Tuesday, May 20, 2014

It's time to call a spade a spade: Israel and apartheid

South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon's comments following his recent trip to the Palestinewill have come as a shock to many. Describing his experiences of visiting the West Bank city of Hebron, he declared "What I saw in Hebron was heartbreaking - the division, the segregation, the palpable fear in the community".

He went on to offer a rather blunt prognosis: "It seems unsustainable that you have two different legal systems for people living in the same community".

Xenophon's words come in the wake of similar comments made in private (but since widely publicised) just a couple of weeks earlier, by US Secretary of State John Kerry. Israel, Kerry said, risked becoming "an apartheid state" should a two-state solution remain elusive. His comments have since been widely criticised by the Israeli government and their supporters. However in subsequent clarifications Kerry, expresses regret merely for the choice of the word "apartheid" but was otherwise unapologetic over his concerns about developments on the ground word. He continued to stress that "in the long term, a unitary, binational state cannot be the democratic Jewish state that Israel deserves or the prosperous state with full rights that the Palestinian people deserve." In fact Kerry's clarification concludes with a veiled challenge to Israeli government policies: "While Justice Minister Livni, former Prime Ministers Barak and Ohlmert have all invoked the spectre of apartheid to underscore the dangers of a unitary state for the future, it is a word best left out of the debate here at home."

With all this focus on the A-Word, it is important to be clear that in a legal sense apartheid is not limited to the South African context, but is defined in international law by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Apartheid describes acts committed with ones knowledge "as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population…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".

The settlements are of course considered illegal under international law by a large range of states, but Israel, the US (and now Australia) continue to contest this. However US officials reportedly blame the settlements for the collapse of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Kerry's comments may well to be the first time a senior US official has used the term apartheid to describe the situation in Israel-Palestine. Yet for all the controversy, what is most surprising and significant about Kerry's and Senator Nick Xenophon'ssimilar comments, is that their statements reflect an emerging consensus of a type very rare in one of the modern world's most intractable and internationalised conflicts. What we are seeing is emerging agreement among US, Palestinian and even Israeli government officials, along with others, that the situation in Israel-Palestine amounts to - or is rapidly descending into – apartheid.

Kerry is right that Ehud Barak as Israeli Defense Minister and former Prime Minister warned of impending apartheid. Ehud Olmert as Israeli Prime Minister also identified the threat of a South African-style anti-apartheid struggle should Palestinians in occupied territory continue to be denied the vote. Recently Israeli Justice Minister and lead peace negotiator Tzipi Livni gave a similar warning. In fact one can go back as early as the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, reportedly declared that "Israel will become an Apartheid State" if the occupation was allowed to continue.

Kerry is also not alone among US officialdom. Official analysis of Israel's human rights situation by the US State Department also closely aligns with a situation of apartheid.

Outside the highly coded and sensitive language of diplomacy, a range of former top-level Israeli government officials have also shared their concerns over the reality of apartheid for

Palestinians under occupation. These include former admiral, internal security chiefand Knesset member Ami Ayalon, Yuval Diskin who is also a former internal security chief, former Israeli attorney general Michael Ben-Yair, former Israeli ambassador to South Africa Alon Liel, and Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid, both former education ministers.

High-level former US officials also equate Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory with apartheid, including former US CENTCOM commander General James Mattis and former US President Jimmy Carter.

Palestinian leaders have also voiced serious concerns around Israeli apartheid, including PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi, chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat, and Palestinian legislator Mustafa Barghouthi. More