Utne Blogs > Fugitive Moments

Fugitive Moments

Flashpoints in global justice, democratic process, and the history of ideas

Apartheid, Palestine, and Human Rights

Barbed Wire West Bank 

The humanitarian crisis in Palestine is not something you hear much about these days. It didn’t come up in the presidential foreign policy debate on Monday, though of course Obama and Romney spent a long time talking about Netanyahu’s “red line” with Iran. G8 nations were similarly silent on Palestine during the group’s conference back in May, although Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza was a major G8 talking point just two years ago, as was the peace process a year later.

When we do see Palestine in the news, it’s mostly about why and how the two-state solution is dead—a theme that’s been driven home repeatedly over the last year by the likes of Jimmy Carter, Atlantic senior editor Robert Wright, and Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy. Not that there’s much reason to believe otherwise. In fact, the crisis there only seems to be getting worse.

For one thing, Jews are now a minority in Israel and the Occupied Territories, raising serious questions about minority rule and apartheid. Last week, Israel officially declared that of the 12 million people living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, Israeli Jews represent about 5.9 million (a fact Israeli demography expert Sergio Della Pergola had already pointed out in 2010). “Apartheid is here,” says Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar. “The Jewish majority is history.”

And apartheid is not a subjective term, says UC Irvine professor Mark LeVine at Al-Jazeera. Since its formal implementation in 1948 in South Africa, a series of international treaties like International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1966 and the 2002 Rome Statute have defined apartheid in no uncertain terms. Despite cosmetic differences in how it’s implemented, Israel’s policies toward Palestine fit the international definition—as Rome calls it, an “institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination”—to a bill, says LeVine. Arabs in Israel may have some basic political rights like voting and holding office, he says, but it's hard to ignore the widespread economic discrimination they face, "as well as in access to land and most components of social citizenship (education, healthcare, language and access to upper echelons of political life)." Not to mention the entangling maze of checkpoints, settlements, and walls dotting and dominating Palestinian territory.

Of course, the charge has been raised before, most famously by Jimmy Carter in 2006. A year later, John Dugard, a South African international law professor and UN human rights envoy to the Occupied Territories, echoed the same concern. “It is difficult to resist the conclusion that many of Israel's laws and practices violate the 1966 Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination,” he wrote at the time. And late last year, Dugard reiterated his point, writing in Al-Jazeera that, “Most South Africans who visit the West Bank are struck by the similarities between apartheid and Israel's practices there.”

But whatever we choose to call it, human rights abuses in Palestine are only escalating, whether our political leaders discuss it or not. Last week, Israel released its “red lines” document, which spells out some of the tactical specifics of the Gaza blockade, and their intended impact on Palestinians living there. (The revelation was almost totally ignored in the U.S. media.) The idea, reports Amira Hass in Haaretz, was to allow Gazans access to only the minimum number of calories each day to avoid outright starvation. Despite the fact that the blockaded Gaza is almost entirely dependent on outside resources, Israeli government attorneys defended such “economic warfare” as entirely within Israel’s rights, while also attempting to prevent the document’s disclosure.

So what’s the minimum number? 2,279 calories each day for each person, or 131 truckloads entering Gaza, says Hass. (To put that in perspective, the average American has access to about 3,800 calories each day.) But, says Hass, UN data show the actual number entering the territory has been far less. And Israeli prohibitions on seeds and agricultural technology served to make food insecurity even more of a serious problem for Gaza’s 1.7 million residents.

Though the specific policies outlined in the “red lines” document officially ended in 2010, the blockade continues to enforce a real and growing hunger crisis in Gaza. A report by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, released in August of this year, finds that in a territory where a majority are under 18, three out of five families face, or are at risk of facing, food insecurity. The report went on: With unemployment now nearing 30 percent, and Palestinians there already facing a severe shortage of schools and medical care, Gaza’s future looks grim unless serious changes can be made. By 2020, it concluded, by which time Gaza will grow by half a million residents, the territory may be completely uninhabitable, unless serious steps are taken to reverse the humanitarian crisis.

This is a bleak portrait, but a more humane future for Palestine is certainly possible. The work the Middle East Children’s Alliance has been doing for 25 years gives us an inspiring vision of what that humane future could look like, as do the flotilla movement's ongoing efforts to break the Gaza siege. If a two-state solution is indeed finished, writes Gideon Levy, the real fight is for human rights. And that fight has much to do with us: because crimes like the blockade are so dependent on U.S. aid and support, Americans have enormous influence on the future of the crisis. Human rights in Palestine may not be a campaign issue this year, but neither was South African apartheid in 1984. It was only through popular struggle—here and in South Africa—that more humane alternatives became politically possible.


Image by Paolo Cuttitta, licensed under Creative Commons.