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“It Is Apartheid”: Rights Group B’Tselem on How Israel Advances Jewish Supremacy Over Palestinians

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As Israel faces international condemnation for its assault on Gaza, we look at growing accusations that Israel is an apartheid state. Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the human rights group B’Tselem, describes the findings of their report that details how Israel is committing “apartheid.” Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is “not complicated,” El-Ad says. “Believe your eyes. Follow your conscience. The reason that it looks like apartheid is simply because it is apartheid.” We get response from Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, columnist for the newspaper Haaretz and a member of its editorial board, who wrote a recent piece, “We Can Keep Lying to Ourselves on 'Apartheid,' but Israel Has Crossed the Line.” We also speak to Noura Erakat, Palestinian human rights attorney and legal scholar.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As Israel faces international condemnation for its assault on Gaza, we turn to look at growing accusations that Israel is an apartheid state. Earlier this week, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Apartheid states aren’t democracies.” In March, the organization Human Rights Watch said for the first time Israel is committing the crimes of apartheid and persecution in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Before that, in January, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem issued a report titled “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.”

Earlier this week, I spoke with Hagai El-Ad, executive director of B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, and I asked him about this landmark report.

HAGAI EL-AD: B’Tselem was founded back in 1989. We’ve been analyzing human rights violations in the Occupied Territories since then, for more than three decades by now. And throughout this period, we’ve only looked at human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and in the Gaza Strip.

We came to the conclusion that to continue to analyze the situation separately, as if there are two distinct regimes — a democracy inside the Green Line and a temporary occupation attached to it but somehow separate from it in the Occupied Territories on the other side of the Green Line — that that worldview of democracy plus occupation has become untethered from reality. And it’s incumbent on us to be factual and to wake up to reality.

If one desires to continue to hold on to that big lie, then you need to ignore a lot of things. You need to ignore the passage of time, that Israeli control over the entire territory has been going on for more than 50 years. You need to ignore the fact that there are more than 600,000 Israeli Jewish settlers living on the other side of the Green Line in the occupied West Bank, as if they’re living inside Israel proper. You need to ignore the fact that part of the occupied territory has been formally annexed — I’m talking about East Jerusalem — with the rest of it being de facto annexed. You need to set aside a lot of facts in order to continue to hold on to that bankrupt worldview.

But the key thing is that to hold on to that, you need to ignore the key aspect, which is there is one organizing principle that is applied by the Israeli regime between the river and the sea, and that principle is the supremacy and domination of one group of people — Jews — over another group of people — Palestinians — with all this happening in a situation of demographic parity. There are 14 million people that live between the river and the sea. About half of them are Jews. About half of them are Palestinians. But the system, the regime is structured so that that demographic parity will not translate into parity in political power or in access to the resources of this land or to protection or rights.

Now, one of the most important aspects of this reality has been Israel’s ability to fragment this space for Palestinians, while keeping it intact for Jews. Right? So, if you’re a Jewish individual, like myself, no matter where you live between the river and the sea, whether it’s inside Israel proper or in the Occupied Territories, the state will — within one of the more than 200 illegal settlements that Israel has reestablished in the last half-century-plus, then the state will do everything in its power to provide you with the same set of rights, privileges and protections. Right? So, that’s the treatment for Jewish Israelis. But, for Palestinians, it makes a very big difference if you live as a second-class citizen inside the Green Line or as a permanent resident in occupied and illegally annexed East Jerusalem or in the rest of the West Bank as a Palestinian subject or one of the 2 million Palestinians that are living in that large open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip. So, there are different categories of Palestinians, from Israel’s perspective, and in each and every one of those, there is a different subset of rights, always less rights, always a degree of oppression. But nowhere between the river and the sea, there is a single square inch in which a Jewish person and a Palestinian are equal. It is always structured in this way that’s domination and supremacy for the Jewish half of the population.

And it’s incumbent on us to connect the dots. So let me try and do that. Look at Israel’s bombings of Gaza. Do these strike you as proportional? Look at Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Does it strike you as temporary? Look at Israel’s drive to cleanse East Jerusalem neighborhoods from Palestinians. Does that strike you as legal? Look at Israel’s oppression of Palestinian citizens as second-class. Does that strike you as equal treatment under the law? It’s not proportional. It’s not temporary. It’s not legal. It’s not equal. And it’s not complicated. Believe your eyes. Follow your conscience. The reason that it looks like apartheid is simply because it is apartheid.

AMY GOODMAN: Hagai El-Ad, what is the response within the Israeli Jewish population to your critique, now calling what’s happening in Gaza war crimes, and to your apartheid report from January?

HAGAI EL-AD: Yeah, the response is definitely not — not welcoming or popular in any shape or form, which also is not new. But fighting for human rights is not a popularity contest. And I am encouraged by the way in which, first internationally, the understanding of the situation here as apartheid is becoming more and more mainstreamed. This is the result of efforts by Palestinian colleagues. Palestinian scholars and NGOs and activists have been making this point already for many years, right? And then, much more recently, the B’Tselem report in January and the Human Rights Watch very broad legal determination that Israeli officials are guilty of the crimes of apartheid and persecution, in April. And I think, thanks to that, and thanks to reality being what it is, it’s becoming less and less possible to obscure it and to hide it and to continue to lie about it. We’re hearing key figures in U.S. politics and media saying the truth out loud. And with that, I think it will also eventually resonate back here. And Jewish Israelis will need to come to terms with the fact that the world is waking up to what is going on.

And that’s really the the central aspect, because what is happening now in Gaza, it has to stop. This kind of bombings, it just has to stop. That’s the most essential aspect to save human lives. But that’s not sufficient. The people responsible need to be held accountable, because, otherwise, it’s just going to be allowed to continue the same way that this has been allowed to continue, which has brought us to this assault on the Gaza Strip. But also, it’s essential that we do not go back to the status quo. The status quo is a false term. It’s never static. And the status quo is not justice. The status quo is apartheid. So, yes, the bloodshed that is happening now has to stop. But the bloodshed is related to the underlying reality, to the overarching reality, to the condition of apartheid that has to end.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the human rights group B’Tselem. He’s speaking to us from Jerusalem. To see the full interview, you can go to democracynow.org, and we’ll link to the B’Tselem report, “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.”

This is Democracy Now! We’re spending the hour with Noura Erakat, the Palestinian American human rights attorney and legal scholar, and Gideon Levy, Israeli journalist, columnist for Haaretz, member of the Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper’s editorial board.

Gideon, one of your recent pieces is headlined “We Can Keep Lying to Ourselves on 'Apartheid,' but Israel Has Crossed the Line.” Talk about the sensitivity of Israel to this accusation. Palestinians and many others around the world have leveled it for a long time. It’s increasingly been adopted, that term, by mainstream organizations, like Human Rights Watch — and we just saw B’Tselem. The significance of calling it this, and how it changes?

GIDEON LEVY: Unfortunately, it’s a very, very, very slow process. And the way is still long to go, very long to go, because, Amy, Israel, as you know, is a society in total denial. People live here in denial. I cannot recall one society which lives in such a denial like the Israeli Jewish society in the last 20 years or so.

Nothing from the occupation gets into our daily life. The occupation seems to be somewhere else, beyond the oceans, in another continent, if at all. Israeli life is not affected by the occupation, not affected by the apartheid. We live our lives in our bubble, which is very pleasant and even, I would say, very democratic. And nobody cares to know what happens 15 minutes away from our homes, half an hour away from our homes. Most of the Israelis never travel there. Most of the Israelis are not informed about what’s going on there.

And the information which does get to Israelis is always this official, false information portraying the Palestinians always as the terrorists, nothing but terrorists, and portraying us as the ultimate victims, the only victims. Even now, when we are speaking now, most of the Israelis are sure that the big victims in this war are the Israelis, because they have to sit in shelters. The fact that the people of Gaza don’t even have shelters doesn’t cross the mind of anybody, doesn’t touch to the heart of anybody.

It is so hard to make Israelis feel something about the Palestinians. See them as human beings is a luxury here, because most of the Israelis don’t see. Tell them about dead children. What can you say about the fact that out of over 200 victims, almost 100 are women and children? Can you still claim that this is inevitable? Can you still claim that this is moral? Can you still claim that they were territories? No. But do you think that anybody is shaken by this in Israeli society or even in Israeli media? Nothing, because we live in denial.

And therefore, as long as people will call us apartheid — so immediately they are labeled as anti-Semites, so it’s their fault, not our fault. And Israel will continue to live in this denial, even though, you know, it penetrates slowly, slowly, much too slow, into the discourse.

AMY GOODMAN: Noura Erakat, you have Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups sending — shooting something like 3,000 missiles into Israel. Twelve people in Israel have died, two of them Thai migrant workers. You have Israel bombing Gaza. Hundreds of Palestinians have died, more than 60 children, killed by the Israeli attack. You have described what’s happened in Gaza Strip as an outright massacre. Can you talk about the effect on the ground? And you have a friend, for example, who is a Harvard Law graduate, who just lost 15 members of his family. Describe this to us, and then the overall context of what is happening, for people to understand this, what David Cameron, former British prime minister, described as an open-air prison, Gaza.

NOURA ERAKAT: Thank you for lifting up the story of Husam al-Qawlaq, who is the Harvard Law graduate and a dear friend of mine. Numbers indicate that he actually lost 21 members of his family, the eldest being age 90, the youngest being age 6 months. This is four generations of Palestinians wiped out in a single instance. That is more death in terms of civilian casualties in one strike than Hamas has meted out in this current conflagration.

The important thing I want to emphasize about Husam’s story is that he hasn’t met his family. He’s based in the United States and is not granted entry. This is a feature of Palestinian life, which is the forced fragmentation between Palestinians, aimed at undermining the singular national identity of Palestinians as an indigenous population to this land. He intended to meet them, and now cannot, upon his return to Palestine.

What’s even more tragic is that he and his family, or his parents, anyway, had fled Gaza to the United States for chances of a better life, and yet their pursuit of that life in the United States, which is the primary patron of Israel, primary imperial patron, is part of the structure — as is my life in the United States, and yours and everyone who is watching here from the United States — is part of the structure of violence that continues to be meted against Gaza.

I want to emphasize something about Israel’s use of force. There is no parity here. We understand that. In regards to Hamas rockets, I also want to emphasize that we should distinguish that Hamas may be using rockets that can’t target. And you can critique that for its recklessness, and it, too, can be tantamount to a war crime. But they have already been punished. They have been designated as terror organizations by the United States and the EU. They have been subject to siege. It becomes redundant and irrelevant to continue to condemn that and demand some sort of false parity.

What I want to emphasize about Israel’s use of force is, within the framework of jus ad bellum, Israel does not have the right to self-defense against a population that it occupies. It cannot usurp enforcement, law enforcement power from the native population, impose a siege, govern the airspace, govern the seaports, govern the perimeter, govern entrance and exit, govern how much caloric intake Palestinians have — and then shoot missiles onto a besieged population. It cannot do both. This has been established by legal scholars, such as Christine Gray, on the law of self-defense. It is an old trope that was condemned in the 1970s, when Portugal, South Africa and Israel tried to claim the right to self-defense in order to protect its colonial territories. You cannot dominate another people and then use the claim of self-defense in order to protect that domination. Israel is not protecting itself or its citizens. It is protecting its domination. It is protecting its occupation.

So, the first thing that needs to happen in the aftermath — one, this is a form of aggression. But the first thing that needs to happen, in any outcome after this, is that the siege must be lifted. We cannot endure another scene like this, another massacre, where it becomes theater for politics and news media, and then not demand that the siege be lifted as the bare minimum of what happens next.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come back, we’re going to talk about the issue of solidarity. Angela Davis recently released a statement on what’s happening in Palestine. We’re speaking with Noura Erakat, who is a Palestinian American scholar, assistant professor at Rutgers University. Gideon Levy is with us from Tel Aviv, Israeli journalist, award-winning columnist for Haaretz, sits on the Israeli newspaper’s editorial board. Stay with us.

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Angela Davis & Noura Erakat on Palestinian Solidarity, Gaza & Israel’s Killing of Ahmad Erekat

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