Palestine: the importance of language

Language is important in framing our understanding of the world, and particularly so when it comes to long-term crises such as that facing the Palestinian people. War on Want seeks to combat the root causes of poverty and human rights abuse in Palestine, just as in other situations and countries around the world. We believe that a long-term solution to the crisis facing the Palestinian people is only possible through a proper understanding of the situation that has developed over the past century, and through the proper use of words to describe that situation correctly. Here is our guide to three key words or phrases used by the international community to describe the situation in Palestine, with reference to relevant source material for people to follow up in their own research.

APARTHEID

There is overwhelming evidence that the system instituted by the Israeli government against the Palestinian people is correctly described as a system of apartheid. The charge was made carefully and deliberately by former US president Jimmy Carter in his 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, following earlier studies using the term by Israeli academic Uri Davis, and details of the charge have been developed by legal scholars since. Anyone who has visited Palestine in recent years will have seen the network of fenced-off roads in the Occupied West Bank for the use of Israeli Jewish settlers, which Palestinians are prohibited from using; the illegal settlements, which appropriate occupied land for exclusive Jewish use and prohibit entry to Palestinians on racial grounds; and the illegal Separation Wall with its infrastructure of permanent gates and checkpoints, which violates the freedom of movement of Palestinians in their own land. 

As long ago as 2004, the respected Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem issued a report on the settler-only road network entitled: The Forbidden Road Regime in the West Bank – An Apartheid Practice. For a fuller description of this and other concrete examples, see the updated 2014 edition of Ben White’s book, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide.

All these ‘facts on the ground’ have been regularly cited by UN special rapporteurs on the human rights situation in Palestine as evidence of an apartheid system in action. Richard Falk, emeritus professor of law at Princeton University and UN special rapporteur from 2008 to 2014, devoted much of his last report to the UN Human Rights Council (UN document A/HRC/25/67) to an analysis of the charge of apartheid as applied to Israel, and concluded by accusing Israel of racial discrimination, apartheid and torture in its “systematic oppression” of the Palestinian people. Falk’s predecessor in the post of UN special rapporteur, South African law professor John Dugard, has since written a detailed study on whether the charge of apartheid applies to Israel, concluding:

On the basis of the systemic and institutionalized nature of the racial domination that exists, there are indeed strong grounds to conclude that a system of apartheid has developed in the occupied Palestinian territory. Israeli practices in the occupied territory are not only reminiscent of – and, in some cases, worse than – apartheid as it existed in South Africa, but are in breach of the legal prohibition of apartheid. 

As a result of observations by successive UN special rapporteurs, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination censured Israel in 2012 for implementing “two entirely separate legal systems and sets of institutions for Jewish communities grouped in illegal settlements on the one hand and Palestinian populations living in Palestinian towns and villages on the other hand.” The Committee declared itself “particularly appalled at the hermetic character of the separation of two groups, who live on the same territory but do not enjoy either equal use of roads and infrastructure or equal access to basic services and water resources”. It called on Israel to eradicate all policies and practices of “racial segregation and apartheid” affecting the Palestinian people (UN document CERD/C/ISR/CO/14-16).

The exhaustive 300-page study Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid? published in 2009 by an international team of legal scholars working under the auspices of the Human Sciences Research Council in Cape Town, South Africa concluded that the Israeli state has indeed imposed a state of apartheid on the Palestinian people, in that Israel is guilty of many of the practices and policies of apartheid identified in the Apartheid Convention adopted by the United Nations in 1973, and that these acts together constitute the “integrated and complementary elements of an institutionalised and oppressive system of Israeli domination and oppression over Palestinians as a group; that is, a system of apartheid.” 

In particular, the study noted that Israel has implemented all three of the pillars that characterised apartheid in the South African context, namely: (a) the categorisation of the population along racial lines; (b) the segregation of the population on the basis of this categorisation into different geographical areas allocated to different racial groups; and (c) a system of laws and policies that subject the Palestinian people to extrajudicial killing, torture and arbitrary arrest and detention, as well as sweeping restrictions on Palestinians’ rights to freedom of opinion, expression, assembly, association and movement. 

For War on Want, this is the direct link between human rights abuse in Palestine and the specific measures of the apartheid system described above. The crime of apartheid is defined in the 1973 Apartheid Convention as covering human rights violations “committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”. 

ETHNIC CLEANSING

In its final report, the Commission of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary-General to investigate breaches of international humanitarian law in former Yugoslavia described ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas” (Annex to UN Document S/1994/674). The Commission of Experts is regularly referenced by other international legal commentators, such as the International Court of Justice, as the primary source of legal understanding of ethnic cleansing. 

That the state of Israel was established in 1948 on the basis of a programme of ethnic cleansing was demonstrated beyond doubt by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, whose internationally acclaimed book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, revealed full details of the ‘Plan D’ (Dalet, in Hebrew) drawn up by David Ben-Gurion and other military and political leaders of what was to become the state of Israel. As Pappe notes (page 28):

It was this plan that sealed the fate of the Palestinians within the territory the Zionist Leaders had set their eyes on for their future Jewish State. Indifferent as to whether these Palestinians might decide to collaborate with or oppose their Jewish State, Plan Dalet called for their systematic and total expulsion from their homeland.

Pappe’s detailed account of Plan Dalet as a “blueprint for ethnic cleansing” is required reading for anyone seeking to understand the Palestinian catastrophe (nakba) on which the state of Israel was established. The permanent expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from their family homes, and the subsequent eradication of any trace of their historical presence, is an ongoing human rights crisis regularly referenced in UN documentation and resolutions to this day. 

Israel’s policy of ethnic cleansing is not confined to history. As noted by Uri Avnery, former member of the Israeli parliament, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians was not just a one-off event necessary for the creation of the state of Israel, but a policy that continues to manifest itself in the present era:

Ethnic cleansing can be carried out dramatically (as in this country in 1948 and in Kosovo in 1998) or in a quiet and systematic way, by dozens of sophisticated methods, as is happening now in East Jerusalem.

Richard Falk, UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Palestine from 2008 to 2014, confirmed in his final report to the UN Human Rights Council (UN document A/HRC/25/67) that Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are “subject to a gradual and bureaucratic process of ethnic cleansing. This has consisted of revocation of residency permits, demolitions of residential structures built without Israeli permits (often virtually impossible to obtain), and forced evictions of Palestinian families, in violation of the basic right to adequate housing, enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.”

War on Want has drawn particular attention to Palestinians’ experience of this process of ethnic cleansing in the East Jerusalem suburb of Silwan, where the Palestinian population has faced an ongoing campaign of forced evictions and violent intimidation in order to appropriate their homes for Israeli settlers, and where the Israeli government, in partnership with Jewish settler organisation Elad, has constructed an Israeli national tourism site, the ‘City of David’, on illegally occupied Palestinian land.

In a special section of his 2010 report to the UN General Assembly (UN document A/65/331) devoted to ‘Ethnic cleansing in occupied East Jerusalem’, Richard Falk noted that Israel’s policy of ethnic cleansing is most clearly evident in the “deliberate steps taken to increase the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem while diminishing the Palestinian presence, thereby altering the demographic balance in such a way as to support the contention that Jerusalem as a whole is a Jewish city. The linchpin of this policy by the occupying Power is the unlawful establishment and growth of settlements.” 

The growth of illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories has increased exponentially since the Oslo peace accords of 1993. By 2016 there were over 700,000 Israeli settlers living in the Occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem – a huge increase even on the numbers living in the illegal settlements 10 years before. This represents a massive population transfer into the territory that was militarily occupied by Israel in 1967, which is not only a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention but also a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. All Palestinians are prohibited from entering the land appropriated by the Israelis for the illegal settlements, as well as from entering much of the other territory in the Israeli-controlled Area C, which constitutes 60% of the Occupied West Bank. 

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a stark warning to the UN Security Council in April 2016 of the end game being played out by Israel in its forcible eviction of Palestinians from their lands:

The creation of new facts on the ground through demolitions and settlement building raises questions about whether Israel's ultimate goal is in fact to drive Palestinians out of certain parts of the West Bank, thereby undermining any prospect of transition to a viable Palestinian state.

The expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is an example of the ethnic cleansing policy of ‘Judaisation’ that has been formally declared by the Israeli state. As described by the Jerusalem-based Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, this policy of Judaisation has been openly discussed and elaborated by Israeli officials within the Municipality of Jerusalem, prior to its use of administrative demolition orders to destroy Palestinian homes and force their inhabitants to leave areas earmarked for Israeli settlers. In his description of the destruction of Bedouin homes and olive trees by Israeli state forces entitled ‘Ethnic cleansing in the Israeli Negev’, Israeli academic Neve Gordon also references Judaisation as the official strategy behind the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population:

I suddenly understood how far the state is ready to go to accomplish its objective of Judaising the Negev region; what I witnessed was, after all, an act of ethnic cleansing.

The ethnic cleansing of Bedouin villages within the borders of the state of Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories has gathered pace in recent years, despite repeated condemnation by UN agencies. In July 2013, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Israel to reconsider a proposed law that would result in the demolition of up to 35 Bedouin villages, and then called on Israel to halt the demolitions once they had started. 

In January 2016, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) issued a strong condemnation of the illegal demolition of Bedouin villages within the Occupied West Bank, drawing attention to the serious humanitarian consequences of Israel’s forced eviction of families from their homes. The statement noted that such actions constitute a “grave breach” of international humanitarian law:

Demolishing residential structures exacerbates an already coercive environment, driving Bedouin communities off the land they have inhabited for decades. UNRWA recalls that Israel has strict obligations under international law regarding the prohibition of the destruction of private property and of forcible transfer, including as a result of policies creating a coercive environment. Forcible transfer is a grave breach under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

COLLECTIVE PUNISHMENT

The use of collective punishment or collective penalties in respect of acts committed by individuals has long been prohibited in international human rights and humanitarian law. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states: “No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.” There is no doubt that Israel is guilty of using collective punishment against the Palestinian people, in both policy and practice, as attested by numerous sources.

The UN Secretary-General’s 2015 report into the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (UN document A/HRC/28/45) noted that Israel had intensified its collective punishment of Palestinians through the resumption of its policy of punitive house demolitions, “entailing multiple violations of international law”. 

Using the terminology of ‘collective penalty’ from the Fourth Geneva Convention, UN Humanitarian Coordinator James W. Rawley called on Israel in December 2014 to halt its use of punitive house demolitions not only as contraventions of international law in themselves but also because they were contributing to the further breakdown of an already critical human rights situation: 

Punitive demolitions are a form of collective penalty that punishes people for acts they did not commit. They render innocent people homeless. The impact on children, women and the elderly is particularly devastating.

Israel refused to heed the UN call to desist from its use of punitive house demolitions as a form of collective punishment of the Palestinian population. As noted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the open debate held by the UN Security Council in April 2016, the number of Palestinian house demolitions carried out by Israel in the first three months of 2016 already exceeded the total for the whole of 2015. 

Israel’s siege of Gaza is a particular, longstanding collective punishment of the Palestinians imprisoned there, creating an ongoing humanitarian crisis and appalling poverty for its population. This has been repeatedly affirmed in successive UN documents. The report of the UN fact-finding mission into the Israeli assault on the maritime aid convoy sailing to Gaza in 2010 (UN document A/HRC/15/21) concluded in respect of the ongoing blockade of Gaza that there could be “no doubt that Israel’s actions and policies amount to collective punishment as defined by international law”.

The UN Secretary-General confirmed in his 2015 report on the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (UN document A/HRC/28/45) that Israel’s blockade is “a continuing collective penalty against the population in Gaza”. The human impact of this collective punishment was described by Baroness Valerie Amos in a statement of 13 June 2012, in her role as UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs: 

The blockade of Gaza, now entering its sixth year, has had a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of the 1.6 million Palestinians who reside there. More than 80 per cent of families are dependent on humanitarian aid, and Gaza remains subject to severe restrictions on imports, exports and the movement of people, by land, air and sea. This amounts to a collective punishment of all those living in Gaza and is a denial of basic human rights in contravention of international law.

UN Special Rapporteur Makarim Wibisono echoed the call in June 2015, before resigning his post over Israel’s persistent refusal to allow him to fulfil his mandate by denying him access to the Occupied Palestinian Territory:

If Gaza is to recover from the damage wrought by multiple rounds of hostility and a shattered economy, the blockade must be lifted. The people deserve help and realisation of their human rights, not collective punishment.

The Israeli military attacks of 2008, 2012 and 2014 on the besieged population of Gaza are the most obvious and extreme examples of acts of collective killing from recent years. The report of the UN fact-finding mission into the first of these military campaigns (UN document A/HRC/12/48) was unequivocal that the actions of the Israeli leadership constituted collective punishment of the Palestinian population of Gaza, and as such a war crime:

The Mission concludes that the conditions resulting from deliberate actions of the Israeli armed forces and the declared policies of the Government with regard to the Gaza Strip before, during and after the military operation cumulatively indicate the intention to inflict collective punishment on the people of the Gaza Strip. The Mission, therefore, finds a violation of the provisions of article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Numerous international statements also condemned Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza as an act of collective punishment. According to the official UN commission of inquiry (UN document A/HRC/28/45) into the violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights in the attack, “the scale of the devastation was unprecedented”, with 2,251 Palestinian civilians killed. 

Perhaps the most striking evidence, however, comes from the statements of Israeli military personnel who were themselves involved in the attack on Gaza, collected by the Israeli human rights organisation Breaking the Silence. Entitled This is How We Fought in Gaza and running to over 230 pages of personal testimony, the evidence of serving Israeli soldiers leaves no doubt that the assault on Gaza was an act of war against the Palestinian population. The report is freely available on the website of Breaking the Silence, and it is a unique insight into the workings of the Israeli military when undertaking collective punishment on a systematic scale.

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