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UN report confirms that Israel is guilty of apartheid, and endorses BDS

On Wednesday afternoon, a ground breaking UN report from the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) found the State of Israel guilty of the crime of apartheid.

The separation wall, with Banksy’s ‘girl with balloons’. Picture by Mick Tsikas/AAP/PA Images. All rights reserved. The last few weeks have seen Israeli Apartheid Weeks (IAWs) take place across university campuses all over the world. In the UK alone events happened on over 30 campuses, as part of a global campaign to raise awareness to the apartheid reality in Palestine/Israel and to mobilise support for the growing Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS).

Opposition and repression of these events came from above at the institutional and governmental levels. In an email sent to Nicola Dandrige, chief executive of Universities UK, Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, warns against Israeli apartheid events and calls them anti-Semitic. Several events were cancelled by the administrations including at the University of Exeter and the University of Central Lancashire.

Whilst Israeli Apartheid Week has been occurring annually since 2005 and Palestinians and their allies have been calling the situation in Palestine/Israel apartheid long before that, the international community has yet to catch up. In recent years there have been insinuations by various political figures that Israel is moving in the direction of apartheid, including most infamously by John Kerry in 2014 who consequently had to apologise for using the word in the context of Israel. Former president Jimmy Carter called outright the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) as apartheid and even published a book on it.

However on Wednesday afternoon, a ground breaking UN report from the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) on the question of Israeli apartheid was published, charging the Zionist project as a whole with the crime of apartheid. Entitled ‘Israeli practices towards the Palestinian people and the question of apartheid’, it was co-authored by Richard Falk, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories since 1967 and Virginia Tilley, Professor of Political Science at the Southern Illinois University. They conclude; “the report establishes, on the basis of scholarly inquiry and overwhelming evidence that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid.”(p. 60)

The most important part of this report is its recommendation and calls for prompt action.

Importantly the report addresses the situation of the ‘Palestinian People’ rather than the the oPt discourse, which limits Palestinians to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip only. It specifically acknowledges the fragments of the Palestinian people oft forgotten by the International community; the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Palestinian refugees of 1948. The report identifies that the continued fragmentation of the Palestinian people constitutes one of the main tactics of the apartheid regime. It identifies four fragments of the Palestinian people and explains explicitly how the regime of apartheid is inflicted on each of them.

The first fragment in the report is the Palestinian community within Israel. As a racial state, Israel has enshrined the domination of the Jewish people in its legislative body. In order to maintain its ‘Jewish character’ the state pursues racial policies which renders non-Jews second class citizens at best. Indeed the report defines Palestinian citizens of Israel as citizens without nationality and as a “politically ineffectual minority”. Secondly, are East Jerusalemite Palestinians who are caught in a trap of having to prove their centre of life in order to hold on to their highly insecure permanent residency status. Classing them as an entirely separate category is an exercise in demographic engineering which sees Palestinians being pushed out of Jerusalem in favour of Jewish residents.

Thirdly, the report addresses those in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians in the West Bank are living under a complex system of bantustanization and segregated spaces, which is subject to Israeli military rule. In Gaza, Palestinians face an even more brutal regime of military siege which has seen horrific bombardment campaigns resulting in not only the loss of thousands of lives but also a dire humanitarian situation.

For a UN document to recognise all the fragments of the Palestinian people in this manner is unprecedented.

Finally the report addresses the Palestinian refugees who live in exile. As a sticking point in all previous peace negotiations, the refugees have always been an issue of no compromise for the Israelis. It is perhaps here, the report writes, that the apartheid regime demonstrates its true character. The right of return of Palestinian refugees is enshrined in international law. Its fulfilment would change the demographic dominance of Jewish Israelis and thus provide Palestinians with leverage to challenge the system of inequality. For a UN document to recognise all the fragments of the Palestinian people in this manner is unprecedented.

The importance of this report is not in its ability to change Israeli policy or even to convince the Israeli public of the nature of their state. Rather, its strength will lie in challenging the current repressive atmosphere which is facing the Palestinian struggle abroad. IAWs and BDS activities have been increasingly charged with anti-Semitism for merely challenging the state of Israel as an exclusive Jewish enterprise. In full awareness of this atmosphere, the report from the beginning rejects claims of anti-Semitism on the basis that the very question of apartheid is rooted in the same corpus of anti-racist international human rights law that rejects anti-Semitism.

The most important part of this report is its recommendation and calls for prompt action. The authors make suggestions for the UN to endorse the findings of the report and incorporate it into the wider UN institutions. It reminds member states of their legal duty to stand against apartheid and encourages actions such as the criminal prosecution of Israeli officials. Importantly however for Palestinians and their allies, is the report’s insistence that national governments, civil society and private sectors, support boycott, divestment and sanctions initiatives. This report thus not only considers BDS as a legitimate tactic of resistance and freedom of speech, but fully endorses it as an effective way to bring about the end of the Israeli apartheid regime.

About the author

Yara Hawari is an Al-Shabaka Policy Analyst and Member. She is a British Palestinian scholar-activist, whose writing continues to be informed by her commitment to decolonisation. Originally from the Galilee, Yara has spent her life between Palestine and the UK. She is currently a final year PhD Candidate at the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter. Her thesis focuses on oral history projects and initiatives in the Galilee, and more widely on oral history as an indigenous form of knowledge production. Yara is also a post-graduate teaching assistant and works freelance as a journalist publishing for various media outlets, including the Electronic Intifada and the Independent.

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