The world worked together to help bring South Africa's apartheid system to an end, writes Kader Asmal. So why allow such a system to live on in Israel/Palestine?
In 1980, I served on a commission of enquiry into reported violations of international law by Israel following its invasion of Lebanon. We spent 22 days in Lebanon, Israel and the surrounding areas. The devastation in Lebanon was quite overwhelming. Bombings were carried on while we were there; whole new blocks of flats in Beirut were destroyed simply because they were there. The noise, the dust and the sound of bullets were ceaseless.
And then, after our preliminary work had been done, there were the Sabra and Shatila massacres of hundreds of defenceless refugees, shot dead by the Israeli surrogates, the Phalange. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) had been expelled from Lebanon. Golda Meir had said coldly that there was no such thing as a Palestinian. Now the visible signs of such people had to be destroyed, as with the famous Palestine Library in Beirut and the hospital records in the West Bank.
Israel Shahack, head of an Israeli civil liberties body, drew my attention to the similarities between Israel and apartheid South Africa: 'You see,' he said, 'the West Bank and Gaza are our bantustans, reserves of labour for Israel but no freedom of labour.'
The Palestinians have been betrayed by those who believe in the legal system that holds the world together and they have been betrayed by their neighbours, who bought peace from Israel. The European Union grants Israel the enormous advantage of preferential trading status through the EU–Israel Association Agreement, and billions of American dollars in 'aid' allow Israel to have the most technologically advanced army and counterintelligence agency in the world.
It is time to delegitimise this entity. We did that to the apartheid government in South Africa, and the same must happen to Israel. We spent years trying to isolate South Africa, and the campaign grew to embrace a worldwide call for state-ordained boycotts, including military, economic, sporting, academic and cultural sanctions. These campaigns stirred the conscience of the world.
Today, in Israel, non-Jewish nationals have no right to return. Non-Jews are severely restricted in owning land in Israel and in the occupied territories. There is no freedom of movement for Palestinians, who can also lose their residence rights for the slightest reason. There is no right to assembly without the permission of the police. Israel, as the occupying power, has appropriated nearly 30 per cent of the West Bank and destroyed the cohesiveness of East Jerusalem by building Israeli homes.
Every tenet of freedom and equality is violated by Israel, not only in the occupied territories but also in relation to their attitude to Palestine. Today the West Bank and East Jerusalem are home to nearly half a million Israeli settlers who are subject to Israeli and not Palestinian law. Special 'Israeli-only' roads join these settlements together and to Israel. There are more than 600 checkpoints in the West Bank, where Palestinians need identity cards to travel from one village to another. Israel has imposed a matrix of controls that surpasses the restrictions once imposed by South Africa's apartheid regime on the black population.
With the construction of its 'apartheid wall', deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice (ICC) in 2004, Israel has not just annexed a further 10 per cent of Palestinian land but has divided the West Bank into increasingly watertight ghettoes.
A look at a map of the West Bank reveals that, in reality, it is now part of greater Israel. There are two classes of people living in this territory: Jews who have rights and privileges and non-Jews who have neither. This is apartheid, and has been identified as such by former American president Jimmy Carter, among others. Given that the world worked together to help bring apartheid to an end, why allow its persistence in Israel/Palestine?
The United States perceives Israel as a strategic ally. Furthermore, the Israeli lobby is by far the most powerful on Capitol Hill. The EU is paralysed by the genocide committed against Europe's Jews in the 1940s. This turns the Palestinians into scapegoats for Europe's past crimes, while equating the Israeli state with the Jewish people, many of whom worldwide passionately oppose its policies.
With no external pressure to conclude a peace agreement with the Palestinians, domestic pressure in Israel for peace has become muted. Israel will not voluntarily relinquish control of the Palestinian territories, extend equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel, or negotiate a just resolution to all outstanding issues if there are no negative consequences for maintaining the status quo.
Whenever an opportunity for negotiation arises, Israel derails it with a provocative act. In December 2008 and January 2009, the Israeli military onslaught on Gaza, named Operation Cast Lead, left 1,400 Palestinian civilians dead, including 116 women and 313 children. At no time in the history of apartheid did the racists use tactics such as those used by the Israelis: aerial strafing of built-up areas; tanks and cannon against houses; and the destruction of water and sanitation works.
In addition to the fatalities and injuries, tens of thousands of Palestinians were left homeless. Israel tightened the illegal blockade on Gaza in place since June 2007, preventing assistance being rendered to casualties and the importation of materials to rebuild Gaza. Nearly 20,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza are in Israel's prisons.
In April 2009 the United Nations Human Rights Commission established an independent international fact-finding mission to investigate violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during Operation Cast Lead. It was led by Richard Goldstone, a former member of the South African Constitutional Court and chief prosecutor with the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
In September 2009 the Goldstone Report was released. It accused both the Israeli Defence Force and Palestinian militants of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. It recommended that Israel and Hamas carry out independent, credible investigations, and that the allegations be brought to the ICC if they didn't. The Israeli government rejected the report's findings; Hamas first rejected and then embraced it.
The most damning of the report's findings is paragraph 1886 of its conclusions:
'The Mission recognises that not all deaths constitute violations of international humanitarian law. The principle of proportionality acknowledges that, under certain strict conditions, actions resulting in the loss of civilian life may not be unlawful. What makes the application and assessment of proportionality difficult in respect of many of the events investigated by the Mission is that deeds by the Israeli armed forces and words of military and political leaders prior to and during the operations indicate that, as a whole, they were premised on a deliberate policy of disproportionate force aimed not at the enemy but at the "supporting infrastructure". In practice, this appears to have meant the civilian population.'
In October 2009 the UN General Assembly endorsed Goldstone's findings, as did the EU Parliament on 10 March 2010 – and on 22 March the EU Foreign Affairs Council voted to enhance the EU/Israel Association agreement, providing Israel with even more favourable trading conditions!
It would appear that if there is a contest in EU policy between human rights and economic benefit, human rights come off worse. Yet the EU recently cancelled a trade agreement with Sri Lanka on human rights grounds. The only logical conclusion is that Israel has impunity because of Europe's past crimes. The moral question remains: Why must the Palestinian people pay with their lives and freedom to ease the consciences of Europeans?
Now we must engage in a 'legitimacy war'. Doubt must be cast on several dimensions of Israel's legitimacy, its status as a moral and law-abiding actor, as an occupying power, and with respect to its willingness to respect the UN and abide by international law. No more impunity. Israel's leaders must be held to account.
The Goldstone Report lends weight to calls from around the world to disrupt normal relations with Israel: by boycotting cultural and academic activities; by disrupting trade relations through disinvestment or by refusing to load and unload ships and planes carrying cargo to or from Israel; and by pressing governments to impose economic sanctions.
It is up to all of us dedicated to peace and justice to do all we can to help the Palestinians prevail in the legitimacy war and bring their long ordeal to an end.
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