Why We Must Use Apartheid to Describe the Israeli Occupation

The term “apartheid” is politically charged.  It is not a term that should be taken lightly or thrown around merely to stir up controversy or to make a rhetorical point.  Apartheid is a crime against humanity that entails everyday violence and suffering for an entire population of people.  Understanding all that, it is critical that we recognize and call out the Israeli military occupation of Palestine for what it is: apartheid.

There is no question that apartheid immediately evokes the brutal, systemic violence and oppression that characterized the white supremacy of the South African Apartheid regime.  In fact, the term “apartheid” directly originated from the South African socio-political forced segregation that began in 1947.  In Afrikaans — the language of white settlers in South Africa — the term directly translates to separateness.  While the history of the term is deeply entwined in South African Apartheid, the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the United Nations (UN) have developed an internationally recognized definition of apartheid that is not limited to South Africa.  Thus, it is important to note that describing the Israeli occupation as apartheid does not entail drawing a direct analogy to South Africa, but rather determining if Israeli policies and actions constitute apartheid according to international law.  So, let’s look at international definition of apartheid.

The Rome Statute of the ICC (1998) defines apartheid as “inhumane acts…committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”  Further, the UN Apartheid Conventionlists examples of the “[inhumane] acts that fall within the ambit of the crime [of apartheid].”

First, the UN defines “murder, torture, inhuman treatment and arbitrary arrests of members of a racial group” as crimes of apartheid.  In the West Bank, Israeli forces frequently conduct arbitrary arrests of Palestinian activists for their political views and for protesting against the occupation.  According to Addameer, a prisoner support and human rights organization, there are currently 6,900 Palestinianpolitical prisoners in Israeli prisons.  Moreover, Israeli forces consistently arrest Palestinian children for protesting; there are roughly 450 Palestinian children currently imprisoned.  According tovarious NGOs and human rights organizations, Israeli guards and officials routinely abuse Palestinian prisoners through physical beatings, forcing prisoners to hold stress positions for extended periods of time, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, and psychological abuse, such as threats on prisoners’ family members and threats to destroy prisoners’ homes.  These abusive practices are also used on child prisoners to coerce confessions, often to the crime of stone-throwing, which carries a potential sentence of ten to twenty years in an Israeli prison.  The systemic nature of these abusive practices and policies is strikingly similar to the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay by the US military; there is only one word to describe this system: torture.  Israeli attempts to erase its practice of torture have been largely successful.  Despite 776 complaints of torture filed by Palestinian prisoners since 1999, the Israeli government has failed to launch a single criminal investigation.

Additionally, in the West Bank, there are two legal systems.  Israelis occupying illegal settlements are under the jurisdiction of Israeli civilian law, whereas Palestinians in the West Bank live under Israeli military law.  Israeli military law allows the Israeli military to hold prisoners for up to 90 days without access to a lawyer.  Furthermore, the Israeli military can administratively detain a prisoner indefinitelywithout presenting charges or going to trial based on secret evidence regarding security.  There are currently 660 Palestinians who are administrative detainees. If the Israeli military does decide to take a detainee to trial, the military courts have a 99.74% conviction rate of Palestinians.

The two different legal systems in the West Bank are based solely on ethnicity.  The blatant intent of the Israeli military legal system in the West Bank is to actively suppress Palestinian political protest and continue the domination and oppression of the Palestinian people through egregious violations of Palestinians’ most basic legal and human rights.  These are crimes of apartheid.

The UN goes on to list “deliberate imposition on a racial group of living conditions calculated to cause its physical destruction” as crimes of apartheid.  In Gaza, Israeli forces have repeatedly bombed civilian homes, hospitals, generators, UN facilities, and schools duringOperation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014.  Thousands of Palestinian civilians, including hundreds of children, were killed in those attacks.  Before, during, and after those attacks, Israel continues to enforce a blockade on Gaza, meaning that Israel controls everything — goods, resources, and people — that goes in and out of Gaza.  Thus, Palestinians in Gaza must rely on Israel for access to basic amenities like electricity and water; Palestinian neighborhoods, like Shuja’iyya, are yet to be rebuilt, continuing to remain as piles of rubble; and, Palestinians, in desperate need of medical care due to injuries caused by Israeli attacks, are growing sicker and dying.  This is why many call Gaza the world’s largest open air prison.  Israel’s attacks on and blockade of Gaza are “deliberate” and are “calculated to cause it physical destruction.”  These are crimes of apartheid.

Next, the UN defines “measures that divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate residential areas for racial groups” as crimes of apartheid.  The Apartheid Wall in the West Bank exists today as a force for separation — dividing peoples and shrinking Palestinian land. While many know it today as the Israeli West Bank barrier, in Arabic it goes by a different name, jidar al-fasl al-‘unsuri, or “wall of apartheid.”  The Apartheid Wall was declared illegal by the ICC in 2004, but its construction continues to this day under the Israeli justification of self-defense.  Stretching nearly 400 miles, the Apartheid Wall ignores the internationally recognized border between Israel and the West Bank, as it encroaches on and steals Palestinian land; upon its completion, it will annex 46% of the West Bank.

The checkpoint system protects and privileges illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank, while Palestinians’ mobility is severely restricted within their own homeland.  Along the the Apartheid Wall, there are34 fortified checkpoints and 634 checkpoints or obstructions that limit the mobility of Palestinians.  Checkpoint stops are often needlessly long, and involve degrading searches and questions. In addition to the fixed checkpoints, the Israeli military frequently sets up so-called “flying checkpoints,” which are surprise mobile checkpoints that further confine and control Palestinians within the West Bank. Another key part of the restriction on movement are the hundreds of unmanned roadblocks that further serve to complicate travel. In addition to the system of checkpoints and roadblocks,approximately 79 kilometers of roads that connect the various settlements in the West Bank are exclusively for the use of the Israeli military and illegal Israeli settlers.  Thus, there are certain routes that take Israeli settlers five to ten minutes to complete, but can take Palestinians several hours to complete.

Furthermore, Israel uses a color-coded ID system that segregate and discriminate against Palestinians based on where they live.  For instance, Palestinian citizens of Israel are barred from living in 68% of Israeli towns, while Palestinians in East Jerusalem can have their ID (and access to their homes) revoked anytime they are living outside of Jerusalem.  The classifications that define this system often divide Palestinian families, making it impossible for loved ones to see one another.

This segregation, division of land, and restriction on mobility is based solely on ethnicity.  These are crimes of apartheid.

In June of 2015, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a leader of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, wrote of the Israeli occupation: “It is unconscionable to remain silent, or neutral, in the face of injustice. Neutrality maintains the status quo and compounds the injustice.” In East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, this injustice is happening everyday.  Israel employs policies that seek to continue the “systemic oppression and domination” of Palestinians for the purpose of maintaining the Israeli occupation.  This is apartheid.  We don’t use this word to anger people or cause controversy.  We use this word because it reflects the reality of the Israeli occupation — a reality that Palestinians live with and confront every day.  To not use “apartheid” to describe the Israeli occupation of Palestine is to erase and silence the experiences of the Palestinian people. We refuse to do that; we refuse to “remain silent, or neutral, in the face of injustice.”

Students for a Free Palestine Respond to False Accusations of Anti-Semitism

On January 3, 2016, a group of Oberlin alumni published an open letter accusing Students for a Free Palestine (SFP) and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement of anti-semitism. In it, they called for an administrative response, specifically asking for an investigation of SFP, a forum for students to share experiences of alleged coercion by BDS proponents, and a task force to implement a plan to address their concerns.

The Campus Code of Conduct recognizes that “proscriptions of verbal harassment must not have the effect of limiting the free exchange of ideas or opinions.” In calling our criticisms intimidation tactics and hate speech, however, those who accuse us endanger earnest debate on the ways in which we are complicit in the oppression of Palestinian people. If Oberlin is to uphold values of intellectual freedom and social engagement, it cannot implement the proposals in the letter.

Admonishing SFP for organizing demonstrations regarding policies we deem repressive would further constitute a violation of our freedoms as students and as an organization. Oberlin College’s Student Bill of Rights safeguards the right of student organizations to “examine and discuss questions of interest to them and to express their opinions both publicly and privately.” Moreover, it protects the freedom of students to “participate in any demonstrations that do not endanger the safety of individuals or destroy property.”

Confronting the realities of the occupation is uncomfortable and difficult, but it is not anti-semitic. The allegations in the letter equate criticizing the actions of Israel with anti-Jewish bigotry. Israel advocacy groups have increasingly employed a definition of anti-semitism which incorrectly includes criticism of Israel as a nation state. On local, state, and federal levels, legislation has been introduced to punish and limit Palestine solidarity work. On college and university campuses, false accusations of anti-semitism have contributed to the firing of Professor Steven Salaita at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the temporary suspension of SJP Loyola at Chicago, and the removal of an SJP banner at Barnard College/Columbia University, to name just a few.

We believe a special focus on Israel is necessary. The US government has singled out Israel for favorable treatment, providing $3.1 billion annually and more than $150 billion since 1948. This means that Israel is the largest international recipient of US aid, which comes from American citizens’ tax money. We are deeply implicated in Israel’s military occupation, and stand firm in our right to criticize and protest our country’s investment in the oppression of Palestinian people. In addition, proposals to divest from the multinational corporations targeted under BDS specifically acknowledge how the surveillance, military, and police equipment produced are used globally.

We see these accusations as a way to limit the free speech of students, silence political activism, and intimidate pro-Palestinian activists. We believe that solidarity with an oppressed people and demands to defend their human rights do not and will never constitute anti-semitism. It is our conviction of self-determination and autonomy that will continue to drive us, no matter how many attempt to malign us, to call for a free Palestine.

Please sign here to support our statement.