Covid hits Palestinians hard

Sybil Cock on a report that brands Israel an apartheid state

Apartheid, a term coined during white rule in South Africa, is defined by the International Criminal Court as an “institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group”. The recent report from B’Tselem, Israel’s most important human rights NGO, that labels Israel as an apartheid state is significant. “There is one regime governing the entire area and the people living in it, based on a single organising principle,” said B’Tselem.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed events in Palestine, especially those who have visited the West Bank. The wall, the checkpoints, the segregation, the house demolitions and the brutality of the military and settlers are all in shockingly plain sight.

The pandemic is hitting Palestine hard, and there are no vaccines. Despite the hugely trumpeted success of the Israeli vaccine operation, those that live under its occupation are not sharing the success. Israeli settlers, living deep in the West Bank, are, however, being vaccinated.

Before the pandemic, 68% of the Gaza population was food insecure and this is increasing dramatically. Healthcare systems in both Gaza and the West Bank have been ravaged by years of occupation.

Palestine activists have been arguing the case for naming Israel as an apartheid state for years. A UN report endorsed this view a year ago, and researchers from South Africa have rigorously established the facts. As respected Jewish scholar Tony Klug wrote recently in a letter to the Guardian: “Israel’s only defence against the accusation of apartheid is that its hold over the West Bank is a temporary occupation. If this is not its case, it doesn’t have a case. Even if it were its case, after some 53 years it would be running perilously thin.”

The bones of the argument are these:

First: Palestinians in the occupied West Bank live under military occupation. There is no freedom of movement for them, and they live under military law. The limited powers of the Palestine Authority, which is an ‘interim government’, are wholly constrained by Israel. Any Israeli soldier can stop and search even the highest-ranking officials. Human rights abuses, including the arrest and killing of unarmed civilians including children, are daily occurrences. Israelis in the West Bank (settlers living on stolen land), on the other hand, have full Israeli citizenship rights.

Second: Palestinians in Gaza are under siege. The strip is overcrowded and surrounded by Israel and hostile Egypt. The area of the Mediterranean in which Gazans can fish unmolested by the Israeli navy is tiny. Gaza is an open-air prison.

Third: Palestinians in East Jerusalem (captured by Israel in 1967) are stateless and at constant risk of losing their residency in the city. Over a third of the land in East Jerusalem has been confiscated for settler use, and Israel is open in its desire to remove as many Palestinians as possible. Forced displacement, house demolitions and settler violence are daily occurrences.

Fourth: Palestinian citizens of Israel face massive economic discrimination and restrictions on where they can live. Although they can vote, the Israeli state, with the recent Nation State law, has codified apartheid: “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people”.

Fifth: nearly 6 million Palestinians are registered as refugees by the UN. They live in dire conditions in camps across the Middle East. A million more are unregistered. They are all seeking the right of return to the lands stolen from them by Israel in 1948 or 1967. Every Jew in the world has the right to ‘return’, to go and live in Israel.

So, why does B’Tselem’s intervention matter?  B’Tselem does not even support the Palestinian right of return. It does not acknowledge that the state of Israel was founded on separatism in 1948. And, of course, Palestinians have been saying Israel is an apartheid state for decades, based on their daily lives.

B’Tselem are listened to because they are Israeli, and very clearly a human rights group. Their report has gained some publicity in the mainstream media, leading to a Guardian editorial which essentially endorsed B’Tselem’s view.

But it is important for another reason. The TUC acknowledged Israeli apartheid in September, extending the possibilities for union-based campaigning for Palestine. All the big trades unions are nationally affiliated to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which has over 60 active local branches. We have had some recent successes:

The campaign to get local government pension funds to divest from companies complicit in the occupation gained a major victory as East Sussex Pension Fund agreed to divest from Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest private arms manufacturer. Elbit makes drones which were among those that killed 164 children in Gaza in 2014.

Tory Education minister Gavin Williamson’s attempt to force universities to adopt the deeply flawed IHRA working definition of antisemitism took a severe hit when UCL’s Academic Board decided that the definition is “not fit for purpose” and risks conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. The IHRA has been extensively used to shut down discussion on Palestine in universities, local authorities and elsewhere.

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