was mayor, he described it as “a matter of concern when the non-Jewish population rises a lot faster than the Jewish population.”

The racism crosses the (narrow) spectrum, from former Housing Minister Ariel Atias (Shas), who in 2009 declared it a “national duty” to “prevent the spread” of Palestinian citizens, to current Labor chair and opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who never wants to see a Palestinian prime minister.

Popular anti-Palestinian racism is also endemic. In a 2007 poll, more than half of Jewish Israelis agreed that “the marriage of a Jewish woman to an Arab man is equal to national treason.” In a 2015 survey, 57 per cent of Jews were opposed to including Arab ministers in the government; 52% support separating Jewish and Palestinian passengers on buses in the West Bank.

I wonder what Johnson and the rest of his BICOM colleagues would think if the mayor of London or UK government ministers were using this kind of language about Jews? Or if public opinion polls in Britain reflected the same kind of racism against Jews, or any other group? I doubt it would be dismissed as a problem of just a “small number of extremists.”


As a BICOM press officer conceded in 2014, while the so-called “apartheid smear” was “once the preserve of the political fringe”, the “campaign to mainstream it is gaining ground.” It may be called ‘The Apartheid Smear’, but a more accurate name for the booklet would be ‘The Apartheid Fear’: the fear that more people are now recognising Israel’s illegal, racist policies for what they are, and responding through campaigns such as BDS.

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