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Israel is losing the fight to obscure its apartheid character

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For more than a decade, a handful of former Israeli politicians and US diplomats identified with what might be termed the "peace process industry" have intermittently warned that, without a two-state solution, Israel is in danger of becoming an "apartheid state".

The most notable among them include Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, two former Israeli prime ministers, and John Kerry, who served as former US President Barack Obama's secretary of state. Time is rapidly running out, they have all declared in the past.

Their chief concern, it seems, was that without the alibi of some kind of Palestinian state - however circumscribed and feeble - the legitimacy of Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state" would increasingly come under scrutiny. Apartheid will arrive, the argument goes, when a minority of Israeli Jews rule over a majority of Palestinians in the area controlled by Israel between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan.

Demographic threshold

The apartheid threat has been wielded by the so-called "peace camp" in hopes of mobilising international pressure on the Israeli right, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The goal has been to force it into making sufficient concessions that the Palestinian leadership agrees to a demilitarised statelet, or statelets, on fragments on the original Palestinian homeland.

Meanwhile, demographic trends have continued apace, and the Israeli right has ignored all warnings, preferring to pursue their Greater Israel ambitions instead. But strangely, the apartheid moment never arrived for the Israeli peace camp. Instead, its expressions of concern about apartheid fizzled into silence, as did its once-vocal worries about a Palestinian demographic majority.

This entirely cynical approach to Palestinian statehood was very belatedly blown apart this week with the publication of a report by B'Tselem, Israel's most prominent and respected human rights group. It broke ranks to declare what has been obvious for many, many years. Israel has created a permanent reality in which there are two peoples, Jews and Palestinians, sharing the same territorial space, but "a regime of Jewish supremacy" has been imposed by the stronger side. This unequivocally qualifies as apartheid, B'Tselem said.

It dismisses the sophistry that apartheid relates to some self-serving demographic deadline - one that never materialises - rather than the explicitly segregationist practices and policies Israel has enforced throughout the territories it rules. It also dismisses arguments made by Israel's partisans abroad that Israel cannot be an apartheid state because there are no South African-style "whites only" signs on park benches.

Hagai El-Ad, B'Tselem's executive director, notes that Israel's version - "apartheid 2.0, if you will - avoids certain kinds of ugliness " That Israel's definitions do not depend on skin colour make no material difference: it is the supremacist reality which is the heart of the matter." The report concludes that the bar for apartheid was met after considering "the accumulation of policies and laws that Israel devised to entrench its control over Palestinians".

Daring analysis

What is perhaps most daring about B'Tselem's analysis is its admission that apartheid exists not just in the occupied territories, as has been observed before, including by former US President Jimmy Carter. It describes the entire region between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River - which encompasses both Israel and the Palestinian territories - as an apartheid regime. It thereby denies Israel's claims to be a democratic state even inside its internationally recognised borders.

B'Tselem has abandoned the pretence that apartheid can be limited to the occupied territories, as though Israel - the state that rules Palestinians - is somehow exempt from being classified as integral to the apartheid enterprise it institutes and oversees.

That was always obvious. How much sense would it have made in the former South Africa to claim that apartheid existed only in the Bantustans or black townships, while exempting white areas? None at all. And yet, Israel has been getting away with precisely this clearcut casuistry for decades - largely aided by the peace camp, including B'Tselem.

Now, B'Tselem observes: "Jews go about their lives in a single, contiguous space where they enjoy full rights and self-determination. In contrast, Palestinians live in a space that is fragmented into several units, each with a different set of rights - given or denied by Israel, but always inferior to the rights accorded to Jews."

Israel's "Jewish supremacist ideology" is revealed in its obsession with "Judaising" land, in its bifurcated citizenship laws and policies that privilege Jews alone, in its regulations that restrict movement for Palestinians only, and in its denial of political participation to Palestinians. These discriminatory policies, B'Tselem notes, apply also to the fifth of Israel's population who are Palestinian and have nominal Israeli citizenship.

El-Ad concludes: "There is not a single square inch in the territory Israel controls where a Palestinian and a Jew are equal. The only first-class people here are Jewish citizens such as myself."

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)
 

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