FRESH AIR

B’Tselem & “Apartheid”

Jan 28, 2021 | Judy Maynard

Israeli left-wing NGO B’Tselem managed to grab some international attention by releasing a provocative report on Jan. 12, in which it labelled Israel an apartheid and Jewish supremacist regime.

The report’s overblown title, “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid”, appears to have been a deliberate mirroring of the catchcry of those who would eliminate Israel: “Palestine must be free, from the river to the sea.”

Painting a Fake Picture of Homogeneity “from the River to the Sea”

It suggests a land united, at least in one – negative – sense. As journalist Seth Frantzman writes: “If you paint the area as under a single authority, like South Africa, then Israel is always in charge and the Palestinians are being denied their rights. Thus, apartheid.” Yet this homogeneity is an artificial conceit, imposed by B’Tselem onto a variegated political landscape.

The report refers to “the fact [emphasis added] that the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is organized under a single principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians.”

The phrase “organising principle” is repeated several times in the 8-page report.

This is the overarching hypothesis the report’s authors have invented to explain the plight of the Palestinians without holding them in any way responsible.

Yet as Frantzman notes:

This is deceptive. In fact, the area between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea is made up of three different polities: Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas-run Gaza.

How can Jews be privileged in Gaza, which is Judenrein, and where an antisemitic terror group is in charge? Are Jews privileged in Ramallah, under a leadership that has pushed Holocaust revisionism and denied the Jewish people’s historic connection to the land of Israel?

History Ignored and Re-written

History has been revised so as to depict the Jews as being possessed from the outset of a fully formed ideology and intention to subjugate the Arabs and exercise complete control over the whole of Israel and Palestine. In this version, the Palestinians and their leaders are the passive targets of Jewish totalitarianism, never themselves the actors and initiators of self-defeating violence, misjudgment, or corruption.

For example, “Israel built the Separation Barrier,” states the report, and “Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip.” But nowhere does the report explain that these actions were reactions to Palestinian terrorism, to prevent the infiltration into Israel of suicide bombers and other murderers. More than 1000 Israelis were killed by Palestinians during the Second Intifada, most by terrorists who entered Israel from the West Bank, or shot at Israelis from the West Bank.  The Separation Barrier curtailed this terrorism.  Israel has also been struck by more than 15,000 rockets fired from Gaza since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.

Hamas, which governs Gaza, receives only a single mention in the report:

In 2005, Israel withdrew its forces from the Gaza Strip, dismantled the settlements it built there and abdicated any responsibility for the fate of the Palestinian population. After the Hamas takeover in 2007, Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip that is still in place. Throughout all of these years, Israel has continued to control nearly every aspect of life in Gaza from outside.

Even though B’Tselem references Israel’s complete withdrawal from Gaza 15 years ago, it berates Israel for abdicating responsibility, yet also claims that Israel still controls the territory from outside. And throughout the report B’Tselem fails to acknowledge that Gaza has its own Palestinian government, yet in other publications it displays acute awareness of Hamas’ control of life – and death – in Gaza.

In December 2020 it published updated “statistics on the death penalty in the Palestinian Authority and under Hamas control in Gaza”, with columns listing “number of death sentences by Hamas courts in Gaza”, “number of executions by Hamas government” and “summary executions by Hamas military branch”. These inconvenient facts, which B’Tselem itself has recorded, apparently do not fit the pernicious agenda in the present report.

B’Tselem’s Overt Political Goals

Outrageously, B’Tselem – “the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories” – claims to be non-partisan and impartial, yet it has an explicit political goal. It “strives to end Israel’s occupation, recognizing that this is the only way to achieve a future that ensures human rights, democracy, liberty and equality to all people, Palestinian and Israeli alike, living on the bit of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

NGO Monitor has compiled a lengthy list of B’Tselem’s anti-Israel activism, including publication of one-sided reports, and false or unverifiable claims against the IDF and Israeli military courts. In 2019 69% of B’Tselem’s funding came from “foreign state entities”, mostly in the EU which has a history of funding anti-Israel NGOs, including those linked to terrorist groups.

“This is no longer the same NGO that once gained respect, even from critics, by championing human rights based on credible research. Today, it is a platform for demonizers,” said NGO Monitor’s Gerald Steinberg.

The Secret “Jewish supremacist” Conspiracy Theory

Indeed, the report reads like a whacky conspiracy theory, which distils down to the following: Israel, with its long-harboured secret Jewish supremacist agenda, successfully “engineered” (the word is mentioned five times) the Palestinians’ situation so as to make them subject to Jewish control. B’Tselem is doing no less than peddling a regional version of the old antisemitic trope of Jews plotting in secret to attain world domination. And because it blames Jewish supremacism for Palestinian woes, B’Tselem cannot even hide behind the usual fiction that it is only attacking Zionists.

The phrase “organizing principle” (aka apartheid) appears six times. The report is vague about when this “organizing principle” came into being or who its parents were: it “was not born in one day or of a single speech. It is a process that has gradually grown more institutionalized and explicit, with mechanisms introduced over time in law and practice to promote Jewish supremacy.”

But, according to B’Tselem, the lightbulb moment came in 2018. That’s when the “organizing principle” dropped its veil and lobbed into full public view: “The regime’s organizing principle has gained visibility in recent years, as evidenced by the [Nation State law] passed in 2018, or open talk of formally annexing parts of the West Bank in 2020.”

This alleged “willingness of Israeli officials and institutions to enshrine Jewish supremacy in law and openly state their intentions” is B’Tselem’s stated rationale for releasing the report now.

In other words, B’Tselem is claiming that the Jews always intended to suppress the Palestinians, but in the past they were shrewd enough to dissemble. Now they are powerful and brazen. B’Tselem expects its readers to believe that for decades Israeli politicians of all persuasions were able to keep this secret national agenda hidden from world view, until Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu let the cat out of the bag in 2018.

While the Nation State Law generated much controversy, it did not create rights or privileges for individual Jews or deny them to individual non-Jews. In the words of Professor of International Law Eugene Kontorovich “it is almost entirely declarative”.

More absurd is the reference to “open talk” of annexation, firstly because annexation has nothing to do with apartheid, and second because it was just that, talk.

B’Tselem makes a number of misleading statements in its exaggeration of what was merely a campaign pledge by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: for example that Israel had a “plan to formally annex parts of the West Bank”; that “Israel did not follow through on its declarations of formal annexation”; and that Israel’s “intention to achieve permanent control over the entire area has already been openly declared by the state’s highest officials.”

There have been no “plans” or “declarations”. Furthermore, annexation – a controversial subject even amongst Israelis – is off the table thanks to the normalisation agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Yet it is these flimsy examples that B’Tselem cites as evidence of Israel’s recently revealed supposed embrace of apartheid.

The report is a crude and sinister attempt to delegitimise Israel by explicitly calling it a Jewish supremacist state, and by undermining its raison d’etre as a home and refuge, recasting it as a place of jackbooted thuggery. While it doesn’t fall into the error of containing overt comparisons between Jews and Nazis, the references to wanton cruelty and a sense of racial superiority inevitably create that impression.

“Apartheid” redefined

The report’s central lie relates, of course, to the word ‘apartheid’ (Afrikaans for, literally, ‘apart-hood’) such as in this example: “Segregation in South Africa was also manifested in public space, in the form of a policed, formal, public separation between people based on skin color – a degree of visibility that Israel usually avoids.” The absence of “formal public separation” is not evidence of Israel “avoiding” visibility. They are absent because there is no policy of segregation.

This would be obvious to anyone who has walked in an Israeli street, or set foot in a shopping mall, university, hospital or beach. Only in the future Palestinian state envisaged by current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would segregation be enforced.

Kontorovich states that apartheid has a specific meaning and is not just a nebulous term for an unpopular policy. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court it is a crime against humanity “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.”

The B’Tselem report makes the absurd claim that “Palestinians who live on land defined in 1948 as Israeli sovereign territory (sometimes called Arab-Israelis) are Israeli citizens and make up 17% of the state’s citizenry. While this status affords them many rights, they do not enjoy the same rights as Jewish citizens.”

This charge has been refuted many times. For example, Professor Alan Johnson, Senior Research Fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, has this to say:

Is there “apartheid” for the 20 per cent of Israelis who are not Jewish? No. Israel is a thriving multi-ethnic democracy in which the Arab minority is guaranteed equal rights under the Basic Laws. All faiths vote and all enjoy freedom of worship. There are no legal restrictions on movement, employment, or sexual or marital relations. Universities and hospitals are integrated and discrimination is illegal. Israel’s Arab citizens hold collective rights as a national minority. Israel is the only place in the Middle East where all minorities are protected. Its parliament has the widest and most far-reaching representation of different voices. There is a thriving Arabic mass media, literature and theatre scene. And 20 per cent of the students at the elite Technion University are Arabs.

In Israel there is no bar to Arabs sitting as members of the Knesset, on the Supreme Court bench (Abdel Rahman Zuabi, Salim Joubran), or serving in the civil service or defence forces.

Even B’Tselem’s report notes, “Like their Jewish counterparts, Palestinian citizens of Israel can take political action to further their interests, including voting and running for office.” How is this apartheid?

On the report’s claim that “the Israeli regime has divided the area into several units that it defines and governs differently, according Palestinians different rights in each. This division is relevant to Palestinians only. The geographic space, which is contiguous for Jews, is a fragmented mosaic for Palestinians”, the blogger Elder of Ziyon comments:

Jews cannot travel to Area A. Or Area B. Or Gaza. And severe limitations on the Temple Mount. So by B’Tselem’s definition, Jews are the ones under apartheid. In fact, the only people who can freely travel to all areas of the West Bank and Israel are Arabs in Jerusalem, who have far more freedom of movement than Jews do.

It is true that there are different areas of the West Bank that are governed differently, but this was not something done by Israel’s “regime”, but was agreed between Israel and the PA under the Oslo Accords. The Accords divide the West Bank into Area A, where the PA has full responsibility for administration, governance and security, Area B, where the PA controls administration and governance, but Israel and the PA have joint responsibility for security, and Area C, where a small minority of Palestinians live, where Israel retains full responsibility.

It is also true that Israeli settlers are subject to Israeli civilian law, whereas Palestinians are subject to Israeli military law, based on the law in effect prior to Israel taking control of the West Bank in 1967. However, for Israel to extend its law to the Palestinians would be tantamount to annexation.

For an organisation that claims acute observational powers when it comes to Israel’s “hidden agenda” on Palestinian rights, B’Tselem is ostrich-like regarding the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) and Hamas’ manifest shortcomings in the same area.

After complaining that Palestinian non-citizens cannot vote in Israeli elections (which is how it works in every democracy), the report continues:

Theoretically, most Palestinians are eligible to vote in the PA elections. Yet as the PA’s powers are limited, even if elections were held regularly (the last were in 2006), the Israeli regime would still rule Palestinians’ lives, as it retains major aspects of governance in the Occupied Territories.

“Theoretically?” It is only theoretical because the PA refuses to hold elections, thus denying their people their political rights, but this attracts not a word of criticism. Again, as with the previous example of Hamas, B’Tselem is intent on denying that Palestinian governments have any control over the lives of their people. This is a grave disservice, and surely an abdication of the responsibilities of a so-called human rights organisation.

B’Tselem states:

Political participation encompasses more than voting or running for office. Israel also denies Palestinians political rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of association. These rights enable individuals to critique regimes, protest policies, form associations to advance their ideas and generally work to promote social and political change.

As mentioned above, almost all Palestinians live in areas governed by either the PA or Hamas, so the lack of these rights for Palestinians is not due to Israel. Furthermore, B’Tselem’s hypocrisy in lecturing Israel while remaining completely silent on the egregious abuses of these same rights by Palestinian leaders should hold it up to ridicule. Other human rights organisations that are no friends of Israel, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, don’t suffer from the same reticence.

The fact that B’Tselem is an Israeli organisation does not protect it from a charge of antisemitism. As Eugene Kontorovich explains:

Invoking the heinous crime of Apartheid to criticize Israeli policy is a classic anti-Semitic rhetoric: it accuses Jews, uniquely among the peoples of the world, of one of the most heinous crimes, while also judging the Jewish state by a metric not applied to any other country.

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