Israel’s apartheid and the myth of the democratic Jewish state

Israel’s strategy of throwing anti-Semitism accusations at those calling it an apartheid state is doomed to fail.

A Palestinian governmental office is seen next to an Israeli watch tower in a section of the Israeli barrier in Bethlehem
Amnesty International released its report 'Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians' on February 1, 2022 [Reuters/Mussa Qawasma]

Last week, the London-based Amnesty International joined the New York-based Human Rights Watch and the Jerusalem-based B’Tselem in calling Israel’s abusive and cruel system of domination over the Palestinians an apartheid, which amounts to a crime against humanity.

Predictably, Israel and its supporters condemned the “libellous” and “anti-Semitic” report, and rejected its detailed and well-documented findings as biased distortions. And like the two reports by B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch, it seems none of the critics bothered to read the 280 pages Amnesty produced, let alone argue against the airtight case in them.

This trifecta of Israeli, American, and British documentation will prove an extremely important breakthrough for Palestinian human rights in terms of its timing, precedence, scope, legality, globality, boldness and ramifications.

Indeed, the timing could not have been more critical. These human rights organisations have exposed the apartheid state of Israel as more Arab regimes have embraced it, as Western governments have appeased it, and as the unabashed Palestinian leadership has submitted to it, shamelessly scheming against fellow Palestinians and bartering their rights for Israeli travel permissions for its cronies.

This is, of course, not the first time apartheid has been invoked internationally. A number of Israeli, British, American, and other foreign leaders have warned Israel against undermining the two-state solution by imposing dual legal regimes that “arguably” constitutes apartheid in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967.

But Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem have widened the scope beyond the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and for the first time, made the case against an Israeli apartheid regime imposed on all Palestinians from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Instead of looking at the Palestinians as separate communities experiencing different sets of circumstances, as the US Department of State’s Country Report on Human Rights Practices does to muddy the waters, the three organisations document the totality of the Israeli policies and their implications for all Palestinians.

In other words, the problem goes well beyond the occupation of 1967 to the Israeli dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948. And so, I believe, must the solution.

The Israeli organisation, B’Tselem, has emerged as the torchbearer that inspired and encouraged its American and British counterparts to follow suit. The title of its report will prove a game-changer in the way the world sees Israeli Zionism: “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid”.

No wonder the Israeli government is so furious. Israelis are generally unperturbed by the charge of settler-colonialism and even delight at the comparison with, say, America or Australia, but they abhor the charge of apartheid.

In the spirit of the Bennett government’s habitual venom, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has claimed Amnesty is not a human rights organisation, but a radical entity that relies on “terrorist” groups for information, and said that “if Israel were not a Jewish state, no one in Amnesty would dare argue against it.”

Alas, the opposite is true.

It is terribly risky, and therefore terribly brave, for B’Tselem, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch to speak so boldly and factually against Israel’s institutionalised Jewish supremacy at a time when Israel shows no restraint in the cynical and pervasive use of anti-Semitism claims to condemn, intimidate and even ruin its Western critics.

Needless to say, the reports do not rely on “terrorist” groups, but on the internationally recognised and credible Palestinian human rights organisations, which this cynical Israeli government labelled “terrorist” to the dismay of the international human rights community. Indeed, these groups were the first to expose Israeli apartheid in historic Palestine.

In reaction to the official Israeli and American condemnations of the reports, some have claimed that perhaps using “controversial labels”, such as apartheid, hinders rather than helps the Palestinian cause.

But Amnesty has not applied a political label like, say, “the great Satan”, which Tehran used to refer to America or “axis of evil” which Washington used to refer to Iran.

It has also avoided the pitfalls of drawing analogies, refraining from resting its case on comparing Israel’s apartheid to the one in South Africa.

Instead, it has diligently used the word “apartheid” as an international legal term that dates back to 1965 and is enshrined in the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which the US and Israel have signed along with more than 170 other states.

For Amnesty, apartheid is not a political label; it is the legal conclusion of its own exhaustive analysis of the evidence against Israel’s institutionalised system of oppression and domination over the Palestinians, which has deprived them of their economic and social rights for decades.

As Paul O’Brien, the director of Amnesty USA has argued, his organisation agrees with the Biden administration that “Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and democracy” and asserts, “To get there, the system of oppression that exists now must be dismantled. How to get there without calling it what it is. Apartheid.”

Alas, US and Western governments have thus far lacked the political foresight and moral courage to call a spade a spade, let alone to act against Israeli apartheid in historic Palestine, as they did against apartheid in South Africa.

It took almost four decades for the US Congress to enact the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986, and even then, President Ronald Reagan procrastinated in its implementation after his veto was overridden. However, once fully projected, US and wider Western pressure was decisive in dismantling apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990s.

Alas, Israel’s South Africa moment may still be far off, as it solidifies its apartheid instead of dismantling it. But to paraphrase an infamous Israeli leader, pessimism is a luxury the Palestinians cannot afford.

On the brighter side, Israel’s arrogance is eroding Western sympathy and alienating traditional allies, including many members of the influential American Jewish community, as its persistent colonisation and penetration of Palestinian lands render the Western-favoured two-state solution obsolete.

With an almost equal number of Palestinians and Israelis living side-by-side, Israeli society will eventually have to address the question of decolonisation and equality in this distorted one-state reality and the West will have to take a stand to end Israel’s impunity.

Last spring’s “Unity Intifada”, the uprising of young Palestinians from both sides of the Green Line, who overcame geographic and political fragmentation to expose the fallacy of the “Jewish democratic state” and demand an end to Israeli Jewish supremacy, is a preview of things to come.

As the battle over Western public opinion rages on, international human rights organisations may well help shift the balance in favour of justice in Palestine. Israel may be a formidable military and economic power, but it is losing international legitimacy and doing so fast.