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Israel and the challenge of apartheid

The recent Human Rights Watch report makes it plain: Continued rule over another people against their will undermines Israel's core interests
Members of the Israeli security forces check covid-19 vaccination certificates of Palestinians entering Jerusalem to attend the first Friday prayers of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, at a checkpoint near the West Bank town of Bethlehem, on April 16, 2021. (Hazem BADER / AFP)
Members of the Israeli security forces check covid-19 vaccination certificates of Palestinians entering Jerusalem to attend the first Friday prayers of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, at a checkpoint near the West Bank town of Bethlehem, on April 16, 2021. (Hazem BADER / AFP)

A week after the publication of The Human Rights Watch’s blistering report on Israeli policies towards Palestinians last week (A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution), it is becoming increasingly apparent that the report cannot be summarily dismissed. Official responses have ranged from a total rejection of what has been dubbed as yet another anti-Israel rant to outright accusations of blatant antisemitism. These reactions, however, minimize both the robustness of the evidence presented and the legal depth informing the analysis provided in this meticulously researched and detailed document.

Israelis, however reluctantly, cannot afford to ignore either the substance or the implications of this report. Questioning the aptness of the South African analogy or the fallacies inherent in the decision to look at the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan river as one extended system of Israeli control, as some commentators have hastened to do, bypasses the key questions that need to be addressed.

The first, and by far the most central, requires coming to terms with Israeli attitudes and activities towards Palestinians today. In assessing current Israeli policies, Human Rights Watch employs a framework based on three cumulative elements of the legal definitions of apartheid embedded in international law: intent by one racially or ethnically distinct group to maintain control over another group over time; the means of domination by this group over another; and the manner of their systematic oppression. The bulk of the 203-page report compiled by this leading international NGO is devoted to the painstaking documentation of these apartheid-linked components, starting with collective measures such as military control over the area, the settlement enterprise, the development of two judicial systems and unequal infrastructure development, and proceeding to the impact on individuals, including increased limitations on mobility, economic and political restraints, inequitable access to resources, and constraints on personal freedoms.

Most Israeli avoid confronting these realities or excuse them on security and ideological grounds. They make for difficult reading. To be sure, the intensity of control over Palestinian lives varies between the officially recognized boundaries of the state of Israel, in the West Bank, in Gaza, and in Jerusalem, as the authors of the report demonstrate (thus distinguishing between the borders of the state and the regime imposed by Israel in the territories populated by Palestinians under its control since 1967). This does not make them any less discriminatory or more morally defensible (the ultimate test being whether any Jewish Israeli would be willing to live under such conditions). Inevitably, coming to terms with this situation cannot be achieved by blaming the messenger; it requires a willingness to look inward, to reexamine motivations and actions, and to realign these with Jewish experiences over the years and with fundamental values undergirding democratic societies.

From temporary occupation to institutionalized control

Such an exploration can therefore hardly circumvent a second question: how did this system of domination come about? The tendency to go back to the roots of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, however tempting, does not really explain the transition from what for years was presumed to be a temporary occupation to the institution of a system of control – either directly or indirectly via the Palestinian Authority. Here the inability to resolve the conflict, especially following the collapse of the Oslo process, plays a critical role, as does the subsequent shift to the right in Israeli politics, buttressed by the erosion of the liberal aspects of Israeli democracy and the enfeeblement of Israel’s already constricted peace camp.

The neoliberal policies of recent years have added a layer to this process, as has the conscious wedge driven between Arab and Jewish citizens of the country actively promoted by right-wing forces both within and beyond the Green Line. The delegitimization of human rights organizations inside Israel has also proven to be a contributing factor. So, too, have the ongoing cycles of violence (especially in and around Gaza).

Put together, a clear link has been forged over the past decade – and with particular intensity during the last few years – between maintaining political supremacy within Israel and exercising greater control over the Palestinian inhabitants of the land. What was initially conceived of as a temporary necessity has thus become an unfettered routine, one that was actively supported by the Trump administration.

But 2021 is not 2016. Nor are Biden’s priorities, with his emphasis on human rights and international collaboration, the same as those of his predecessor. Israelis have yet to adjust to these changing priorities and to shifting global circumstances in the wake of the pandemic, especially as these affect its global standing and its relations with its neighbors. Continued rule over another people against their will runs the risk of contravening the country’s most essential interests.

Equality, justice, fairness, decency

This understanding leads directly to the third question: what are the implications of the findings of the Human Rights Watch report (and of those compiled in the past year in a similar vein by Israeli human rights organizations Yesh Din and B’Tselem)? Unquestionably, the dismantlement of the regime of control is an imperative. But how is this to be carried out?

The detailed recommendations suggested by Human Rights Watch are directed mostly to the international community. They do not, however, offer alternatives to the evolving power structure. The progression towards institutionalized asymmetry, quite ironically, presumes that the emerging unequal, single-regime, situation obviates the two-state paradigm and militates towards a one-state reality – championed for very different reasons by Jewish and Palestinian militants (the former as a means of realizing the dream of a Greater Israel, the latter as a mechanism for dismantling Israel).

Yet there is no real basis for the assumption that apartheid-like conditions based on the legal definitions incorporated in international law, with all the opprobrium they evoke, necessarily lead to a South Africa-inspired solution. The democratic variant of such a solution – an egalitarian binational state – is as far from present realities and mainstream Palestinian and Jewish aspirations as one can imagine. Indeed, the collapse of the two-state option as envisaged during several decades of negotiations does not mean that variants of this alternative have been fully explored. Just as there are different possibilities for a single state on the land, so, too, are there a variety of two-state scenarios now being forwarded that go beyond simple political and territorial separation (such as cooperation, confederation or federation). All these and other permutations depend as much – if not more – on recalibrating Jewish-Palestinian relations on the ground as on international intercession.

Clearly much more work needs to be done by all involved to move forward constructively. Opening the discussion has the advantage of avoiding a numbing determinism and preventing a slide into anarchy, while simultaneously allaying some of the fears and hesitations on both sides. A truly rights-based approach to this conundrum must commence with values and people – not with any particular political design. Central to this undertaking is the importance of equality and justice, which, when coupled with fairness and decency, may provide the foundation for a different political architecture.

The Human Rights Watch report has caused considerable discomfort in large segments of Israeli society and the Jewish world. But instead of viewing this document, with its compendium of violations increasingly conforming to legal definitions of apartheid, as an unmitigated threat to Israel’s very existence, Israelis who care about the country, its moral fabric, its guiding principles and its future viability might do well to view its publication as a warning signal that compels a much-needed reassessment of their normative foundations and their future course.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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