By Jeremy Salt
B’Tselem’s description of Israel as an apartheid state is valuable because B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights organization, is saying it. Otherwise, the reaction should of course it is. B’Tselem applies the word to all of Palestine and not just the remaining territories seized in 1967. Again, of course, it should be. Structural discrimination against the Palestinians is built into every level of government except elections, which allows Israel repeatedly to tell the world that it is the only democracy in the Middle East, as if the ballot box is the only measure of democracy, blurring the reality unless people take a close look.
Israel and the policy of apartheid were born in the same year, 1948, Israel as a colonial-settler declared unilaterally over occupied Palestine on May 15 and apartheid as the election-winning policy of South Africa’s National Party on May 26. On December 9 the same year, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
The convention describes genocide as acts intended to destroy “in whole or part” a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group. There is no other way to describe Israel’s intentions in 1948. Hundreds of Palestinian villages were razed and about 800,000 people driven out of their native land to make way for European settlers. As for why they had to go there are two reasons: they were not Jews, and they were living in a land the zionists wanted to turn into a Jewish state.
The occupation of the rest of Palestine in 1967 and the military, economic and pseudo-legal weapons used to suffocate the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem ever since are no more than an extension of what began in 1948.
B’tselem’s declaration revives the debate over whether Zionism is a ‘racist’ ideology. For the victims of racism in other colonized countries, of course, it is. Only in the imperial ‘west,’ with its own long history of racism, occupation and massacre, could the question even arise.
In fact, racism has been in Zionism’s DNA ever since Herzl talked of “spiriting” the Palestinians out of their land to make way for a Jewish state. How to get rid of them was the central consideration of the Zionist planners who followed him.
Everything evil committed against the Palestinians since 1948 speaks to the historical racism of the Zionist enterprise. You don’t treat people with the brutality that has accompanied the zionist march through history if you think they have the same rights as you do. Your soldiers, police and settlers do not kill or massacre people if they think they have the same right to life as they do.
Your state doesn’t create different laws and different rights if it thinks all people should have the same rights and live under the same laws. The state does not give a false right of return to Jews wherever they live and deny the genuine right of return of Palestinians. The state does not declare that the state is the state of the Jewish people and not the state of its citizens, Jewish or not.
On November 10, 1975, the UN General Assembly passed resolution 3379, describing Zionism “as a form of racism and racial discrimination.” The word ‘race’ has no basis in science but everyone knows what it means in practice: discrimination against specific groups on the basis of religion, ethnicity or skin color. The Israeli ambassador, Chaim Herzog, was so enraged when the resolution was passed (72-35 with 32 abstentions) that he tore up his printout.
The passage of this resolution led to an immediate counter-attack by Israel, supported by the US and other governments. As always, the bludgeon used was anti-semitism, with the US, from behind the scenes, prodding governments that had voted for the resolution to change their minds. The tactics worked. On December 16, 1991, the General Assembly revoked the resolution in resolution 46/86, passed 111-25 with 13 abstentions and 15 absentees.
Daniel Moynihan, the US ambassador at the UN and a zionist diehard, commented before 3379 was revoked that the UN “is about to make anti-semitism international law.” Of course, the resolution had nothing to do with antisemitism but was born of the growing need to expose the ideology of a state which even by then had wrought massive destruction in the Middle East.
On the basis of the commitments it had made to respect UN principles, Israel was accepted as a UN member (Resolution 273, May 11, 1949), the General Assembly having resolved that Israel “is a peace-loving State which accepts the obligations contained in the charter and is able and willing to carry out those obligations.” The next day it signed a protocol accepting resolution 194 (III) of 1948, setting out the basic rights of the Palestinians, including the right of return to their homeland, and the preservation of their property.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Even at the time, Israel was not “peace-loving”: in hindsight the phrase is grotesque. Neither did Israel have any intention of abiding by the commitments it had made to the Palestinians whom it had ethnically cleansed. They would never be allowed to return.
As for their property, Israel was asked to suspend its ‘’Emergency Applications on Absentee Property’’ until a final peace settlement could be reached. It responded that the so-called “custodian of absentee property” was acting only as a trustee for the owners, “whose property is being administered in their interests.”
This was a blatant lie. The “absentee property” was already being distributed among settlers old and new. It included village and townhouses and a mass of agricultural land which had Chaim Weizmann, the state’s first president, in absolute raptures. So much of it, and all of it acquired at absolutely no cost:
“ … about five million dunums of land [1.235 million acres] at least which could be taken under the plough almost at once, but we have not yet got the people. In the district between Ramleh and Latrun there are about two million dunums of the best land in Palestine for which, if we had to buy it, we would have to pay at least LP [Palestine pounds] per dunum and as you know, one could never buy land between Ramleh and Latrun. Now it is all free, overgrown with weeds and it is very doubtful whether the Arabs will ever come back to work it. Everybody seems to think they have gone for good.”
This master dissembler knew perfectly well that Israel had no intention of allowing ‘the Arabs’ back, and as for a land “overgrown with weeds,” it was fertile and intensively worked by Palestinian farmers.
Everything the owners of “absentee property” had left behind was destroyed or stolen, down to furniture and small household items. The houses left standing were handed over to settlers, senior zionist figures taking some of the best for themselves.
An additional category was added to the list of absentees. These were the “present absentees” who fled from one part of Palestine to another during the fighting. They were not allowed back to their original place of residence and their property was stolen too.
The lies told by Israel to secure UN membership were followed by the serial violations of Palestinian rights and international law along the spectrum of human rights which have continued to the present day.
This being the case, the rules of the club should surely prevail. Anyone who joins a club and refuses to abide by the rules is usually warned once, warned twice, suspended on the third offense and then thrown out if it still ignores the conditions of membership.
Israel was admitted to the club on the basis of a false application. It then refused to obey the rules, not once, twice or thrice but thousands of times but is still allowed to remain a member.
Without the protection of the US, the UN General Assembly almost certainly would have voted for the suspension of Israel decades ago and then ejection if it still refused to comply. Thanks to the US, however, not only does Israel remain a member but it is never punished for its crimes.
Noam Chomsky has described Israeli apartheid as “much worse” than South African apartheid. On the basis of the number of people who have died as a result of Israel’s racist policies, there is actually no comparison.
Under an apartheid government, South African police, soldiers and white settlers beat, tortured and killed Africans. Israeli police, soldiers and settlers do the same to Palestinians but whereas the worst state massacres in apartheid South Africa were Sharpeville (March 21, 1960), when police killed 69 people and wounded 180 others demonstrating against the pass laws, and Soweto (June 16, 1976), when at least 176 students (estimates are as high as 700) demonstrating against having to learn Afrikaans were killed, the victims of Israel’s massacres run into the tens of thousands.
This state of affairs will continue as long as the “international community” refuses to punish Israel for violation of the laws it has passed to protect human rights and preserve global peace. Such punishment would be imposed through suspension from the UN and the suspension by governments of diplomatic and trade relations with Israel, but as long as it does not have to pay for its crimes and its contempt for international law it will see no reason to change.
As long as it refuses to change, it will remain a threat to Middle Eastern regional and global peace.
– Jeremy Salt taught at the University of Melbourne, at Bosporus University in Istanbul and Bilkent University in Ankara for many years, specializing in the modern history of the Middle East. Among his recent publications is his 2008 book, The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands (University of California Press). He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.