The Russell Tribunal: Israel is an Apartheid State

By Shafiq Morton – Cape Town, South Africa

Like so many interested in the course of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, I will be keenly watching the Cape Town leg, which is the third of its hearings on Palestine.

With its brief to examine the superiority of international law in solving the Palestinian conflict, those eminent personalities standing before the jurors will be more than well-versed in what they have to say about apartheid as crime against humanity in the Israeli context.

Initiated by Lord Bertrand Russell in 1966, the original Russell Tribunal was originally founded to look at war atrocities in Vietnam. The Tribunal was supported by a host of intellectuals and academics. Its first chairman was the French philosopher, Jean Paul-Sartre.

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine, employing the same principles as similar tribunals in Vietnam and South America, had already sat in Barcelona and London on the question of European Union and corporate complicity with Israel.

The Russell Tribunal enjoys no legal status, and has been described by its officers as a “tribunal of the people,” one which examines instances of injustice and violations of international law that are not dealt with by the international community.

For pro-Israeli lobbyists the Russell Tribunal is seen as an annoyance, a pesky distraction capable of making a noise, but incapable of executive decisions.

As a journalist, Palestine and the Middle East has been one my beats, and I’ve been there on assignment on numerous occasions covering a variety of issues over the past 15 years. My conclusion – after having interviewed hundreds of people from all sides of the conflict – is that Israel, basically an ethnic island in a sea of Arabs, is an apartheid state.

Having made that bald statement, let me qualify my view. This is because Russell Tribunal naysayers will immediately assume that I’m drawing cosy local parallels and vehemently deny that comparisons can be made between apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel.

The point is hardly the comparison, but that as South Africans we are better positioned than most to understand the layered nuances and emotions of institutionalised racism. And whilst Israel is a different place to South Africa, the similarity is in the naked intent of political power – to subjugate another people in the name of an ideological, ethnic agenda.

It is our empathy and understanding – as well as our practical experience of a hard fought for peace process – that we bring to the table as South Africans.

There is, of course, the fact that apartheid has gone on to enjoy a generic definition via the Rome Statutes of the International Criminal Court. The South African model no longer applies. Today apartheid is regarded as an inhumane act in the context of it being a crime against humanity.

The Rome Statutes are confined to violations of international law committed after 2002. And so for the purpose here, without venturing into the complexities of Middle Eastern history, I’ll confine myself to a small sample of what I’ve witnessed since 2002 – things that I would consider worth examination by those who argue so passionately that Israel is not guilty of apartheid.

But, to a brief comparison: when I first landed in Tel Aviv in 1997, fresh from years of covering the anti-apartheid struggle and the Truth and Reconcilation Commission, I was shocked.

For a brief moment Israel was like a post-traumatic stress flashback to South Africa. Communities surrounded by guns, pimply teenage conscripts with power beyond their wisdom, prickly attitudes – and the mind-numbing bureaucracy – reminded me of home in the 1980’s.

However, there was a vital difference to South African apartheid. This was a point repeated to me to me by Ribbon Mosholi, International Relations Manager for the ANC, who visited Palestine late last year.

She was initially shocked too, saying she had never thought she would come across another system like South Africa. During South African apartheid people had been banned and put under house arrest. In Palestine people were not banned, but a whole nation.

And that is the most critical divergence between South African and Israeli apartheid. Rather than confining those of other races into special racial group areas, Israeli apartheid has essentially focused on denying the existence of a people.

To put it bluntly, it’s Erez Israel – a greater racially defined Israel – or bust. Israeli political scientist, Professor Ilan Pappe, has gone so far as to call Zionism a policy of Palestinian “ethnic cleansing”.

That is why Gaza is such a huge issue. If confining a population the size of Soweto into the tiny Cape Point Nature Reserve, and then completely sealing it off to starve, is not a form of institutionalised racism, then what is?

The pro-Israeli lobby also has to ask itself questions about operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009. I was shown pictures in a medical report of flechettes (limb-cutting devices) found in explosives that had killed and maimed civilians.

What about the phosphorous bomb, banned by international convention, which landed in the courtyard of a Gaza school? I’m in no way justifying Israeli civilians being targeted, but asymmetric response with internationally sanctioned weaponry is obscenely beyond the law.

What needs to be answered too are the concerns of municipal officials I spoke to from Nablus and Gaza about over a million people having their water periodically cut off during the summer months; this done against the background of Palestinian West Bankers not being allowed to dig wells.

They wanted to know why the illegal settlements, which consist of about 40% of the current West Bank population, used 80% of Palestinian water resources.

Then there has to be investigation into the “unrecognised” towns and villages deliberately denied water, electricity and municipal status. There are plenty of these in the Galilee and Negev regions if anybody wants to look for them.

People such as my esteemed fellow countryman, Judge Richard Goldstone, have argued that Israel is not an apartheid state. And yes, there may not be “Jews only” signs on Haifa’s park benches, but what about Palestinians who have to travel on separate roads to settlers, and West Bankers (carrying ID documents not dissimilar to the South African passbook) who cannot enter Jerusalem?

After 2002 I saw the construction of the West Bank Wall, or “Apartheid Wall”, which has completely destroyed the fabric of Palestinian life.

Five metres higher than the old Berlin Wall, the “Apartheid Wall” was declared an unlawful construction by the International Court of Justice in 2004, and has stripped away swathes of Palestinian territory. I defy anyone to argue that the West Bank Wall is not an instrument of forceful racial separation.

At the end of the day, the issue is not whether the Russell Tribunal enjoys executive powers or not. The issue is that the Russell Tribunal is an opportunity for civil society to see things in Israel for what they really are without the camp Zion-isms, the political absolutisms and the crude distortions that currently bedevil its fretful landscape.

– Shafiq Morton is a presenter at Voice of the Cape radio station. He was South African Vodacom Community Journalist of the Year in 2008 and was recently voted amongst the world’s 500 most influential Muslims by the Jordanian Royal Islamic Strategies Study Centre headed by Prof John Esposito of Georgetown University. He contributed this article to

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