Most Americans, if they know anything about the conflict in Israel-Palestine, recognize the unconscionable acts of violence by those on all sides. Palestinians often claim, rightly, that their death toll has been greater than that of Israelis, while Israel claims its killings of civilians to be accidental. But this tit-for-tat focus misses the underlying issue because violence is merely a symptom of a conflict that emerged from a very particular history of dispossession.
In 1947, Jews constituted about one-third of the population of Palestine and owned about 8 percent of the land, but the United Nations – without any representation of the majority population i.e. the Palestinians – partitioned Palestine into two states, granting 55 percent to a Jewish State and 45 percent to an Arab state. Not surprisingly, Palestinians rose up and were joined by several Arab states. Israel quickly won the resulting war, and was granted a new border incorporating 78 percent of historic Palestine. The other major result of this conflict was that 780,000 Palestinian refugees fled Israel. On this issue, the U.N. and standard international law favored the refugees. The agreed that anyone, anywhere, has the internationally recognized human right to return to a home they left for any reason, provided only that they are prepared to live there in peace.
In 1967, in response to foreign troop movements at its border, Israel conquered the remaining 22 percent of historic Palestine, leading to a new wave of refugees. In this case, the U.N. condemned the illegality of the acquisition of territory by force and called for Israeli withdrawal. Instead of taking steps to comply – as it eventually did in the case of the Egyptian Sinai – Israel initiated a process of settlement building. In direct violation of the Geneva Conventions it began moving hundreds of thousands of people onto Palestinian land and building a comprehensive infrastructure to separate Palestinians from Jewish settlers.
Identity cards differentiate Palestinians and Jews. Many roads are separate or segregated for the two groups, with modern superhighways for Jewish settlers and small rural roads for Palestinian travelers. Palestinians are forbidden from entering the “settlement blocs.” Hundreds of “check points” have been erected throughout the West Bank, allowing for daily harassment as people try to reach their fields, jobs or schools.
The “separation wall” – declared illegal by the International Court of Justice – finishes the job of separating Palestinians not only from Jews, but from themselves, into a network of disconnected Bantustan-esque structures. Though Israel withdrew from the tiny Gaza Strip recently, they continue to control the border, the coast, the airspace and the flow of goods into and out of Gaza. The result is the greatest economic and medical collapse in the entire history of Palestine.
As hard as it is for Americans to accept such a thing, there is only one honest name for this situation: apartheid. The term is defined by the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, to include acts designed to impose racial segregation and discrimination on a targeted group. Specific acts include denying life and liberty, imposing illegal arrest and imprisonment, denying participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and denying basic human rights of education, nationality, freedom of movement, and residence, freedom of speech and assembly, the right to leave and return to the country and any action “designed to divide the population . by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups, the prohibition of mixed marriages . the expropriation of landed property.”
All of these actions are systematically practiced in the occupied territories, and so it is a simple fact that Israel has instituted an apartheid regime. It is also a simple fact that the United States supports this regime with massive economic, military and diplomatic aid.
So what are the alternatives? The internationally recognized two-state model requires Israel withdraw from all of the occupied territories and allow the formation of a sovereign Palestinian state on the remaining 22 percent of Palestine. The entire Arab League has endorsed this plan, promising full normalization of relations if Israel will withdraw. The Fatah arm of the Palestinian movement has endorsed this plan for at least two decades, long before Hamas came to power, and even Hamas has said recently that it would abide by such an agreement and accept a long-term truce with Israel.
Of course from an abstract point of view, such a solution is not fair. It rewards Israel with over three-quarters of mandated Palestine and leaves the Palestinian refugees to indeterminate “future negotiations,” but optimists imagine it leading to growing cooperation and increasing conditions of justice over time. Israel, with implicit U.S. support, rejects this proposal, insisting on negotiations for yet further territorial concessions while continuing to expand settlements.
The other option is some form of a single state, either democratic or bi-national as in post-apartheid South Africa. Such a state would mean Israel would no longer remain majority Jewish, but that is not to say it could not remain a haven for Jews who want to live in peace with non-Jewish neighbors, anymore than South Africa is not safe for its white minority. Under this proposal, Israel would simply be a state for all its citizens with equal rights for all.
In my view, it is not the job of people outside the region to settle the question of what legal form Israel-Palestine takes. But it is our job not to support an illegal structure of apartheid. The reality is that our military and our political leadership – both funded with our tax dollars – prop up this apartheid regime, which does incalculable damage to our international reputation.
Sadly, both Obama and McCain have pledged their loyalty to Israeli policy in this election cycle. As usual, in such situations, it is up to ordinary Americans to force them to confront reality.
ark Lance is a professor in the philosophy department and a professor and program director in the Program on Justice and Peace. He can be reached at lancethehoya.com. COGNITIVE DISSIDENT appears every other Friday.