The last refuge

By Sally Fitzharris

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” Dr Johnson famously said. "It is unpleasing to represent our affairs to our own disadvantage; yet it is necessary to shew the evils which we desire to be removed."  

Israeli Apartheid Week, ongoing in the last ten days on university campuses throughout the UK, has been doing precisely that, showcasing Israel’s "ongoing settler-colonial project and apartheid policies over the Palestinian people."

Yet, Alex Chalmers, co-chairman of Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) resigned over the club’s decision to support Israeli Apartheid Week, claiming anti-semitism among its members: “a large proportion of OULC and the student left in Oxford have some kind of problem with Jews.”

This conflation of Israeli Apartheid Week with anti-semitism was, however, been swiftly countered by a number of Jewish professors and other distinguished individuals in letters published by the Guardian following the paper’s article ‘“Antisemitism” at Oxford club sparks Labour inquiry’, on 18 February.

Student campaigners appear also to have the law on their side. 

Article 7 (2) (h) of the Rome Statute, defines apartheid as “inhumane acts... committed in the context of an institutionalised 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.”

Professor Emeritus John Dugard, former UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, a South African lawyer and an expert on apartheid,  believes Israel fulfils this definition. Accepting that Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs should be understood as different racial groups, he argues that Israeli policy is ‘replete’  with inhumane acts,  stating, among many examples, that “.. opponents of the occupation are ruthlessly persecuted by targeted assassinations, torture, administrative detention, and house demolitions.”

He concludes that since many of Israel’s policies are clearly designed to privilege and maintain the domination of the Israeli settler community ‘ by "systematically oppressing" the Palestinian people the term "apartheid" must be applicable.

“Comparisons between Israel and apartheid-era  South Africa are a grotesque smear,” says MP Louise Ellman, vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel. But Dugard has called the South African regime “more honest,” in that apartheid was “openly legislated in parliament and clear for all to see.....

“Although not in law obliged to do so, it built schools, hospitals and roads for black South Africans. It established industries in the Bantustans to provide employment for blacks. Israel even fails to do this for Palestinians. Although in law [Israel] is obliged to cater for the material needs of the occupied people, it leaves this all to foreign donors and international agencies. Israel practices the worst kind of colonialism in the OPT. Land and water are exploited by an aggressive settler community that has no interest in the welfare of the Palestinian people – with the blessing of the state of Israel.”

This Israeli Apartheid Week - the twelfth in its history - has coincided with the UK government’s proposed ban on ethical procurement policy.  Local councils and other organisations including student unions, are to be banned from making decisions to boycott products coming from Israeli settlements, or not to award contracts to companies that provide services to settlements. 

Cabinet Minister Matthew Hancock says the procurement policy is to prevent “playground politics", but the government is attracting some very grown-up opposition.

The United Nations, the International Court of Justice and the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Convention have all stated that the building and existence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights are a violation of international law. Numerous UN Security Council resolutions have insisted that the settlements are illegal, and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

The UK government’s procurement policy appears to reverse its own long-standing position that "settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace". It sends a dangerous signal, undercutting efforts to halt Israel's settlement expansion at a time of escalating tensions.

Critics have called the move a “gross attack on democratic freedoms,” while a spokeswoman for the National Union of Students told the Independent of their concern about “any external pressure that could prevent student unions taking decisions on any issue that affects the students they represent.”

Companies targeted for boycott by the student union are very carefully chosen according to Abdulla Saad,  President of the Palestine Society at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS.)  “There is a specific list which is well researched for its level of complicity with Israel’s war crimes. Evidence has come from Palestinian academics and prominent members of Palestine civil society.”

SOAS lecture theatres have been packed full for the ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ events and supporting students appear in fighting mood.

“If we have freedom of speech we should all come together and act upon it,” says Joy, a student of English Literature who joined the Palestinian Society because she "completely disagrees with the Israeli settlements and how the Palestinians are being imprisoned in Gaza."

“It’s incredibly hypocritical for a government to tell its people not to buy products that come from  a country that is oppressing people,  while they continue selling them weapons,”  says Francesca, a Politics and Economics student.

“….[Israeli Apartheid Week] aims at raising more support across this country and across the world  so that Palestinians do not feel left alone in their struggle,” she says.

Support is desperately needed: on 2 March the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, will address MPs and Peers in Parliament at the express invitation of his British counterpart, John Bercow. Edelstein lives in an illegal Israeli settlement, Neve Daniel,  and has said he will represent "the Knesset, the state of Israel and the West Bank with pride."  He has of course no mandate to represent the occupied Palestinian West Bank.

“The true lover of his country is ready to sound the alarm, whenever he perceives the approach of mischief,” wrote Johnson. The vast majority of students understand that "sounding the alarm" is not anti-semitism. It is an essential part of upholding human rights and international law.

After decades of living under Israel's discriminatory policies and practices, Palestinians long to see actions by the international community that make a real difference. 

"As Palestinians, it makes us happy to hear that there are demonstrations around the world supporting our rights," says Anwar, a Fobzu-Ahdaf scholarship student at Birzeit University. "But at the same time, we don’t notice any real change on the ground - only the hypocrisy of governments that keep giving economic and military support to Israel."

3 March 2016