The undeniable face of apartheid

Israel’s discriminating policies and the need to acknowledge them as first step to countering them


It is hard to find a word as evocative of a specific place and time as “apartheid” is of the South Africa of the decades 1948-1994. As one hears or reads the word “apartheid”, the memories of South Africa’s dramatic experience immediately come to mind and images of South African black people’s discrimination, oppression, and humiliation arouse a mixture of compassion, disgust and shame.


Yet, apartheid is not limited to last century’s South Africa. The evils that the phenomenon encourages are indeed still much alive in today’s world and –far from having disappeared from – they have merely changed residence and victims.


Last week, the UN-linked ESCWA committee published a report entitled “Israeli Practices Towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” that came as a detailed analysis of all the legislations, policies, and practices pursued by Israel against the Palestinian people that constitute crimes of apartheid.

Recalling the definition of apartheid of the International Criminal Court, the term “apartheid” applies to all “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”, and according to ESCWA’s report many of Israel’s policies with regards to the Palestinian people fit indeed into this definition.


In particular, the main finding of the report is that Israel pursues different policies in its relations with the Palestinians, giving rise in this way to a four-level apartheid system referred to as “strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people”. According to this fragmentation, Palestinians are divided into four groups: Palestinian citizens of Israel against whom “civil law” is deployed to restrict their freedom; Palestinians in East Jerusalem governed by ever more exclusionary “permanent residency laws”; Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who live under belligerent occupation; and Palestinians living as refugees or in exile who are precluded by law and policy from returning to their homeland. As stated by the report, these apparently different policies are actually part of a broader single policy of apartheid aimed at the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state based on a privileged Jewish majority.


Unsurprisingly the report was met with opposing reactions and the distance between them is perhaps the greatest and most disheartening sign of how long the road to equality for Palestinians still is.

If the Palestinian Authority’s endorsement of the report and Israel’s rejection of it were predictable, the decision by UN Secretary General A. Guterres to distance himself from the report has raised some voices of disappointment and several questions over the credibility of the UN system and its capacity to guarantee the respect of international law. On the same line, the US ambassador to the UN declared her country to be “outraged” from the report, sparking further debate not only on the US’s role but –more broadly- on how the international community should react to the report and to Israel’s discriminatory policies.


In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the international community played a crucial role in uniformly putting pressures on South Africa for the abolition of apartheid, and those universal pressures that saw the world united in one single cause are what made of the defeat of apartheid in South Africa a story of rebirth and hope that belongs not only to the national narrative of South Africa but to the historical narrative of all of us.

Today, the international community should retrieve that same positive role it once played and use towards Israel all the political, diplomatic and economic leverages that are needed to encourage Tel Aviv to reframe its policies and laws towards the Palestinians in conformity with international law.


It took South Africa the courage of its people –black and white alike- to give itself a new identity and an inclusive future. Now, it is the turn of the Israelis to show the same courage. It is time for the Israeli civil society to look into the eyes the apartheid system they have created and reinforced over the years and to see that -if they want to defend all the positive values of which Israel can be expression – then that system has to be acknowledged, denounced, and ultimately dismantled.


Acknowledgment of a phenomenon is the unavoidable first step of any effort aimed at countering it, and the ESCWA report should have been taken as the opportunity to do exactly that and move towards building a new, positive, inclusive identity for the state of Israel.


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