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Apartheid in Occupied Palestine: A Rejoinder to Yaffa Zilbershats

Published on October 2, 2013        Author: 


 dugardJohn Dugard (pictured left) is Emeritus Professor of John ReynoldsInternational Law at the University of Leiden and Honorary Professor in the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria. John Reynolds (pictured right) is the EJ Phelan Fellow in International Law at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

‘Upper Nazareth is a Jewish city and it’s important that it remains so’, wrote its mayor Shimon Gapso last month. ‘If that makes me a racist’, he continued, ‘then I’m a proud offshoot of a glorious dynasty of racists’. Gapso was responding to criticism he had received over his call for the preservation of Jewish Israeli demographic superiority over Palestinians in his jurisdiction. He sought to undercut such criticism by situating his views as merely symptomatic of the core tenets of Zionism. His position, he suggested, is no more or no less racist than Herzl or Ben-Gurion and the pioneering Jewish settlement—with inevitable removal of Palestinians—that they espoused. While Gapso makes this admission of racism rather facetiously, so as to expound the ‘hypocrisy and bleeding-heart sanctimoniousness’ of his liberal Israeli critics, his comments go to the heart of Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians historically and contemporaneously: colonisation, displacement, and segregation. In pointing to security issues and the diverse political, socio-economic and cultural needs of the two population groups, Gapso essentially reproduces the vision of “separate development” that was central to apartheid in southern Africa. Apartheid was presented by its Afrikaner architects as not about oppression or denial of self-determination, but “separateness”.

Gapso’s comments mark the latest round in an ongoing debate over the role of ethno-racial dynamics in Israeli policy-making, and the nature of Israel’s institutional and legal regimes as they apply to the AbuDisWallPalestinians. They came in the context of the relationship between Israeli authorities and Palestinian citizens inside the state’s borders. They are equally and arguably more prescient when considered in relation to the occupied Palestinian territories, where the narrative of an Israeli apartheid-like regime has gained particular prolificacy in popular and political discourse since the 1990s. More recently, the relevance of the normative prohibition of apartheid as articulated through the specific language of international law has come to the fore. Our article in the current issue of the European Journal of International Law explores international law’s engagement with questions of race, racial discrimination and apartheid. It considers the nature of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories in that light, and concludes that the regime of discrimination and segregation imposed in the occupied territories is of a sufficiently institutionalised nature to be qualified as a system of apartheid. (photo: Israeli wall at Abu Dis, credit)

Yaffa Zilbershats’ reply  to our article roots itself in the familiar refuge of Israeli exceptionalism, and parrots two standard talking points of Israeli government lawyers. The first is that as a mere occupying power, Israel’s behaviour in the Palestinian territories is not susceptible to the same standards by which a sovereign state would be judged. The second is that because Palestinians have committed acts of “terror”, Israel’s behaviour is not susceptible to the same standards by which a sovereign state would be judged. Both of these points are supported by almost exclusive reference to Israeli court decisions.

Occupation and Apartheid: “Apples and Oranges”

Zilbershats suggests that because Israel occupies the Palestinian territories without having formally annexed them (disregarding the fact that in the case of East Jerusalem it has done so), the state is bound there only by the laws of armed conflict. Israel can exempt itself from other spheres of international law, including, apparently, the prohibition of apartheid; its status as a jus cogens norm and explicit inclusion in the laws of armed conflict themselves notwithstanding. Zilbershats argues that, by asserting that regimes of apartheid and occupation can (and do) occur simultaneously, our article is guilty of ‘comparing apples and oranges’.

Apart from erasing several decades of Namibian history, this claim obscures the present reality that Israel’s colonisation of Palestinian territory goes far beyond the image of a temporary occupation that Zilbershats conjures up. With this “temporary” situation now approaching fifty years as the status quo and the settlement enterprise continuing apace, it is not merely a regime of belligerent occupation but also one of expansionary settler colonialism. Read the rest of this entry…