By Richard Falk
This post is a slightly modified version of my presentation to the Human Rights Commission of the Italian Parliament on October 11, 2017. The Commission is composed of members of Parliament and chaired by Hon. Pia Elda Locatelli, representing the city of Bergamo. The presentation was followed by a discussion, and a generally favourable response on the central issue of switching from an emphasis on ‘occupation’ to ‘apartheid.’
An Overview of Present Realities
We meet at a difficult time from the perspective of the Palestinian people: several developments nationally, regionally, and internationally now deprive Palestinians of that glimmer of hope that comes from seeing light at the end of the tunnel; more fully appraised, the situation is not as bleak for Palestinians as the picture of their struggle being painted from a realistic perspective.
A series of factors pointing in both directions can be identified, first to highlight the negative developments from a Palestinian perspective, and then to set forth several developments that are positive with regard to the Palestinian national movement aiming for decades to achieve a just and sustainable peace.
(1) The foreign policy priorities of regional and international political actors have increasingly shifted attention away from the Palestinian ordeal; developments internal to Israel have deliberately accentuated this inattention to Palestinian goals and rights; of special relevance in these regards are the ongoing wars and turmoil in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq, as well as deteriorating relations and rising tensions of the Iran/US relationship.
Further, there are the moves toward normalization of relations with Israel by the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia; and the unsteady diplomatic approach of the Trump presidency that seems accurately interpreted as supportive of whatever the Israeli government chooses to do, including even accelerated settlement expansion and a rejection of the Palestinian right of self-determination.
(2) Israel and Zionist support groups have launched a variety of initiatives designed to convince the Palestinians that they have been defeated, that their struggle is essentially futile at this stage, and they should move on for their own sake, overtly renouncing their struggle and posture of resistance.
The pro-Zionist Middle East Forum, founded by Daniel Pipes has even sponsored a so-called ‘victory caucus’ that basically proclaims an Israeli victory as a way of demoralizing Palestinian activism and global solidarity efforts by treating Palestinian goals as a lost cause.
(3) Accelerated Israeli settlement expansion without any adverse pushback from Europe or North America, a development that can be regarded as hammering the final nails into the coffin of ‘the two-state solution;’
(4) The widespread recognition that more than 20 years of diplomatic effort within the Oslo framework failed miserably, with the Palestinians paying a heavy price in territory and credibility for engaging so avidly in a diplomatic process so heavily weighted against them.
Oslo’s failure permitted Israel to encroach on Occupied Palestinian Territory in a variety of unlawful ways including especially extending the settlement archipelago, illegally building the separation wall on Palestinian occupied territory, and manipulating the ethnic balance in Jerusalem to make the city as a whole more Jewish.
(5) Confronting a crisis of viability in Gaza, of both a material and psychopolitical character; not only continuing a decade-long blockade that itself amounts to a crime against humanity, but stifling the dreams of young talented Gazans who against all odds have earned foreign fellowships and then are either denied exit permits or entry visas to carry on their studies abroad.
This kind of acute frustration, long experienced by Gazans in many forms, is contributing to a new turn among Palestinian youth, who increasingly want to leave Gaza and pursue a more normal life for themselves and their families rather than remain under conditions of virtual captivity to resist and carry on the struggle for empowerment and liberation.
Despite all these considerations, there are aspects of the situation, often overlooked in mainstream media, which seem favourable to the Palestinian struggle:
(1) The morale boost that resulted from prevailing in the recent Al Aqsa confrontation concerning control of security arrangements at this site sacred for all Muslims, not just for Palestinians who are Muslim.
(2) A more serious renewal of efforts to bring unity to the relationship between Palestinian political tendencies, especially Fatah and Hamas.
(3) The growing global support for the BDS Campaign, achieving some high visibility successes prompting corporate disengagements from commercial projects related to unlawful Israeli settlements—G4S, Viola; and persuading some high visibility cultural figures not to perform in Israel such The Pink Floyd.
(4) Palestine is definitely winning the Legitimacy War waged to build stronger and more activist support from international public opinion; such support has been understood as far back as Gandhi as capable of neutralizing the superior military capabilities of a foreign political actor.
Throughout the decolonization era, the political outcome of struggles for control of state power were eventually won by the party on the right side of history, not as in the 19th Century by the party enjoying military superiority, which in the second half of the 20th century continued to make colonized people suffer greatly, but no longer able to impose their political will.
Zionist/Israeli reaction to this set of developments relating to legitimacy has been to shift the conversation about Israel/Palestine relations from the defense of Israeli practices and policies and away from the substance of Palestinian grievances and rights to mount an attack on the motives of those criticizing Israel’s policies and practices, alleging that Israel’s critics are motivated by anti-Semitism, a smear tactic that also is encroaching on academic freedom, but exposing the weakness of Israel’s position on the merits.
Internally, the Israeli public discourse is much more focused on the opportunity of fulfilling the maximalist Zionist goal of incorporating the whole of ‘the promised land’ of biblical Israel into the modern state of Israel;
(5) It is my judgment that the biggest development favorable to the Palestinians has been a shift in the public discourse and the articulation of Palestinian demands of peace and solidarity activists from the slogan ‘End the Occupation’ to a clarion call to ‘End Apartheid.’ This shift has been recently legally validated by a UN-sponsored academic study of whether the claim that Israel is an apartheid state stands up to scholarly scrutiny.
The ESCWA Report
The UN Report of the Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) entitled “Israeli Practices and the Question of Apartheid”was issued a few months ago, and co-authored by myself and Virginia Tilley, a renowned world expert on apartheid and a political scientist on the faculty of the University of Southern Illinois.
ESCWA is a regional commission of the UN composed of 18 Arab states, with headquarters in Beirut. The Report was requested by the member states, and we were invited to prepare the report in accordance with academic standards by the Secretariat of ESCWA. The Report was never intended to become an official UN document, but rather the presentation of the views of two scholars with a background presumed relevant for the preparation of such a study.
• The issuance of the report had two immediate effects: first, it immediately became the most widely read and requested report in the history of ESCWA, and secondly, it produced a firestorm at the UN due to harsh criticisms by the U.S. and Israeli representatives who demanded that the Report be formally repudiated, attacking its authors, and insisting that the UN take prompt action or face the defunding consequences.
• The new UN Secretary General, Antonio Gutterez, dutifully responded by instructing ESCWA to remove the Report from its website; the director of ESCWA, Rima Khalaf, refused to follow such an order, believing in the contents and propriety of the Report; in the end she chose to resign rather than submit to UN censorship, explaining her position in an Open Letter to the SG.
• At this point it is not clear what the status of the Report is within the UN System; it has not been officially repudiated, and in fact the 18 foreign ministers representing the members of ESCWA endorsed the conclusions and recommendations of the Report, and urged their acceptance within the UN; I have no idea as to whether such a response will have any impact.
• As indicated the Report was an academic study, although of an admittedly controversial character; prior to its release, the Report was anonymously vetted by three world-class scholars each of whom strongly recommended publication. The report also contained a disclaimer that stated that the recommendations and conclusions of the Report were those of the authors alone and did not represent the opinions of the UN or ESCWA; and in fact, the Report has to date received no substantive criticism from those who mounted the UN attack or otherwise; it was a pure show of geopolitical leverage that exposed the weakness of international law and the fragility of open discussion of sensitive issues at the UN;
It is my judgment that the Report is significant for three distinct reasons:
1. The Report considers whether the allegation of Israeli apartheid is backed by sufficient evidence and persuasive legal reasoning in relation not just to the West Bank, as has been frequently alleged in the past, but in relation to the Palestinian people as a whole.
Such an inquiry means that if apartheid is declared to exist it applies to Palestinians living in Jerusalem, as a minority in Israel, and in refugee camps in neighbouring countries as well as to Palestinians living in occupied Palestine or as involuntary exiles throughout the world.
The central legal finding is that Israel has established an integrated matrix of control over the Palestinian people as a people so as to maintain the Israeli state as ‘a Jewish state’ in the face of continuous Palestinian resistance for the entire period of Israel’s existence.
2. The Report reaches its conclusions by relying on scholarly methods of analysis and by examining and interpreting the evidence of Israeli policies and practices in relation to the relevant norms of international law as contained in the 1973 International Apartheid Convention.
The essential finding we reached was that Israel intentionally and continuously was responsible for ‘inhuman acts’ as the means by which to subjugate the Palestinian people as a subordinated ‘race.’
This enabled Israel to govern in a discriminatory fashion as ‘a Jewish state.’ In our judgment the Palestinian people were deliberately fragmented so as to facilitate the maintenance of control over a resisting, initially majority, non-Jewish population; this ambition to control Palestine was complicated by the additional Zionist objective of seeking to be and be seen as ‘a democratic state.’
Such an objective, given the demographic imbalance, virtually necessitated at the inception of Israel as a state, the expulsion of several hundred thousand Palestinians and the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages to discourage any prospect of Palestinians returning after the war to reclaim their places of residence and way of life.
Such exclusion was seen as vital if Israel was to achieve and maintain a Jewish majority population within its borders; the Zionist puzzle, tragic for both peoples, was that only apartheid structures could provide a solution to this three-sided challenge – that is, establishing Israel as simultaneously Jewish, democratic, and hegemonic;
3. This Report has been widely used since its publication, and especially to provide political support and intellectual guidance mandating a civil society shift in tactics and commentary from a focus on ‘ending occupation’ to ‘ending apartheid.’
In my view, this is a crucial and timely shift as international law and the UN had been long ignored by Israel, diplomacy and armed struggle had been tried futile and utterly failed, and Palestinian leadership, such as it is, has faced both a series of stone walls and the humiliation of the notorious Separation Wall declared contrary to international law by 14 of 15 judges of the International Court of Justice.
In effect, there is no serious alternative for Palestinians (and even Israelis) committed to a peaceful future than to rid the Israeli/Palestinian relationship of its present apartheid character.
Clearing the One and Only Path to a Just and Sustainable Peace
Peace between these two peoples can only be achieved by a credible acknowledgement of their equality of rights with respect to national self-determination.
The apartheid structures that currently subjugates Palestinians epitomizes a relationship of inequality; the core obstacle to peace is apartheid, and once this obstacle is removed a productive diplomacy will become possible so long as it proceeds at all stages on the basis equality, keeping in mind that Oslo diplomacy collapsed because it encoded inequality into every aspect of its framework (U.S. as intermediary, excluding international law) and by adopting a bargaining process that favored Israel due to disparities in power and influence.
The overriding political challenge is how to clear this path to peace, given Israeli firm control and resistance to even the acknowledgement of apartheid as descriptive of the current relationship between the two peoples.
Israeli apartheid cannot be ended without a reformulation of Zionist goals. Israel must be persuaded to become content with an existence within a secular state hosting a Jewish homeland. Such an altered stance would require abandoning the insistence on being a Jewish state.
Such a downsizing of Zionist objectives would actually be consistent with the scope of the original British pledge as set forth in the ultra-colonialist Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917. Recent archival research evidently establishes that a Jewish homeland was actually the longer-term intention of Lord Alfred Balfour, as if this matters a century later.
Israeli apartheid will not be dismantled until there is a significant further growth of the Palestinian global solidarity movement, including the backing of some governments, especially several key governments in the global South.
There would need to be sufficient, sustained global pressure to induce Israeli leaders and citizens to recalculate their interests, leading enough to decide to base their future on cooperation and coexistence with the Palestinians rather than their domination and exploitation; at this point, such an outcome seems unlikely and even utopian, but history has a strange way of staging dramatic surprises, and in such cases where an abrupt reversal of policy takes places, it will be only be admitted as a possibility after it has already been decided upon;
The South African ending of apartheid was precisely such a surprise; it was totally unexpected in the 1990s that the combination of African resistance and the global anti-apartheid campaign would produce a peaceful transition to a multi-racial constitutional democracy presided over by Nelson Mandela, who until his release was serving a long-term prison sentence as an alleged terrorist.
What changed so abruptly in South Africa was not the moral stance of the white elite that had invented and cruelly imposed the apartheid structure as a supposedly permanent solution to race relations in the country, but rather a cold recalculation of interests, and especially a comparison of the balance of advantages and disadvantages of continuing to exist as a pariah state in the world and abandoning apartheid, thereby risking African governance and possible retaliation, yet by so risking, taking a course that would alone restore the international legitimacy of the South African state;
Of course, there are many differences in the Israeli situation, including Israel’s disavowal of apartheid as relevant to its management of the relationship between the two peoples, as well as Israel’s considerable success in avoiding pariah status within the international community through the practice of sophisticated diplomacy and public relations, backed by an aggressive arms sales program, and above all, by being the beneficiary of the geopolitical muscle of the U.S., as well as enjoying the quieter support of Europe.
By adopting the apartheid paradigm as descriptive of the Palestinian situation it becomes possible to align civil society activism with international law and, even more important, encouraging the Palestinian national movement to concentrate its efforts on the one and only path that could produce an acceptable peace agreement.
Any other approach seems doomed to some kind of appalling continuation of the present oppressive daily circumstances that has been the fate of the Palestinian people for far too long.
We should all reflect on the excruciating reality that this is the 50th anniversary of the Occupation and the 70th year in which Palestinians and their descendants have lived as refugees.*
No people should be compelled to endure such a fate.
It requires no great wisdom to observe that the future is a black box. We know that achieving peace and justice for these two peoples will require a very long struggle that needs to place its trust in ‘a politics of impossibility,’ or as the poet W.H. Auden once put it: “We who are about to die demand a miracle.”
And while awaiting such a political miracle, we should accept our human responsibility to aid and abet the Palestinian struggle for rights, self-determination, and a just peace.
The attainment of such goals would also inevitably reshape the destiny of Israeli Jews toward a more humanistic and benevolent future.
* And the 100th year of the Balfour Declaration (editor).