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Israeli activist testifies before Russell Tribunal on apartheid question

Israeli, Palestinian and international legal experts recently testified at the Russell Tribunal in South Africa, which convened to determine whether to classify Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians as apartheid. This is what the Tribunal found.

By Jeff Halper

South Africa session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (photo: flickr / Russell Tribunal on Palestine)

The Russell Tribunal is what happens when governments abrogate their responsibilities towards their own citizens and peoples under their control. States, along with the United Nations, are obligated to enforce international law and human rights conventions. When they don’t, as in their failure to apply to Israel and its Occupation the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, the people themselves must rise up and demand that they do. Civil society forums such as the Russell Tribunal may not carry formal authority, but they represent millions of people the world over who believe that simply leaving governments free to pursue their narrow agendas driven by power, sectarian ideology, militarism and the profits of a few is to doom us all to continued war, bloodshed and injustice.

In the late 1960s, the philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre convened a Russell Tribunal on Vietnam. In the mid-1970s a Tribunal was also convened on the issue of human right abuses in Latin America. Over the past year, the Tribunal has been convened once again, this time on the issue of Palestine. Along with other Israeli, Palestinian and international legal experts – human rights workers and activists – I testified at the session just recently held in Cape Town, South Africa. The setting was appropriate, as the Tribunal asked whether, in light of international law, Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians can be classified as apartheid, thereby holding Israel accountable for its policies, including through international sanctions.

The Russell Tribunal is not a court – or rather, it is a people’s court. Although prominent legal experts sit on the jury, such as Michael Mansfield, QC, and José Antonio Martin Pallin, a former Spanish Supreme Court justice, leading political figures do as well. Stephen Hessels, for example, is a Holocaust survivor, former French diplomat and an author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Ronnie Kasrils, a Jewish member of the African National Congress, was a former member of the post-apartheid South African government. Other jurists with what might be called moral authority included Mairead Maguire, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in Northern Ireland, the African-American author Alice Walker and Yasmin Sooka, a member of South Africa’s truth and Reconciliation Committee. The Tribunal opened with greetings from Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Representing civil society rather than governments, the authority of the Tribunal is indeed only moral and intellectual. It does not judge governments. Instead, it sets out before world public opinion gross violations of human rights and international law, hoping in that way to mobilize grassroots opposition that, in turn, will influence how governments behave. The Tribunal met, fittingly, at the District Six Museum, which commemorates the destruction and dispersal of Cape Town’s multi-cultural District Six community by the apartheid government.

In the case of the Israel’s 44-year Occupation, such an initiative is certainly called for. Despite the Palestinians’ acceptance of the two-state solution in 1988 and the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, in which the Arab League unanimously agreed to make peace with Israel and integrate it into the region, Israel refuses to end its settlement building or the construction of other massive, irreversible “facts on the ground,” such as a web of Israeli-only highways linking the settlements to Israel proper; the construction of a “separation barrier” twice as high as the Berlin Wall and five times longer, snaking deep into Palestinian territory; and the annexation of East Jerusalem.

Indeed, it is likely that Israel’s facts on the ground have eliminated the two-state solution. Israel however, which considers the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria” – an integral part of its territory – will not even contemplate a one-state solution. It is the permanent confining of the Palestinian population to tiny enclaves in the Occupied Territory under institutionalized Israeli domination and control that leads to the charge that Israel has constructed an apartheid regime. And since, as many expert witnesses testified before the Tribunal, the human and national rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel are also limited by law, regulations and a hostile political and social climate, the reality of apartheid extends inside Israel itself.

The “crime of apartheid” is defined in international law 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” – “racial group” being extended to “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, national or ethnic origin.” The Tribunal took the four Articles of the Convention Against the Crime of Apartheid and invited expert witnesses to systematically address them. (The Israeli government was invited to submit testimony as well but did not deign to even acknowledge the offer.)

The two days of testimony highlighted the systematic oppression of the Palestinians. Some of the details – of restrictions on life and movement in the Jordan Valley, for instance, or the extent of Israel’s security services in vetting teachers and principals in Arab public schools inside Israel – surprised and shocked even witnesses who had worked for years in the field. My own testimony on house demolitions revealed that three times more homes are demolished inside Israel (all of Arab citizens, of course) than in the Occupied Territory.

In the end, the jury found ample grounds to conclude that “Israel subjects the Palestinian people to an institutionalised regime of domination amounting to apartheid as defined under international law…. 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 recognised 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 Russell Tribunal calls on all the relevant actors – the state of Israel, the international community and civil society itself – to end apartheid in Israel/Palestine and pave the way for a just peace between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples.

Jeff Halper is the Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. He can be reached here.

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    1. Hanan Hurwitz

      I was born and raised in South Africa, and lived there, under Apartheid, until 1984. I now live in Israel.

      There is no justification to describe Israel’s policies as Apartheid, or similar in any way to South Africa’s apartheid policy. Doing so is incorrect, and is simply driven by the overall desire to demonize and ostracize Israel.

      Israel’s history and policies in the West Bank include many mistakes, and personally I support disengaging from the West Bank. But Israel is most certainly not comparable to Apartheid South Africa. In addition, Zionism is not racism, and is not Apartheid either.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Avi Lehyani

      “The Israeli government was invited to submit testimony as well but did not deign to even acknowledge the offer.)” The game was sold in advance, so your offer was simply a sorry attempt to legitimize your lynch party.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Richard Witty

      Its a careless reasoning with a less than careless process of determination.

      Rights of the accused?

      The critical distinction is the nature of racial (rather than political) intent. Even the desire to expropriate territory is not apartheid. The presence of pass laws, restricted movement on an occupied area, is not apartheid. Even the presence of prejudicial issuance of building permits to settlement residents is not apartheid.

      South African apartheid was racial in origination, intent, application.

      EVERY black on the basis of race alone, was denied the right to vote, to assemble, to professions, to movement, to due process under the law (the judiciary was more equal than other institutions).

      In Israel/Palestine, 20% of the population have equal due process under the law, free movement, right to vote, assemble, publish.

      Race is NOT the basis of suppression. There is certainly prejudice within Israel and institutionalized as common attitudes get institutionalized, but they conflict with the Israeli basic laws, are not applications of them.

      The dissenting movement is hurt by careless language, name-calling primarily.

      Maybe it was the 972 editors that posted the speech. As writing, it was polemic, dismissable as polemic.

      We need reason. To make actual change, ee need arguments that are UNDENIABLE, not easily deniable by the tone and form.

      Reply to Comment
    4. RichardNYC

      yawn…same shit different day. This campaign has already failed.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Jeff Halper

      The term “racial group” used in the Apartheid Convention is understood to apply also to oppression on the basis of decent, national or ethnic origin, as set out in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. That clearly applies to Palestinians living under Israeli rule. A reading of the Apartheid Convention shows that Israel violates almost all of Article II.

      Legalism aside, apartheid can be defined by two elements: (1) when a population separates itself from the others (Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians is called explicitly hafrada, “separation” or apartheid in Hebrew, and the Wall is officially named the Separation Barrier); and (2) that population then creates a permanent, institutionalized regime of separation and domination, which Israel has done both in the Occupied Territory and within its own borders. The language of apartheid is precise; it is not demonization or polemics.

      Reply to Comment
    6. RichardNYC

      By your logic, even if the Wall 100% on Israeli land, its existence would be evidence of apartheid, which is ridiculous. I thought you were working for Palestinian independence by fighting house demolitions in the OPT; I’m sad to see you’ve regressed into hard line anti-Zionism. You’re discrediting the Palestinian cause with this nonsense, which is obviously polemical: you can’t expect many people to believe that a conflict between bitter enemies can be reduced to these farcical one-sided terms. Or that a peaceful solution is consistent with the kind of integration you’re insisting on. The whole thing wreaks of bad faith and I think you know it!

      Reply to Comment
    7. Jaime Antecol

      What a farce!
      More than anything else it’s just another tragedy for the Palestinian Arabs. Because they only seem to be only getting represented by more frauds and cut throats, which is just another distraction from sitting down with the Israelis and working out the many details that would begin to comprise the contours of a state.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Piotr Berman

      “permanent, institutionalized regime of separation and domination”

      Domination, oppression and subjugation are the key. When IDF uses “legitimate security concerns” to regulate which legumes, spices, types of pasta, shoes can Gazan’s wear or not, and what they can export (nothing) that this is simply domination for the sake of domination.

      And besides the wall/fence surrounding Gaza there is also a “free-fire zone” which is very much in Gazan territory, and where people are killed quite regularly.

      Of course, in the case of West Bank the wall is extremely invasive, and oppression, while perhaps less deadly than in the case of Gaza, has a myriad of ugly facets.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Sinjim

      Mr. Halper, can’t you see? You and your coterie of frauds and cut throats are single-handedly damaging the Palestinian cause. Just listen to the gatekeepers of Palestinian welfare, RichardNYC, Jaime Antecol, and Richard Witty. They know what’s best for these benighted natives.
      Remember, Mr. Halper: the denial of equal due process, the home demolitions, the violations of the right of assembly and free movement, and all the rest of these rights violations, none of that is evidence of racial discrimination. No, it’s all a political squabble. The sooner you see that, the sooner the heroes of the Palestinian movement, some of whose most illustrious members lowered themselves to respond to your ignorance here, can set about freeing the Palestinian people from their self-imposed prison.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Richard Witty

      “decent, national or ethnic origin, as set out in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. That clearly applies to Palestinians living under Israeli rule.”

      If 20% of the Israeli population are exceptions to that rule, and the basic laws of the state are exceptions to the rule, does the description apply?

      I think not.

      The distinctions between the area of occupation and the area of multi-ethnic equal citizenship is profound.

      Again, when/if Israel annexes the West Bank, and retains a regime in which a population is disenfranchised on racial, ethnic, national origin grounds, then you’d have a case, a strong case, for the “apartheid” description/condemnation.

      In a state of legal temporary occupation, it is not a representative description, but more accurately a name-call.

      That does not make criticism of the relations invalid in the slightest, but it makes innaccurate descriptions entirely dismissable.

      I can’t imagine that that is your goal in dissent, to use language, tone, and style that result in easy dismissal of your experience and substantive argument.

      Reply to Comment
    11. RichardNYC

      Yes, I suppose it would be better for Palestinians to knock down the Walls keeping the Qassam brigade bros from embracing their Golani brigade bros in a secular one-state peace lagoon. 🙂
      Just because Palestinians have right wing Israeli enemies doesn’t mean that anti-Zionists are their friends. Denial of Israeli existence + Palestinian irredentism = eternal refugee camps = eternal war = no Palestinian future. That is your contribution.

      Reply to Comment
    12. AT

      One can acknowledge that the Palestinians live under/are controlled by an oppressive Israeli military regime in both the West Bank & Gaza without agreeing to the Apartheid label. In my view some Palestinian activists looked around for some “successful” international campaign against oppression that brought the West on board. They decided on Apartheid since that campaign “obviously” worked. It’s the Palestinian equivalent of Hasbara. Somehow, the thinking goes, if we can get people to see the analogy then we can garner Western support in our campaign against Israel.

      Several important facts need to be kept in mind:
      1. the situation in Israel/Palestine is different in most important ways than the South African one
      2. the West support for the anti-apartheid campaign existed inside a very specific set of historical circumstances that don’t apply today (e.g. The civil rights movement was in full swing at the time)
      3. The BDS movement was not thhe main reason the apartheid regime fell
      4. SOuth Africa today is a big disaster and one can hardly call the fall of the apartheid regime a great political success

      Substantively then, the analogy is not only false, but a stupid political move.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Piotr Berman

      “If Israel annexes West Bank…”

      Israel annexed West Bank in all but name. The government resists its own courts to save — and expand — even those settlements that are illegal according to the twisted Israeli laws. Rule of law is pretty sketchy in Israel proper, and mockery in the territories.

      The actual rituals of subjugation are different, but in what way Israel is better, I have no idea.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Daniel Rice

      Jeff, you say “three times more homes are demolished inside Israel (all of Arab citizens, of course) than in the Occupied Territory” — but as I know you are aware, Mizrahi Jewish citizens of Israel have also been the targets of home demolitions, most notably in Kfar Shalem. This is not to take away from your analysis of the apartheid situation vis a vis Palestinians inside Israel and under occupation, but rather to point out that “domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons” has more than one face in Israeli society and policy.

      Reply to Comment
    15. RichardNYC

      Do you disagree with the idea that the United States practices apartheid against black people? If not, why isn’t the level of black male incarceration in the United States evidence of apartheid?

      Reply to Comment
    16. Shaun

      In every country where there is more than one racial group, some form of racism will invariably exist?
      A brief study of the South African apartheid seems to expose rather specific laws that made it unique.
      A sexual act between members of different racial groups was illegal?
      Separate public facility’s like toilets, public pools and parks.
      Are there any such laws in Israel?

      Reply to Comment
    17. […] טוען שהטריבונל לבדיקת ישראל כמדינת אפרטהייד שהוקם בדרום אפריקה הוא חד-צדדי. אם כן אני מזמין אותו […]

      Reply to Comment
    18. Daniel Rice

      @Shaun: there are no laws against sexual relations between groups as far as I know, but there are official an unofficial prevention campaigns, see http://coteret.com/2010/02/24/tel-aviv-presents-municipal-program-to-prevent-arab-boys-from-dating-jewish-girls/.

      There is almost total separation of Jews and Palestinians inside Israel by town or neighborhood (a recent law made explicit the right of smaller communities to deny residency to unwanted minorities). In practice most resources such as parks or pools in much of the country are not shared simply due to the way the population is distributed. In some mixed communities, such as Lod/Ramle, the disparities in infrastructure and services between Jewish and Palestinian areas are pronounced.

      Reply to Comment
    19. John Love

      I feel that S.A apartheid is a truly base and terrible crime from contemporary history. I believe that the definition of Apartheid under international law does classify Israel as guilty of the crime of apartheid , as it would in Turkey with the Kurdi, as it would in Syria and the Sunni muslims. As it would within cultures inside Israel, as in the case of the afro-bedouin. Or in many other countries and many other governments.

      The argument is easily regarded as polemic since both sides are arguing with their hearts, sincerely desperate not to associate the state of Israel with the terrible crime of specifically South African apartheid versus angst-ridden libertarian idealism seeking to end a humanitarian crises. And it is a crises.

      The goal of this tribunal, if I understand its aims and not its politics, is to influence emotional intelligence to unblock whatever inhibits people from seeing truths that contradict their own present tense narrative of the world.

      Message received. I will vote when there are elections and support or protest what and where I will.

      However, whatever the goal of the Russel Tribunal, I believe the effect will not encourage peace but instead fuel anti-semitism and anti-Israel sentiment against people who cannot distinguish between the racist domination of white over black in S.A. apartheid and the struggle of half a century between the cornucopia of influences from all corners of the Jewish world (including a few Arab nations) and the people of OPT and Gaza.

      Reply to Comment
    20. Shaun

      Thanks Daniel.
      So there are private campaigns that encourage blood purity. Not unlike the “white-purity” fools that exist all over the US and Europe. The fact that public facilities are out of reach of the Arab population doesn’t seem any different from ”gated communities” in most suburban areas around the world. It might not be very nice. But it’s still far from government entrenched laws.

      Reply to Comment
    21. Daniel Rice

      @Shaun: not only private, if you follow the link you will see that the Tel Aviv municipality is involved. The government is intimately involved in the allocation of land resources. For example, from 1948 until 2008 not a single new Arab municipality was recognized inside Israel, and the existing municipalities are completely curtailed in their growth, hemmed in by roads and (growing) Jewish towns and cities.

      We can toss words around here all day, but if you were to see what is happening on the ground both inside Israel and in the West Bank (I have not personally been to Gaza) I believe you would see clearly that the level of systematic discrimination goes way beyond gated communities and the urban/suburban growth disparities of the (post-civil rights era) United States. It is clear to me that the state and local government, the police, and the courts all respond to the needs of elite Jewish citizens in one way, to those of non-elite Jewish citizens in another way, and to those of Palestinian citizens in yet another way, with little pretense of equality outside of hasbara for external consumption. The fact that all can vote (I am not speaking about the occupied territories at the moment) and have representation in the Knesset means little against these day-to-day realities.

      Reply to Comment
    22. RichardNYC

      “… the level of systematic discrimination goes way beyond gated communities and the urban/suburban growth disparities of the (post-civil rights era) United States.”
      –>Have you been to Baltimore? Washington DC? Atlanta? New Orleans?

      Reply to Comment
    23. Daniel Rice

      @Richard: I’m familiar with Jim Crow, ghettoization, redlining, housing discrimination urban renewal, bombing of urban neighborhoods, gentrification, all of that. I’ve seen it personally in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Atlanta. Sorry, my knowledge of Baltimore is limited to watching The Wire. There’s a lot to be done here to make civil rights a reality rather than an abstraction in many areas.

      So, what are you doing to improve civil rights country you live in, besides using it as way to deflect attention from what Israel is doing?

      Reply to Comment
    24. RichardNYC

      I’m a public school teacher in the south Bronx (joke), because if not I would have no credibility right? Contextualizing Israeli society is not deflection, it is elucidation. “Discrimination”, like other social science adjectives, is a relative concept – something that the anti-Israel community acknowledges when it compares Israelis to Nazis.

      Reply to Comment
    25. RichardNYC

      I’m still interested in knowing whether you think America is an apartheid state. Something tells me your reluctance to express yourself honestly on this point has something to do with your understanding of the importance of relativism in discussions about morality.

      Reply to Comment
    26. Shaun

      Sorry Daniel, you write that: “For example, from 1948 until 2008 not a single new Arab municipality was recognized inside Israel, and the existing municipalities are completely curtailed in their growth…” I did a few quick check and found the following: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Arab_localities_in_Israel
      Just a few interesting points..
      Ar’arat an-Naqab was founded in 1982
      Kuseife was founded in 1982
      29 September 2003, “Abu Basma Plan” established seven new Bedouin settlements in the Negev
      Added to this in almost every Arab town mentioned in the above link the town has grown both in population and size including the creation of facilities.

      Reply to Comment
    27. Daniel Rice

      @Shaun – you are right, I should have qualified my statement by mentioning that Bedouin resettlement is an exception. This would have been a better quote from my source http://www.haaretz.com/news/majadele-new-arab-city-will-bolster-our-sense-of-belonging-1.239141:

      “Since the establishment of the State of Israel, not a single new Arab settlement has been established, with the exception of permanent housing projects for Bedouins in the Negev.”

      However, these resettlement projects have been quite controversial and have generally been carried out against the will of the Bedouin population. From http://www.jstor.org/stable/2537634 (Israeli State Policy toward Bedouin Sedentarization in the Negev by
      Ghazi Falah, 1989):

      “Unlike many other Middle Eastern bedouin communities, the Negev
      bedouin were already fully sedentarized when the Israeli government began to implement its settlement programs. Thus, these programs were not aimed primarily at settling a previously highly mobile population; rather, the objective was to evict this population from its lands and to resettle it elsewhere. Involuntary resettlement and forced migration have become a characteristic of Israeli government policy toward the bedouin, even when the final results appear to have been voluntary.”

      A recent Economist article about the Bedouin in Israel is http://www.economist.com/node/21536645.

      I think you might want to compare the growth in land area and infrastructure versus growth in population for Jewish and non-Jewish communities in Israel before trying to sweep everything under the carpet by the bland statement “almost every Arab town mentioned in the above link the town has grown both in population and size including the creation of facilities.” See for example page 28 of “Overlooking Nazareth: the ethnography of exclusion in Galilee” by Dan Rabinowitz (preview on Google Books at http://books.google.com/books?id=0xX6UfsmO-EC&pg=PA28&lpg=PA28&dq=nazareth%5C+1948+dunams&source=bl&ots=wv4Iwuoep9&sig=90uL0GPxuuRIxEL2mwkMR1gzRpw&hl=en&ei=NIjCTsTFIs-UtweUz_m0DQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&sqi=2&ved=0CBoQ6AEwAA#v=snippet&q=nazareth%201948%20dunams&f=false.

      Reply to Comment
    28. Shaun

      Thanks, will keep learning

      Reply to Comment
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