It’s as good as official: Israeli human rights group – B’tselem – defines Israel an Apartheid State. Other organisations have made that evidence-based judgment, not least the UN and Al-Haq, but the B’tselem report has special significance – it represents a radical break in its previous position and implcitly calls to account those that have given Israel comfort by treating it as a normal state.
My posts have unfailingly labelled Israel a racist, Apartheid State. And over a number of postings I have presented evidence to support that designation. Nevertheless, it’s clear that, for many, it’s a designation too far, not least for some at the liberal end of the political spectrum.
To a significant extent liberal thought, along with its Zionist liberal variant, generally revolves around what are considered universal values: human rights, political, civil and religious rights for all, in this case understood as mutual entitlements both for Palestinians and for Jews. In the abstract, there is little of contention here, but in the brute light of history and the day-to-day lived experience of Palestinians under Israeli rule, these precepts amount to no more than wishful thinking.
The historical distinction: The Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel proper
A key aspect of some liberal thinking, and indeed of more centrist thought, is that a distinction must be made between Israel proper (i.e. Israel within the Green Line) and its Occupation of Palestinian territory, i.e. Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This distinction forms what might be called the ‘standard paradigm’ within which Palestine/Israel questions have traditionally been considered. There is Israel, and there is the OPT. Israel is a democratic State – so it says of itself – and there is Israel in the OPT. It shouldn’t be there, of course, but, according to the standard paradigm, the ‘solution’ to that state of affairs is to hand: Israel must withdraw from the OPT.
Thus far the conventional approach – the standard paradigm – has not paid too much attention to what goes on within Israel, specifically as it affects its non-Jewish citizens and residents, but focuses on, and works to counter, human rights abuses in the OPT; and to press for an end to the Occupation.
No distinction: an alternative paradigm
But what happens if the standard paradigm is wrong? Or at least, were it ever right, it is wrong now, and has been for some time. If the paradigm is wrong or outdated, then it becomes not a tool for thought, but a constraint upon it.
Facts on the ground have for some time made redundant the idea that there is a firm distinction to be drawn between Israel proper and the OPT. Israel’s writ runs throughout both territories; on both sides of the Green Line, that writ is a racist, Apartheid one. For a range of motives and reasons, this characterisation of the Israeli State has been unpalatable for many.
Those reasons and motives need not detain us in this post, but the reluctance to stare reality in the face results in, and is based on, denial, this perhaps particularly the case for those I’ve characterised as of liberal persuasion. From this perspective, Israel’s often acknowledged misdeeds, misbehaviours and cruelties can be laid at the door of the Occupation. It is the Occupation that is the mutant gene, corrupting an otherwise healthy Israeli body politic. Ending the Occupation, therefore, is conceived as a salve that, once administered, will create the conditions for the restoration of the ‘true’ Israel, the fabled democratic state that resides in a ‘tough neighbourhood’.
In what amounts to a seismic shift in thinking and analysis, the well-regarded, authoritative B’tselem – The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories – has declared Israel a racist, Apartheid State; a State that controls the entirety of the territory bounded by the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan: Israel proper, the OPT and East Jerusalem.
Historically, B’tselem devoted itself to documenting Israeli violations of Palestinians’ human rights but only in the OPT – the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip – but not in Israel proper within the Green Line demarcation border. It has now come to a different analysis, this based on documented facts on the ground.
‘A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid’
Under the heading set out above, B’tselem explains:
The common perception in public, political, legal and media discourse is that two separate regimes operate side by side in this area [between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River], separated by the Green Line….
…Over time, the distinction between the two regimes has grown divorced from reality…. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers now reside in permanent settlements east of the Green Line, living as though they were west of it. East Jerusalem has been officially annexed to Israel’s sovereign territory, and the West Bank has been annexed in practice.
Most importantly, the distinction obfuscates the fact that the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is organized under a single principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians. All this leads to the conclusion that…There is one regime governing the entire area and the people living in it, based on a single organizing principle.
It goes on to say:
In the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, the Israeli regime implements laws, practices and state violence designed to cement the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians….
Jewish citizens live as though the entire area were a single space (excluding the Gaza Strip). The Green Line means next to nothing for them: whether they live … within Israel’s sovereign territory, or east of it, [in illegally held territory] is irrelevant to their rights or status.Where Palestinians live, on the other hand, is crucial….The geographic space, which is contiguous for Jews, is a fragmented mosaic for Palestinians…
…A regime that uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another is an apartheid regime. Israeli apartheid, which promotes the supremacy of Jews over Palestinians…is a process that has gradually grown more institutionalized and explicit, with mechanisms introduced over time in law and practice to promote Jewish supremacy. These accumulated measures, their pervasiveness in legislation and political practice, and the public and judicial support they receive – all form the basis for our conclusion that the bar for labeling the Israeli regime as apartheid has been met.
A change in the ethical grammar
Robert A. H. Cohen, in his reliably excellent blog, is clear that the B’tselem report changes not only the acceptable vocabulary on Palestine/Israel but also the ‘ethical grammar’ which hitherto has both shielded and sustained Israel.
Israel is and has been sustained through massive financial support from the USA and the EU, along with close military and ‘security’ cooperation; joint arms’ development and sales; and protected from criticism by demonising Israel-critical speech as prima facie anti-Semitic.
The B’tselem report implicitly calls into question the role the political class has played in turning a blind eye, and cosying up to, Israel. It similarly calls to account all those organsations and individuals – civil society – that have given Israel comfort, not least by treating it as a normal State.
The B’tselem report blows a hole through many of the policies and practices designed to neutralise or vanquish criticism of Israel. The Jewish Board of Deputies and the Jewish Labour Movement, for example, will presumably need to take pause to consider, and attempt to refine, their approach to defending Israel. The Labour Party Leader, Keir Starmer, may come to feel he has misstepped in his handling of the of anti-Semitism issue within the labour Party. Or at least he should.
The Education Minister, Gavin Williamson, may feel the ground has been cut from beneath his feet in his attempt to force universities to adopt the IHRA (International Holocaust Memorial Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism, along with examples of what may indicate anti-Semitism. One of those examples I discussed in an earlier blog – Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour. In the light of the B’tselem report, how can it now feasibly be suggested that Israel is not an Apartheid, racist State? And on what ground now does the oft-critiqued IHRA defintion of anti-Semitism stand – quicksand?
BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions
Then there is the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, it also the subject to vilification and threats. The B’tselem report draws a parallel – not an exact one, but sufficient for the purpose – between the Israel Apartheid State and what was the South African Apartheid State.
BDS played a significant role in isolating that regime, and by doing so aided its demise. This surely, then, is the moment when those who have offered Israel the benefit of the doubt, in part because they based their analysis on what I have called the standard paradigm, need to reappraise both their analysis and the actions that may be required of them.
BDS is a significant tool in the struggle against Israel’s State-induced oppression and needs to be more widely supported. It’s always struck me as odd that many of those who actively opposed South African Apartheid, not least by supporting the BDS campaign of its day, have been somehow quesy about supporting its current iteration in respect of Israel’s Apartheid State.
Turning a blind eye, not confronting the reality – the humiliations, brutalisations, home demolitions, killings that Palestinians daily endure – can no longer be an option.
To coin a phrase: There is an elephant in the room that this blog occupies.
The B’tselem analysis rests upon the fact that there is but one regime that governs both Israel within the Green Line, and Palestinians within the OPT, including annexed East Jerusalem. The elephant therefore thinks it inevitable that we ask ‘What of the two State ‘solution’? Is it tenable? Was it ever really tenable? And if it is not now tenable, what is the way forward for justice within Palestine/Israel?
I think this needs to be the subject of the next post.