Friday, February 23, 2007

Apartheid, war crimes and the Palestinians

There are two things you can say about the United Nations and the Palestinians. One is that the UN will produce hard-hitting reports condemning the actions of the Israeli government. The second is that, in practice, the UN will do nothing to change the situation. No resolution for action against Israel has a chance of getting through the Security Council because the United States, under both Republicans and Democrats, will simply veto it. Nevertheless, documenting the crimes of the Israeli state is important. John Dugard, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), should know all about apartheid because he is a South African law professor. His country was ruled by a racist apartheid regime until 1994, when the country’s first free elections took place. So his use of the term apartheid four times in the introduction to his latest report to describe the Israeli government’s actions is significant. Dugard also describes Israel’s siege of Gaza as a form of collective punishment in violation of the Geneva Convention of 1949, adding: "The indiscriminate use of military power against civilians and civilian targets has resulted in serious war crimes."

Accusing the Israeli government of apartheid practices, his report cites: frequent military incursions into Gaza; the construction of the Wall as an instrument of social engineering; house demolitions; over 500 checkpoints; continued construction of settlements; Israeli law and practice which makes it impossible for thousands of Palestinian families to live together; a new practice of refusing visas to foreign residents in the OPT; discrimination against Palestinians in many fields. His report concludes: "The international community has identified three regimes as inimical to human rights - colonialism, apartheid and foreign occupation. Israel is clearly in military occupation of the OPT. At the same time elements of the occupation constitute forms of colonialism and of apartheid, which are contrary to international law." Side-stepping what the UN might do about this, however, Dugard suggests that the question might go before the International Court of Justice for a "further advisory opinion". That’s not much use to the Palestinians. Dugard himself points that there is a humanitarian crisis in the OPT resulting from the withholding of funds owed to the Palestinian Authority by the Israeli government along with the economic isolation imposed by the United States and the European Union following the victory of Hamas in the elections last year. He admits that the OPT "is the only instance of a developing country that is denied the right of self-determination and oppressed by a Western-affiliated state". These harsh words will have no impact in Israel, Washington or London for that matter. Whatever the Palestinians do, the major powers will still deny them their rights because the Israeli state is a valuable and favoured ally in the Middle East. The recent deal between Fatah and Hamas to set up a coalition government, for example, has been rejected by the White House. Too weak to defeat the Israel state on their own, and surrounded by reactionary Arab regimes who use them as pawns, the Palestinians’ continued suffering is an affront to humanity as a whole. When, at some point in the future, the Palestinians finally achieve self-determination, it will mark a real turning point in human affairs.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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