[News] Why calling Israel an apartheid state is not enough

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jan 19 13:08:47 EST 2021


  Why calling Israel an apartheid state is not enough

By Lana Tatour - January 20, 2021
B’Tselem, a leading human rights group in Israel, recently released a 
report concluding that Israel is an apartheid state, with a regime of 
Jewish supremacy stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

The report found that Israel meets the definition of apartheid under 
international law, which defines apartheid as “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”.

The report received widespread international media attention and was 
described as a “watershed” moment. But it was only a watershed moment 
for B’Tselem, which was using the term “apartheid” for the first time in 
its three-decade history, and for an international community that is so 
infatuated with Israeli voices. For Palestinians, none of this is new.

*Dominating Palestinians
*B’Tselem is not the first human rights group to call Israel an 
apartheid regime. In 2009, Palestinian and South African scholars 
published a comprehensive report that determined Israel was committing 
the crime of apartheid. Two Palestinian human rights organizations, 
Adalah and Al-Haq, were part of this initiative.

Two former UN special rapporteurs on human rights in Palestine reached a 
similar conclusion. In 2007, John Dugard determined that “elements of 
the occupation constitute forms of colonialism and of apartheid”. And, a 
few years ago, Richard Falk co-authored a report finding that Israel has 
established “an apartheid regime that oppresses and dominates the 
Palestinian people as a whole”. The UN secretary-general was quick to 
distance himself from the report, ordering its removal from the UN website.

Typical of western racism, Israelis are deemed more reliable and 
esteemed, and their contributions more valid than those of Palestinians 
who experience apartheid, colonization and occupation every day. Still, 
the B’Tselem report is a welcome development. As academic Rafeef Ziadah 
points out, it comes “in the face of an orchestrated silencing campaign, 
which attempts to foreclose debate before it even begins. In this sense, 
it is relevant that an Israeli human rights organization has stated what 
Palestinians have been arguing for years”.

While the use of the apartheid framework in relation to Israel is not 
new, it is gaining momentum amid the one-state reality. While the 
occupation paradigm is built on the false assumption of temporariness 
and sustains a distinction between 1948 and 1967 territories, the 
apartheid framework recognizes that Israel is the effective governing 
power between the river and the sea, where it enacts a racialized regime.

*Crime against humanity
*Under international law, apartheid is a crime against humanity - and 
the evidence clearly shows that Israel is an apartheid state. Throughout 
the territory between the river and the sea, its political and legal 
systems are all geared towards ensuring Jewish racial supremacy and 
domination. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Israel refused to vaccinate the 
millions of Palestinians who live under its control, while vaccinating 
Israelis, including Jewish settlers, in the occupied West Bank.

But Palestine cannot be understood merely in terms of apartheid, as this 
offers only a limited and partial understanding of the situation. Israel 
is a settler-colonial state that is practicing both apartheid and 
permanent occupation.

The conversation emerging in liberal circuits around apartheid and 
Palestine fails to recognize settler-colonialism as the overarching 
structure of the Israeli state. We have seen such dynamics in Peter 
Beinart’s recent call for one binational state, in which apartheid is 
acknowledged, but not Zionist/Israeli settler-colonialism. Racial 
domination is treated as a standalone feature of the Israeli state, 
disconnected from the settler-colonial enterprise in Palestine. Even 
when apartheid is acknowledged, there is no reckoning with Zionism as a 
racial ideology and movement.

B’Tselem’s report is a perfect example for this new approach, which is 
coming to the forefront of liberal progressive critiques of Israel. The 
report does not mention colonization or settler-colonialism even once. 
Paradoxically, one of B’Tselem’s board members commented: “Change of any 
kind begins with a proper reading of the reality that one seeks to 
alter; to look at that reality with open eyes, and to call it by its name.”

Apparently, to B’Tselem, settler-colonialism is not part of this reality.

*Limited understanding
*The use of apartheid as a sole framework is in line with increasing 
attempts to limit the understanding of the question of Palestine to 
rigid legal categories. International law is important, and it should be 
leveraged to our advantage. But it would be dangerous to let 
international law alone guide our understanding of the reality in 
Palestine or the nature of our political claims. The question of 
Palestine is a political issue, not merely a legal issue.

True, settler-colonialism is not illegal under international law - but 
this is not a reason to stake our understanding of Palestine on 
international law alone. By confining ourselves to international law, we 
risk talking only about racial domination and ignoring colonial 
domination. We need to talk about both, and we need to recognize that 
racial domination and Israeli apartheid are part of, and inseparable 
from, settler-colonial domination.

This is not to say that we should abandon the apartheid framework, but 
rather that we should be cautious of liberal readings of Israeli 
apartheid. Palestinians were using the apartheid analogy long before it 
became a crime against humanity. Comparing Palestine with apartheid 
South Africa has a long, radical history that predates the “recent” 
discovery of apartheid by some Israelis. Palestinians saw South Africa, 
like Palestine, as a racial, settler-colonial state, and themselves as 
part of a larger anti-colonial, anti-imperial and antiracist global 

Palestinians have been offering political and intellectual analyses on 
the question of Palestine for decades. But even when Palestinians use 
apartheid as a framework for analysis, it does not come at the expense 
of the settler-colonial framework; it supplements it.

*Dismantling settler-colonialism
*Israeli organizations, scholars and activists are not - and should not 
be - the arbiters of what Israel is and is not, or what the solution 
should be. The erasure of settler-colonialism in the conversation on 
Israeli apartheid risks displacing decolonization in favor of liberal 
projects of equality. It configures Palestine as a liberal question, 
rather than a colonial one.

Decolonization is not a metaphor or a buzzword thrown around easily. 
While it may not be easily defined, decolonization is certainly not a 
synonym for liberal projects of equality, even as it is increasingly 
being co-opted as such. Unlike liberal equality, decolonization demands 
the dismantling of settler-colonialism, its institutions and its logics. 
Our freedom depends on it.

/- Lana Tatour is the Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Postdoctoral Fellow at the 
Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University. Her article 
appeared in the Middle East Eye./

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