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Israel’s apartheid demands a response

When I visited Israel and Palestine in July (my eighth trip since 2003), I once again witnessed the reality attested to by countless human rights organisations, journalists and Israeli and Palestinian peace activists: Israel’s brutal occupation and apartheid is only worsening.

Take, for example, Daoud and his family in the Bethlehem Governate of the West Bank. Like millions of Palestinians they are under military rule, denied basic rights we take for granted. The family has owned a farm for generations, yet must fight to maintain their presence there.

This summer, Israeli soldiers issued the family with demolition orders for several structures on the farm, including an outside toilet, chicken coop, and underground water cistern. In 60% of the West Bank, Palestinians must apply for building permits from Israeli occupation forces; yet according to a 2008 UN report, 94% of applications are denied. Building illegally means demolition. Meanwhile, all around the farm’s olive trees and vines, Jewish settlements expand and flourish.

This is a snapshot of life under Israel’s 43-year occupation in the West Bank. Here, Palestinians are shot with impunity, snatched from their bed in the middle of the night to appear before a military court, and denied basic rights to freedom of movement and clean drinking water. Two days after visiting Daoud’s farm, I was standing alongside the demolished ruins of dozens of Palestinian homes in the Jordan Valley region of the West Bank, while the neighbouring Israeli settlements produce agricultural products for European markets.

Israel’s regime of racist privilege is not restricted to the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Palestinian citizens of Israel (20% of the population) are systematically discriminated against and marginalised. As Human Rights Watch recently observed, since 1948 Israel has established more than 900 Jewish towns and cities and only seven towns for Arabs. The current PM Binyamin Netanyahu has described Palestinian citizens as a “demographic bomb”. Ask yourself: what kind of politics describes minorities in such a fashion?

Israel continues to be guilty of serial and grave breaches of international law. The network of settlements Israel has established in East Jerusalem and the West Bank have been condemned as illegal by the UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, and High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention. Amnesty International recently slammed this policy of colonisation as inherently discriminatory and a “war crime” according to “the statute of the International Criminal Court”.

In Occupied East Jerusalem the state, municipality and right-wing Jewish fundamentalists work together to ‘Judaise’ Palestinian neighbourhoods, while just 13% of the annexed area is available for Palestinian construction. An EU report in 2008 said the Israeli Government uses settlements, home demolitions, discriminatory housing policies and the separation wall as a means of “actively pursuing the illegal annexation” of East Jerusalem.

The Gaza Strip remains besieged and devastated: a “prison camp” according to PM David Cameron. Palestinian fishermen are shot by Israeli naval forces implementing an illegal ‘no-go zone’. The economy is aid dependent, and the ability for Palestinians to travel between Gaza and the West Bank is almost non-existent.

Much of Gaza is still ruined from the brutal onslaught between December 2008 and January 2009, when Israel killed 1,400 Palestinians, including 300 children. The Red Cross reported “whole neighbourhoods” being “turned into rubble” and Amnesty International described how “unarmed civilians” were shot “going about their daily activities”. The UN’s Fact Finding Mission headed up by Judge Richard Goldstone concluded that ‘Operation Cast Lead’ was a “carefully planned” assault intended “to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population”.

Israel’s apologists have recently begun complaining about a so-called ‘delegitimisation’ drive (a variation of the tired ‘anti-semite’ smear). But Israel is isolating itself: when the ambassador to the USA can boldly defy anyone – including the UN – to “dictate our borders”, then the only way Israel is being ‘singled out’ is in its ability to flout international norms with impunity.

But what can we do about the situation? There is a need for education and political lobbying. Most importantly, there is the growing BDS movement (Boycott Divestment Sanctions), an international campaign of ordinary citizens – students, trade unionists, academics, artists, the faith community – that seeks to pressure Israel to comply with basic standards of international law and realise fundamental Palestinian rights.

Boycott is an invaluable tool in the Palestinian struggle for dignity and equality, and a tactic with a long history in campaigns for justice. It is simple and effective. It is a strategy, not an aim in and of itself. It is non-violent, and a response to the call from Palestinians under occupation for solidarity. BDS has emerged in the context of a vacuum of international accountability for Israel’s human rights violations.

Students can get involved with the global campaign for a just peace by connecting up with the Palestine Society. There is much potential for effective activism, including examining the question of the University’s complicity in Israel’s crimes, and working towards boycott and divestment.

A popular tactic by Israel’s defenders – particularly on campus – is to urge ‘dialogue’ and ‘moderation’, the same patronising words heard from preservers of the status quo in the segregated Deep South and apartheid South Africa. In 1963, Martin Luther King wrote from jail about the accusation being levelled by white ‘moderates’ that the civil rights movement was ‘creating tension’. King pointed out that activists were “not the creators of tension” but were bringing “to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive”.

The call for boycott from Palestinians is supported by courageous, dissident Jewish Israelis, like the ‘Boycott from Within’ group and Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Internationally, groups like Jewish Voice for Peace in the US, and Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods in the UK, show that there is no single Jewish community or viewpoint.

The real division is between those on the side of human rights and international law, and those invested in shoring up and excusing colonisation, dispossession and segregation. Israel’s apartheid policies are unsustainable and undermine the hopes of both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis to live in peace. There is another way, one of inclusion and equality, but it won’t be easy to realise this vision. Everyone can play a part.

Published first in Varsity.

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