The Russell Tribunal on Palestine recently held sessions in Cape Town to assess if Israel’s practices against the Palestinian people are a breach of the prohibition on apartheid under international law. On 5-6 November, the jury of the tribunal heard many witnesses testify on apartheid and persecution.
The sessions were hosted by the District Six Museum which is located in the District Six area in Cape Town. Under apartheid, 60,000 black South Africans were forcibly removed from District Six to barren areas outside the city. Bulldozers of the apartheid regime demolished their homes.
I attended the Russell Tribunal at the invitation of the South African organizers. For many years, I supported the African National Congress of South Africa in its fight for freedom and equality. The similarity in policies and practices of the South African apartheid regime and the State of Israel have been observed by international experts.
In 2005, The Electronic Intifada published a commentary titled “Unrecognized villages in the Negev expose Israel’s apartheid policies,” which I wrote with Bangani Ngeleza following our visit to the Nakab with Palestinian political prisoner Ameer Makhoul. A few years later, Bangani and I compared how Israel and the South African apartheid regime use persecution of citizens in efforts to silence advocacy for freedom and equal rights.
Israel’s domination of Palestinian amounts to apartheid
After two days of hearings, the jury of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine published its final statement, concluding that “Israel subjects the Palestinian people to an institutionalized regime of domination amounting to apartheid as defined under international law.” The jury said:
This discriminatory regime manifests in varying intensity and forms against different categories of Palestinians depending on their location. The Palestinians living under colonial military rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territory are subject to a particularly aggravated form of apartheid. Palestinian citizens of Israel, while entitled to vote, are not part of the Jewish nation as defined by Israeli law and are therefore excluded from the benefits of Jewish nationality and subject to systematic discrimination across the broad spectrum of recognized human rights. Irrespective of such differences, the Tribunal concludes that Israel’s rule over the Palestinian people, wherever they reside, collectively amounts to a single integrated regime of apartheid.
The legal definition of apartheid applies to any situation anywhere in the world where the following three core elements exist: (i) that two distinct racial groups can be identified; (ii) that ‘inhuman acts’ are committed against the subordinate group; and (iii) that such acts are committed systematically in the context of an institutionalized regime of domination by one group over the other. The tribunal concluded:
[I]nternational law gives a broad meaning to the term ‘racial’ as including elements of ethnic and national origin, and therefore that the definition of ‘racial group’ is a sociological rather than biological question. Perceptions (including self-perceptions and external perceptions) of Israeli Jewish identity and Palestinian identity illustrate that Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs can readily be defined as distinct racial groups for the purposes of international law. From the evidence received, it was clear to the jury that two distinct, identifiable groups exist in a very practical sense and that the legal definition of ‘racial group’ applies to all circumstances in which the Israeli authorities have jurisdiction over Palestinians.
Inhuman Acts of Apartheid
Individual inhuman acts committed under a system of apartheid are defined by international law as crimes of apartheid. The jury wrote it had heard “abundant evidence of practices that constitute ‘inhuman acts’ perpetrated against the Palestinian people by the Israeli authorities.” These include:
- widespread deprivation of Palestinian life through military operations and incursions, a formal policy of ‘targeted killings’, and the use of lethal force against demonstrations;
- torture and ill-treatment of Palestinians in the context of widespread deprivation of liberty through policies of arbitrary arrest and administrative detention without charge. The jury finds that such measures frequently go beyond what is reasonably justified by security concerns and amount to a form of domination over the Palestinians as a group;
- systematic human rights violations that preclude Palestinian development and prevent the Palestinians as a group from participating in political, economic, social and cultural life. Palestinian refugees who remain displaced are also victims of apartheid by virtue of the ongoing denial of their right to return to their homes, as well as by laws that remove their property and citizenship rights. Policies of forced population transfer remain widespread, particularly in the occupied Palestinian territory;
- civil and political rights of Palestinians including rights to movement, residence, free opinion and association are severely curtailed. Palestinian socio-economic rights are also adversely affected by discriminatory Israeli policies in the spheres of education, health and housing.
Since 1948 the Israeli authorities have pursued concerted policies of colonisation and appropriation of Palestinian land. Israel has through its laws and practices divided the Israeli Jewish and Palestinian populations and allocated them different physical spaces, with varying levels and quality of infrastructure, services and access to resources. The end result is wholesale territorial fragmentation and a series of separate reserves and enclaves, with the two groups largely segregated. The Tribunal heard evidence to the effect that such a policy is formally described in Israel as hafrada, Hebrew for ‘separation’.
According to the jury, the crimes of apartheid are sufficiently widespread, integrated and complementary to be described as systematic. In addition, they are also sufficiently rooted in law, public policy and formal institutions to be described as institutionalized. The Tribunal studied 25 Israeli Acts and 8 Bills to arrive at this conclusion. They are listed in the final statement that came out of the meeting.
Persecution as a Crime against Humanity
The tribunal found that much of the evidence is also relevant to the separate crime against humanity of persecution. Persecution involves the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights of the members of an identifiable group in the context of a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population. The tribunal based its finding of Israel’s persecution of the Palestinian people on the following evidence:
- the siege and blockade of the Gaza Strip as a form of collective punishment of the civilian population;
- the targeting of civilians during large-scale military operations;
- the destruction of civilian homes not justified by military necessity;
- the adverse impact on the civilian population effected by the Wall and its associated regime in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem;
- the concerted campaign of forcible evacuation and demolition of unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev region of southern Israel.
The tribunal concluded its statement with recommendations for further action, including that “all states cooperate to bring to an end the illegal situation arising from Israel’s practices of apartheid and persecution.” Adding that “all states must consider appropriate measures to exert sufficient pressure on Israel, including the imposition of sanctions, the severing of diplomatic relations collectively through international organizations, or in the absence of consensus, individually by breaking bilateral relations with Israel.”
The tribunal called on global civil society, including all groups and individuals inside Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, “to replicate the spirit of solidarity that contributed to the end of apartheid in South Africa.” It suggested that “national parliaments are made aware of the findings of this Tribunal and call for support to the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.
Inspiration from South Africa
All South African witnesses who presented evidence at the Russell Tribunal expressed their view that the system of apartheid as applied by Israel was far worse then the system of apartheid they had experienced in South Africa.
Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU), representing over two million workers, said in his testimony that “the South African working class will not be free until the Palestinian working class has been liberated as well.” Vavi reminded the tribunal that “the people of South Africa in cooperation with the freedom loving people internationally, destroyed the apartheid system.” If COSATU adds its power to the BDS movement, it can pack quite a punch to Israel’s collaboration with South Africa.
The jury of the Russell Tribunal consisted of Stéphane Hessel, Ronald Kasrils, José Antonio Martin Pallin, Cynthia McKinney, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Michael Mansfield, Yasmin Sooka, Aminata Traoré, Alice Walker.