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THIS week Amnesty International became the latest major human rights body to affirm what Palestinians have been saying for decades: that Israel’s system of oppression over them is apartheid, a crime against humanity under international law.
Amnesty describes it starkly. “Whether they live in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank or Israel itself, Palestinians are treated as an inferior racial group and systematically deprived of their rights.”
The evidence is overwhelming and the necessary consequences of committing this crime against humanity are already written in law.
Amnesty details the required response, which echoes the well-established demands of Palestinian civil society: accountability for Israel and an end to complicity with its oppression from world governments, public bodies and corporations.
Those who continue to shield Israel from accountability and treat it as a normal functioning democracy are on the wrong side of history.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it: “If you are neutral in a situation of justice and injustice, you are on the side of the oppressor.”
You cannot tackle an injustice unless you name it accurately. Predictably, then, the political Establishment is determined to maintain the linguistic status quo, regardless of the full consensus across the human rights Establishment to now call Israel what Palestinians have long said: an apartheid state.
For the British government, the status quo means launching a consultation on how trade with Israel can be bolstered in the same week that Amnesty’s report landed.
It means defining Russia’s threats against Ukraine as needing a sanctions-led response, while avoiding judgement on Israeli apartheid as “a matter for the courts and not governments.”
It means devoting energies to demonising and silencing those who speak out against apartheid, rather than working to dismantle a crime against humanity.
Rather than taking action to hold Israel to account the government intends to bring in a law to prevent public bodies — such as universities or local government pension schemes — from divesting from companies complicit with Israeli oppression, suggesting such an action is inherently anti-semitic.
Just last week we witnessed a grotesque throwaway comment from the Education Secretary that students who chant: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” should be reported to the police.
Nadhim Zahawi knows that there are no legal powers that would justify police intervention against anyone chanting these words. His comments need to be understood as part and parcel of the wider attempt to chill and delegitimise activism for Palestine by creating a climate of fear.
They are also grounded in a disregard for the rights of Palestinians, but they show a cavalier disregard for the basic democratic rights of all people to engage in legitimate protest, advocacy and discourse.
The minister mimics the language of anti-racism, but implies that when Palestinians articulate the truths of their oppression and the parameters of their liberation, when they call for freedom, justice and equality, they are not using the words accurately, and in fact have barbarous intentions.
As many Palestinians have made clear, this chant is one used widely by Palestinians and those advocating for their rights because it speaks to the reality of which Amnesty spoke this week: wherever Palestinians live between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, Israel’s body of laws and policies treats them as inferior.
British Palestinian groups have written to Zahawi calling on him to withdraw his remarks. He should be pressed by anyone concerned with basic democratic freedoms to do so.
But the bigger picture is that the political Establishment’s desire to treat Israel as an ally and a democracy — a core component, alongside authoritarian regimes of Liz Truss’s declared “network of liberty” — cannot hold in the face of the overwhelming evidence now accepted by the international human rights community.
The inability of Israel and its allies to address any of the evidence laid out in forensic detail by Amnesty over 280 pages — instead relying on the same playbook of accusations of anti-semitism — speaks its own truth.
If governments won’t hold Israel to account then civil society and we, the people, must do so.
From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.
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