The landmark report’s endorsement of boycotts, economic sanctions and other grassroots initiatives comes at a moment when Israel is desperately attempting to criminalize and suppress international support for Palestinian rights.
Published by the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), the report concludes that “Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.”
It finds “beyond a reasonable doubt that Israel is guilty of policies and practices that constitute the crimes of apartheid” as defined in international law.
It urges national governments to “support boycott, divestment and sanctions activities and respond positively to calls for such initiatives.”
The UN report – “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” – is not a comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa, but an evaluation of Israel’s practices against the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and other key human rights laws.
The convention defines the crime of apartheid as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”
International law defines racial discrimination to mean “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent or ethnic or national origin,” the report notes.
The Zionist movement’s “claim to Palestine as the exclusive homeland of the Jewish people rests on an expressly racial conception of both groups,” the report states. “This means that Jews and Palestinians are ‘racial groups’ ” for the purposes of applying the apartheid convention.
“The mission of preserving Israel as a Jewish state has inspired or even compelled Israel to pursue several general racial policies,” the report says.
These include “demographic engineering, in order to establish and maintain an overwhelming Jewish majority in Israel.”
This encompasses the ethnic cleansing of almost 800,000 Palestinians in 1948, the denial of the right of return for Palestinian refugees and “a range of other policies designed to restrict the size of the Palestinian population.”
Although they can vote, the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel – about a fifth of the state’s citizens – are also systematically restricted, while full rights are granted only to Jews.
Meanwhile, Israel’s discriminatory “Law of Return” automatically grants citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world, “while denying citizenship even to those Palestinians who have a documented history of residency in the country.”
“As in any racial democracy,” the report argues, “such a majority allows the trappings of democracy – democratic elections, a strong legislature – without threatening any loss of hegemony by the dominant racial group.”
In a stark illustration of the racial logic espoused by Israel’s leadership, the country’s defense minister Avigdor Lieberman this week reiterated the view that the Jewish state should eventually be ethnically cleansed of virtually all Palestinians.
“There is no reason why Sheikh Raed Salah, Ayman Odeh, Basel Ghattas or Haneen Zoabi should continue to be Israeli citizens,” he said in reference to prominent Palestinian politicians, three of them members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.
Israel prohibits anyone from using its ostensibly democratic system to challenge the regime’s fundamentally racist set-up. Its Basic Law – the closest thing that Israel has to a written constitution – bars parties from running on a platform that explicitly or implicitly includes “negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
“Voting rights lose their significance in terms of equal rights when a racial group is legally banned from challenging laws that perpetuate inequality,” the report states. “Israeli law bans organized Palestinian opposition to Jewish domination, rendering it illegal and even seditious.”
This is not the first analysis to find that Israeli policies meet the legal definition of apartheid: a 2009 study by South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council concluded that Israel practices apartheid in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But the new UN study goes much further, finding that Israel’s apartheid system dominates the entire Palestinian people. It concludes that the “strategic fragmentation” of the Palestinian people into separate territorial units and legal regimes – as citizens with limited rights within Israel, as stateless persons in the West Bank and Gaza, as “permanent residents” in East Jerusalem, or as refugees and exiles with no right of return – “is the principle method by which Israel imposes an apartheid regime.”
Ending a “criminal enterprise”
Governments have a legal obligation to act immediately to end the crime of apartheid. This includes refusing to recognize an apartheid regime as lawful, refusing to aid a state in maintaining such a regime and cooperating with UN bodies and other states to end it.
The report urges UN bodies to act, and even suggests seeking a formal opinion from the International Court of Justice on Israel’s apartheid system. National governments should also back BDS and allow “criminal prosecutions of Israeli officials demonstrably connected with the practices of apartheid.”
But given that states and official bodies are not likely to take the lead, the report recognizes that “civil society institutions and individuals have a moral duty to use the instruments at their disposal to raise awareness of this ongoing criminal enterprise.”
They must use these tools to “exert pressure on Israel to dismantle apartheid structures and negotiate in good faith for a lasting peace that acknowledges the rights of Palestinians under international law and makes it possible for the two peoples to live together on the basis of real equality.”
Recalling an earlier era, the report notes that research and legal analyses by UN bodies – such as the United Nations Center Against Apartheid – were critical resources for civil society activists in their efforts aimed at “legitimating boycott, divestments and sanctions, and contributing to the overall formation of a transnational movement against apartheid in South Africa.”
One of the report’s key aims today is to encourage “practical measures in accordance with international law to exert pressure on Israel to dismantle its apartheid regime.”
“Efforts should be made to broaden support for boycott, divestment and sanctions initiatives among civil society actors,” the report recommends.
Private sector firms should be “reminded of their legal, moral and political responsibility to sever ties with commercial ventures and projects that directly or indirectly aid and abet the apartheid regime.”
All of this confirms the reasoning and tactics of the Palestinian-led BDS movement – support for which even the staunchly pro-Israel European Union has belatedly recognized as a democratic right.