Durban II: no-show is slap in face of victims of apartheid

16 March 2009

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Israel has been convincing its allies to boycott the upcoming anti-racism conference, which in the past has criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)


More and more Western countries are either announcing their boycott or are threatening to boycott Durban II, a United Nations conference scheduled for April to review progress made since the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) held in Durban, South Africa in 2001, nicknamed Durban I. Earlier this month, Italy became the first EU member to withdraw from the event, stating that it could not endorse a draft agenda that criticizes Israel. Italy followed in the footsteps of Israel, Canada and the United States. France and the Netherlands are threatening their own boycotts. Maxime Verhagen, the Dutch foreign minister, recently explained that “The Netherlands will not be party to a propaganda circus.” In December 2008, Verhagen claimed that the 2001 summit was an “anti-Semitic witch-hunt.”

Perhaps in September 2001, the world was not yet ready to accept the notion that Israel is in fact practicing apartheid. But ever more observers are coming to precisely that conclusion. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman warned four years ago that “if Israel does not relinquish the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinians will soon outnumber the Jews and Israel will become either an apartheid state or a non-Jewish state.”

Four years later, Friedman wrote, “Well, having taken a little drive through part of the West Bank, as I always do when I visit, it strikes me more than ever that it’s not only five after midnight, it’s five after midnight and a whole week later.”

The Israeli organization Peace Now stated early in March that Israel’s housing ministry has plans that would nearly double the number of settlers in the West Bank, rendering a two-state solution impossible. Israel has planned 73,000 new housing units in the occupied West Bank, the Israeli group stated, of which 15,000 have already received approval. Moreover, Israel’s prime minister designate Benjamin Netanyahu announced that a government he leads will expand settlements.

Israel worked hard to influence its allies to stay away from the forthcoming review conference. However, this is not the first time that it has done so. The first two conferences of 1978 and 1983 took strong positions against apartheid and are credited by observers as having contributed greatly to end apartheid in South Africa. In 1978 the US led a boycott of the WCAR and was followed by a number of European countries, because the document of that conference, which referred to apartheid-era South Africa, also included a condemnation of Israel’s systematic violations of Palestinian rights. In 1983, the WCAR declared that “apartheid as an institutionalized form of racism is a deliberate and totally abhorrent affront to the conscience and dignity of mankind, a crime against humanity and a threat to international peace and security.” In September 2001, the US and Israel walked out of Durban I. In that year, preceding the UN conference, the African National Congress (ANC) stated that having defeated apartheid, South Africans had a direct stake in the eradication of apartheid practices on a global scale and particularly in relation to the plight of the Palestinian people.

Since Durban I, an increasing number of respected observers have borne witness to the reality of Palestinian life under occupation. Most prominently this includes Nobel Peace laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former US President Jimmy Carter as well as veterans of the ANC anti-Apartheid struggle.

Even Israel’s outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert admitted to the truth of the apartheid analogy, albeit without endorsing it, when he warned in November 2007 that Palestinians, already equal in number to Israeli Jews within the borders of historic Palestine, could soon demand political rights in a single state. Olmert warned that Israel would “face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, and as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.” More recently, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beitenu, proposed that hundreds of thousand Palestinians in towns in northern Israel be stripped of their Israeli citizenship and transferred to a future Palestinian entity.

Last year, UN General Assembly President, Ambassador Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann of Nicaragua, stated that “although different, what is being done against the Palestinian people seems to me like a version of the hideous policy of apartheid. That cannot, should not, be allowed to continue.”

It may take time for these hard truths to be fully absorbed but ever more individuals who make an effort to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and look for creative solutions are convinced that the occupation must end and that peoples need to live in freedom and be respected on the basis of full equality no matter where they live.

Arjan El Fassed is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and the author of Niet iedereen kan stenen gooien (Uitgeverij Nieuwland, 2008). In 2001 he was part of the Palestinian non-governmental delegation to the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.