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Why does Uri Avnery know so little about Palestinian citizens of Israel?

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Yes, I know. Uri Avnery has achieved many great things as a journalist and a peace activist. He has probably done more to educate people around the world about the terrible situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, and for longer, than any other single human being. And, to boot, he’s celebrating his 90th birthday this week. So best wishes to him.

Uri Avnery
Uri Avnery

Nonetheless, it is important to challenge the many fallacious claims Avnery makes to bolster the arguments in his latest article, dismissing the growing comparisons being made between Israel and apartheid South Africa.

There is much to criticise in his weakly argued piece, based on a recent conversation with an unnamed “expert”. Avnery, like many before him, makes the mistake of thinking that, by pointing out the differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa, he proves that Israel is not an apartheid state. But this is the ultimate straw-man argument. No one claims Israel is identical to South Africa. You don’t need an expert to realise that.

When people call Israel an apartheid state, they are referring to the crime of apartheid as defined in international law. According to the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, apartheid comprises 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”.

So what colour the victims of apartheid are, what proportion of the population they constitute, whether the economy depends on their productive labour, whether the early Zionists were socialists, whether the Palestinians have a Nelson Mandela, and so on have precisely zero relevance to determining whether Israel is an apartheid state.

A key distinction for Avnery is between “Israel proper” and the occupied territories. In the territories, Avnery admits, there are some parallels with apartheid South Africa. But inside Israel, he thinks the comparison is outrageously unfair.

Let’s set aside the not-insignificant matter that Israel refuses to recognise its internationally defined borders; or that one of its major strategies is a colonial-style divide-and-rule policy that depends on establishing differences in rights for Palestinians under its rule as a way to better oppress them.

Avnery’s motives in highlighting this territorial distinction should be fairly clear. He believes the occupation is a crime and that it must end. But he also believes that Israel as a Jewish state should continue after the occupation ends. In fact, he sees the two matters as inextricably tied. In his view, Israel’s long-term survival as a Jewish state depends on severing it from the occupied territories.

This concurs with fairly standard liberal Zionist ideology: segregation is seen as offering protection from demographic threats posed by non-Jews to the future success of the Jewish state, and has reached its apotheosis in the building of the West Bank wall and the disengagement from Gaza. Avnery is simply one of the most humane proponents of this line of thinking.

But for this reason, as I have argued before, Avnery should be treated as an unreliable mentor and guide on matters relating to Palestinians inside Israel – the group that is hardest to deal with under a strictly segregationist approach.

Avnery is unlikely to treat criticism of “Israel proper”, such as the apartheid comparison, based on the merits of the case. He will react defensively. Admitting that Israel is an apartheid state inside its internationally recognised borders would undermine the legitimacy of his prized Jewish state. It would indicate that his life’s work of campaigning for the creation of a Palestinian state to preserve his Jewish state was misguided, and probably harmful.

The most outrageous claim Avnery makes in the article, precisely to deflect attention from the problem of a self-defined Jewish state and its relations with a large Palestinian minority, is the following:

“On the whole, the situation of the Arab minority inside Israel proper is much like that of many national minorities in Europe and elsewhere. They enjoy equality under the law, vote for parliament, are represented by very lively parties of their own, but in practice suffer discrimination in many areas. To call this apartheid would be grossly misleading.”

One does not need to concede that the comparison with apartheid is right, both in the occupied territories and inside “Israel proper” – though I do – to understand that it is, in fact, Avnery who is being grossly misleading here.

There is no sense in which Israel’s treatment of its 1.5 million Palestinian citizens is comparable, as Avnery argues, to the situation of national minorities in European states. Palestinian citizens do not simply face unofficial, informal or spontaneous discrimination. It is structural, institutionalised and systematic.

Here are a few questions Avnery or those who agree with him need to answer:

* Which European states have, like Israel, nationalised 93 per cent of their land so that one ethnic group (in Israel’s case, Jewish citizens) can exclude another ethnic group (Palestinian Arab citizens)?

* Which European states operate vetting committees, enshrined in law, in hundreds of rural communities precisely to prevent one ethnic group (Palestinian Arabs) from living in these communities?

* Which European states have separate citizenship laws – in Israel’s case, the Law of Return (1950) and the Citizenship Law (1952) – based on ethnic belonging?

* Which European states have designed their citizenship laws, as Israel has done, to confer rights on members of an ethnic group (in Israel’s case, Jews) who are not actually yet citizens or present in the state, privileging them over a group (Palestinian Arabs) who do have citizenship and are present in the state?

* Which European states have more than 55 laws that explicitly discriminate based on which ethnic group a citizen belongs to?

* Which European states, like Israel, defer some of what should be their sovereign powers to extra-territorial bodies – in Israel’s case, to the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund – whose charters obligate them to discriminate based on ethnic belonging?

* Which European states deny their citizens access to any civil institutions on personal status matters such as marriage, divorce and burial, requiring all citizens to submit to the whims and prejudices of religious leaders?

* Which European states do not recognise their own nationality, and make it possible to join the dominant national group (in Israel’s case, Jews) or to immigrate only through conversion?

Maybe Avnery can find the odd European state with one such perverse practise, or something similar. But I have no doubt he cannot find a European state that has more than one such characteristic. Israel has all of these and more; in fact, too many for me to enumerate them all.

So if Israel inside its recognised borders is nothing like European states or the United States, or any other state we usually classify as democratic, maybe Avnery or his supporters can explain exactly what kind of state Israel is like.

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Excellent summation.

Avnery probably doesn’t even understand what Cook’s talking about. Maybe he notices only a very bright light.

Calling Israel an apartheid state isn’t supposed to be an exercise is linguistic exactitude; it expresses a feeling, not an intellectual conclusion, and what it means is that Israeli treatment of Palestinians looks and smells just like the white settlers’ treatment of the indigenous African population and should be responded to and dealt with in the same way.

Why does Cook restrict his search for an apartheid state to just Europe? If he wasn’t trying to be evasive he would have opened up his search criteria to any country in the world and if he had been honest enough to do that he would have immediately caught the Muslim country Malaysia first in his net – unlike Israel a truly representative example of blatant apartheid. Consider the following: In Malaysia: (1) Of the… Read more »

Cook’s various points develop Avnery’s ‘suffering discrimination in many areas’. This discrimination is based on racial status. It depends what you mean by ‘apartheid’. The fact that the status of Palestinians between river and sea is not uniform doesn’t create or begin to create a regime of racial equality. Equality would come only from the idea that Jewish and Palestinian people have an equal right to be in the whole river to sea area.