In 1965, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). This convention defines racial discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” It states that the conviction that any doctrine of superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and that there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere. Israel voluntarily accepted the obligation to work toward achieving these goals with the ratification of the CERD in 1979. Yet, Palestinians have still not seen the benefits of convention.
Nor have they enjoyed much improvement towards equal rights since the first World Conference Against Racism in 2001. The Durban Declaration and Program of Action adopted at the Conference affirmed the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and respect for international human rights and humanitarian law, and calls for an end to violence, and the recognition of the right to security for all in the region. In early October 2008, Navi Pillay, the South African UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, confirmed that the Durban Review conference to assess and accelerate progress on implementation of the Program of Action will take place in April 2009.
Israel is one of the few countries that has no constitution, and has instead adopted a set of Basic Laws. The institutionalized racial discrimination of Palestinians in Israel is facilitated by the country’s “Law of Return,” which “grants every Jew, wherever he may be, the right to come to Israel and become an Israeli citizen.” This right has been extended “to include the child and the grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of the grandchild of a Jew.”
While the Law of Return is generous towards immigration of Jews from around the world, it discriminates against Palestinians who were actually born on the land and their descendants. Hundreds of thousands Palestinian refugees who fled the violence and aggression of Zionist militias and Israeli forces from 1948 until today, have been cut off from their land and property inside Israel. The Law of Return does not recognize their right of return, simply because they are not Jewish. Still today, Palestinians are not allowed to return to their villages.
Another example of institutionalized racial discrimination in Israel is a temporary law passed by the Knesset, or parliament, in 2003 to prevent Palestinians from the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip who married Israeli citizens to live in Israel. As a consequence Palestinian citizens of Israel who marry Palestinians from the occupied territories will either have to move to there, or live apart from their husbands or wives. The Law does allow for Palestinian male spouses of 35 years and older and female spouses of 25 years and older to apply for temporary visit permits to Israel. However, the children born from these marriages will be denied citizenship at the age of 12 and will also be forced to move out of Israel. This “temporary” law was extended by the Knesset in 2007.
The Mossawa Center, which works towards equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, citing Israeli Ministry of Interior statistics, claimed that the law affected at least 21,298 families, including couples with long-standing marriages whose requests for residence permits were pending. Thus, while the Law of Return is intended to facilitate the unity of Jewish Israeli families, the unity of Palestinian Israeli families has been further hampered by this temporary law.
Israel’s institutional racial discrimination of Palestinians also takes place in the occupied territories. Since 1967, the Israeli government has actively encouraged and facilitated the influx of over 450,000 Jewish settlers into the West Bank and Gaza Strip in clear violation of international law. In sharp contrast, Palestinians are subject to different treatment. In 1967, 70,000 Palestinians were stripped from their right to stay in the West Bank and Gaza, because they were not in the occupied territories during the Israeli census shortly after the June war. Requests for family unification with foreign spouses or children have to be submitted to the Israeli authorities by an immediate relative with residency status in the occupied territories. The family unification process can take several years, and in the meantime individuals try to stay with their families by repeatedly applying for three-month tourist visas. However, Israel froze all family unification procedures in the Occupied Palestinian Territories after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000. Requests for family unification were no longer processed, and visitor permits for the people involved were no longer issued, separating spouses and children from their family. As a gesture in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Israel approved almost 32,000 requests for family unification in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since October 2007. Most of the approved requests were for Palestinians who stayed with their families in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip after their visitor’s permit expired. However, according to B’Tselem, almost 90,000 people are still waiting for a decision on their request for family unification.
The United States, Canada and Israel have withdrawn from the global process to eliminate racial discrimination. They will likely be joined by countries from the European Union if the case of racial discrimination against Palestinians is put clearly on the agenda. Yet, the calls by Nobel Peace Prize winners Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to fight racial discrimination haven’t lost their power and are still valid. At a press conference after the UN Human Rights Council meeting in September 2008, Tutu said: “I think the West, quite rightly, is feeling contrite, penitent, for its awful connivance with the Holocaust. The penance is being paid by the Palestinians. I just hope again that ordinary citizens in the West will wake up and say ‘we refuse to be part of this.’” The silence and indifference of the world community to Israel’s racial discrimination against Palestinians is a blow to all people who cannot accept injustice and unjust behavior, either from individuals or states. Moreover, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said about racial discrimination against African-Americans in the US, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate.