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Quibbling Over Cruelties: Human Rights Watch, Israel And Apartheid

Criticism of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians has
always induced a defensive rage from its defenders and
advocates. A
Threshold Crossed
, a report by Human Rights Watch,
lit several fires of rage and disapproval. Israel, according
to the authors, is responsible for apartheid

The word, and the application of its
meaning, is immemorially nasty. This deeply though through
policy of Afrikaans origin speaks to a hatred not merely of
Black Africans but British imperialism and its carefree
mixing of multiracial labour. But apartheid has become an
expression so singular it resists appropriation, adaptation
and application. This is all good from a historian’s point
of view, but, taken in its theoretical idea and its
application, the Israeli policy towards Palestinians in
certain areas (the Occupied Territories, for instance)
suggests that the term varies in application.

however, is a touch loose on distinguishing the policy,
highlighting that Israeli “authorities have dispossessed,
confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by
virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity.”
It remarks that the Israeli government aims “to ensure
that Jewish Israelis maintain domination across Israel and
the OPT (Occupied Palestinian

Israeli-Jewish domination is the
leitmotif, whether it be “limiting the population and
political power of Palestinians”, restricting movement,
“Judaization” of areas with large numbers of
Palestinians “including Jerusalem as well as the Galilee
and the Negev in Israel.” Acknowledgment is made that the
nature of the discrimination, part of the “goal of
domination” does vary “to different rules established by
the Israeli government in Israel, on the one hand, and
different parts of the OPT, on the other, where the most
severe forms take place.” In this package of analysis, the
report argues that such distinctions are

Reference is made to the 1973 International
Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of
Apartheid and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International
Criminal Court. The definition of apartheid under both yields
three elements
: “the intent to maintain a system of
domination by one racial group over another; systematic
oppression by one racial group over another; and one or more
inhumane acts, as defined, carried out on a widespread or
systematic basis pursuant to those policies.”

report makes no mention of the findings of the Russell
Tribunal on Palestine
, a people’s assembly inspired
by the formula
used by Bertrand Russell and likeminded
intellectuals to subject the United States to scrutiny for
alleged war crimes in Vietnam in the 1960s. This is an odd
omission, given that the 2011 proceedings held in Cape Town
that two distinct racial groups were present; “inhumane
acts” based on that distinction had been committed by
Israeli authorities; and that these arose out of the
“institutionalised nature of domination by one group over

The HRW report does take a place alongside
a burgeoning collection of critiques and assessments of
Israeli policy. Most of those, however, focus on the
Occupied Territories as a distinct zone of political control
and discrimination. In 2007, a report
by John Dugard, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of
human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since
1967, found that “[e]lements of the Israeli occupation
constitute forms of colonialism and apartheid, which are
contrary to international law”. These “legal
consequences” arising from such an occupation should be
put to the International Court of Justice. The following
year, the Rapporteur remarked
that Israel was “practising apartheid but in a very
dishonest and concealed manner. At least South African
apartheid was open and honest.”

Over the years, much
heavy artillery has been brought to bear on those accusing
Israel for policies that might be caught by that dirty term.
The HRW report has endured a similar barrage of obloquy.
Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan
considered HRW’s findings “a collection of lies and
fabrications, bordering on anti-Semitic.”

Ostrovsky, CEO of the International Legal Forum, calls
the report “tantamount to an anti-Semitic ‘blood
libel’ against the Jewish state”. It was filled with
“malicious lies and gross distortions of law while
peddling in unhinged hate, incitement and racist
stereotypes.” Doing exactly what he accuses HRW of,
Ostrovsky adopts a selective analytical lens: Israeli Arabs
enjoyed “full political and civil rights” while
Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza had autonomous
control through the Palestinian Authority and

The authors of the Report are accused of not
considering the loss of Israeli lives, be it of soldiers or
civilians as a result of terrorist attacks. Josh Feldman,
himself a son of South African Jews, is keen to
point out
that the West Bank “separation barrier”
was the result of “Palestinian terrorist attacks”. All,
in short, have suffered.

Like the Holocaust, apartheid
is claimed to have a lineage of moral copyright and ethical
intellectual property. There is an almost proprietary
essence to it: certain people discovered it, patented it,
implemented it, and therefore, no one else could possibly do
the same. If they did, it would be slipshod, amateurish and
shallow, not to mention a plain old insult. Israel might
discriminate in its policies, but more would need to be

Former Justice of the South African
Constitutional Court Richard Goldstone signalled that point
in chastising the misuse of the term. This is despite the
view of the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa,
in 2009 that Israel’s control of the Occupied
Palestinian Territories “with the purpose of maintaining a
system of domination by Jews over Palestinians …
constitutes a breach of the prohibition of apartheid.” In
on the activities of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine,
Goldstone considered the apartheid accusation to be a
“particularly pernicious and enduring canard”. Accepting
that the word might have a wider meaning, Goldstone was
stubbornly insistent that it remain anchored in the pre-1994
soil of South Africa. “It is an unfair and inaccurate
slander against Israel, calculated to retard rather than
advance peace negotiations.”

The same sentiments
have been aired in response to the HRW report. Like
Goldstone, these envisage a peace process that barely exists
but can somehow be disrupted by the views of a human rights
organisation. Michal Cotler-Wunsh, formerly a lawmaker for
the Blue and White Party regarded
the report as “a complete hurdle to peace” and “driven
by blind hate”.

Resistance against using the term
“apartheid” in the context of Israeli policy has not
been total. Some crumbling has taken place in Israel proper.
Veteran Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston, writing
in 2015, said it was time to stop the qualifications and
defensive delusions. “This is what has become of the rule
of law. Two sets of books. One for Us, and one to throw at
Them. Apartheid.” He pointed to a few examples: the
actions of fundamentalist clergy encouraging segregation,
inequality, supremacism and subjugation; the suggestions by
lawmaker and former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter to segregate
the use of roads and highways in the West Bank; attacks by
Jewish settlers upon Palestinian property with impunity;
Palestinians jailed or shot dead without trial.

Levy, also of Haaretz and ever reliable in keeping
the fires of controversy burning, suggested
in his response to the HRW report that Israel had, indeed,
“crossed the line.” Israelis might continue to praise
themselves and “enjoy life and lie as we please.” But
hideous as it was, his citizens could no longer claim that
the spit directed at their faces was “rain”.

January this year, the longstanding Israeli human rights
group B’Tselem used an approach similar to HRW in concluding
that there was “one regime governing the entire area
[between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River] and the
people living in it, based on a single organizing
principle.” According to
the organisation’s director
Hagai El-Ad, “One of the
key points in our analysis is that this is a single
geopolitical area ruled by one government.” It was not a
case of “democracy plus occupation” but “apartheid
between the river and the sea.” Such a fact was concealed
by different regimes of control exercised by the Israeli
state, highlighting the inherent inequality between Jews and

Ami Ayalon, former Knesset member, and
former head of Shin Bet and Israel’s naval forces, is
also convinced
that Israel’s political system
“integrates apartheid and is not commensurate with
Judaism” though he is careful with territorial
applications. The West Bank, he
, is no democracy, marked as it is by “two
different legal systems, one for the Jews and one for the
Palestinians”. Such assessments can hardly be dismissed as
blood libels and anti-Semitic fancies.

Dr. Binoy
Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College,
Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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