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10 years after modest launch, Israeli Apartheid Week spans the globe

Activists and analysts say a decade of the worldwide mobilisation has fuelled a powerful conversation about Israel's policies in Palestine
South African demonstrators at Woolworths, a retailer stocking Israeli products, protest as part of Israeli Apartheid Week on Saturday (AA)

In March 2005, the Arab Students’ Collective, a campus organisation at the University of Toronto, held a series of local events to support Palestinians and protest Israeli policies. Hoping to broaden debate at the end of the second Intifada and on the eve of Israel's redeployment of ground forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip, originally called "the separation plan," they called their proceedings Israeli Apartheid Week.

A decade on, their creation has become an annual and globally-recognised event. This year, it will feature cultural and educational events, as well as public protests in more than 200 cities on six continents.

Activists say the campaign’s growth indicates the rising appeal of its message.

“In the wake of Israel's massacre of Palestinians in Gaza, this year's IAW takes on even greater significance,” Michael Deas, a London-based member of the IAW international coordination committee, told Middle East Eye.

“More and more people are participating in IAW events for the first time, to find out more about Israel's oppression of Palestinians and how they can take effective action in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle,” he said.

While IAW schedules typically last a week, their dates vary by location to account for different national calendars. Local groups are currently holding events across Canada, Ireland, the US, and South America. Others recently ended in Europe, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, South Africa and the UK, according to the IAW Web site.

‘A wider discussion’

IAW’s expansion dovetailed with that of the global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, which started independently four months later in July 2005. Many IAW events highlight specific BDS campaigns, while others have sparked new ones.

Yasmeen Abu-Laban, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta and co-author of Israel, Palestine and the Politics of Race: Exploring Identity and Power in a Global Context, said the breadth of IAW shows Palestine’s emergence as a global issue.

“The ten-year anniversary reflects on its longevity,” she told MEE. “But more than that, the fact that IAW went not only national in the context of Canada, but international, appearing in cities across the globe, reflects on the tremendous importance of Palestine solidarity as a movement for human rights and justice in the 21st century.”

“IAW activities have also enabled a wider discussion of BDS as a global civil society response to the 2005 call of Palestinian civil society to respond to Israel's policies and continued occupation,” she added. “The BDS movement, like IAW activities, are part of how Palestine solidarity is being expressed today.”

South Africa’s history 'is Palestine’s reality’

Local IAW events can vary widely. In Gaza, the seventh annual week of IAW activities ended Thursday with a screening of “The Village under the Forest,” a documentary about the Jewish National Fund’s planting of trees on ethnically-cleansed Palestinian villages.

This past Saturday evening, after days of film screenings, panel discussions and a rally in New York City, hundreds of activists packed into a Brooklyn church hall to hear participants in a recent delegation of black journalists, artists and organisers from the US to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the head of the American Studies Association that voted in 2013 to boycott Israeli institutions, and local Palestinian organisers share their experiences.

In South Africa, demonstrators across the country protested outside branches of Woolworths, a retailer stocking Israeli products, while churches prepared to mark the week in their Sunday services.

IAW events in South Africa - among the world’s largest with the endorsement of 85 organisations and 200 events across the country - have drawn the support of major national organizations like the governing African National Congress, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and the South African Council of Churches.

Her country’s broad support for IAW is rooted in its past as a former apartheid state, Basheera Surty, a national convener for the events, told MEE.

“South Africa's history is Palestine's reality. The people of South Africa can relate to what is happening in Palestine,” Surty said. “However, for the younger South African generation who witnessed less of apartheid, we also see it as our moral duty to stand up for the oppressed people of the world as the international community stood up for South Africa against apartheid.”

Parallel lives

IAW’s designation of Israel as a contemporary apartheid state, akin to pre-1994 South Africa, can have multiple meanings. Many activists use the terms to compare the two historical experiences and their commonalities: the colour-coded pass systems, differing allocations of land and resources, legal and voting systems determined by ethnicity, roads and residential areas limited to certain populations, and other aspects of Palestinian life many say echo the legacy of South Africa.

“Israelis and Palestinians generally live in different communities, attend different schools and, even in the mixed cities within Israel, tend to live parallel lives,” Maia Hallward, a professor of political science and international affairs at Kennesaw State University and author of Transnational Activism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, told MEE.

“Within the West Bank,” Hallward said, “Israeli settlers live under a different set of laws than do the Palestinians living around them, travel on a different system of roads, tie into different water and electrical systems, and hold Israeli citizenship rather than a Palestinian ID.”

Israeli policies often stem from goals similar to those of South African apartheid, she added.

“In Israel, the term ‘hafrada,’ or separation, is routinely used to discuss the wall/separation barrier/security fence, as well as policies aimed at keeping Israelis and Palestinians apart. This ‘separation’ is also the basis of the Afrikaans term ‘apartheid.’”

Becoming mainstream

For others, these terms describe a crime defined by the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Hazem Jamjoum, a commentator and graduate student of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University who has written about the distinction, told MEE that the term’s legal meaning is more important than its use as a historical analogy.

“Of course, this does not negate the importance of taking seriously the historic connections between the Palestinian and South African liberation movements, as well as other movements against colonialism and institutionalized discrimination,” Jamjoum said. “But accusing Israel of committing apartheid has much less to do with comparing it to South Africa than it does holding it up against an international standard that defines and criminalises a crime called apartheid.”

The perception of Israel as an apartheid system has grown in recent years, Deas told MEE.

“The apartheid analysis of Israel's oppression of Palestinians is now becoming mainstream, with even John Kerry using the phrase in relation to Israel last year,” he said. “Like slavery or genocide, apartheid is a crime under international law that any state can been found to be committing. Israel meets the definition of apartheid under international law, which states that apartheid is an institutionalised system of domination of one group of people over another.”

Israel’s de facto ‘one state’

Israeli officials routinely dismiss accusations of apartheid, with many claiming that the state’s policies within its internationally-recognized borders, as opposed to the occupied Palestinian territories, disprove the allegation.

“It's one of those wonderful ironies that this anti-Israel festival coincides with another round of democratic elections in Israel in which Israel is likely to choose more Arab members of parliament than previously,” Paul Hirschson, deputy spokesperson for Israel's ministry of foreign affairs, told MEE. “Interestingly, Israel's elections' oversight committee is headed by an Israeli Arab Supreme Court judge. We rejoice in students' right to freedom of expression even when foundered on an absolute misunderstanding of the facts.”

IAW supporters say that Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens is nothing to celebrate, and hardly disproves their apartheid claims.

“Only one in seven of the Palestinian people as a whole have Israeli citizenship and can thus vote in Knesset elections,” British journalist and activist Ben White, author of Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide and Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy, told MEE.  “The rest are under military occupation or excluded from their homeland altogether. Furthermore, even those Palestinians with citizenship still face systematic, institutionalised discrimination with respect to land, housing, planning, budgets, education and more.”

Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which advocates for Palestinian citizens of the state, maintains a database of 58 active laws it says discriminate against them.

Over Israel’s history, its Palestinian citizens regularly mobilized against their expulsions from lands seized by the state during its formation and attempts to claim more, as well as its violence against their communities and attacks on Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Palestinian parties also faced attempts to exclude them from Israel’s political process.

White added that attempts to understand Israel apart from the occupied territories were flawed, like considering the white areas of apartheid-era South Africa and its Black “homelands” separately.

“The apartheid framework works best as a description of Israel's de facto 'one state', encompassing both Palestinians with citizenship and those without, a regime that controls the lives of all the people living between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, and affords or denies rights on a discriminatory basis.”

“One of the few moments where a broader public gets access”

Others say an anti-apartheid analysis of Israel fails to adequately describe its offenses, while restricting Palestinian and solidarity movements to certain historical models.

“The apartheid framework is prone to limiting the struggle within international law and/or civil rights parameters, ignoring two-thirds of the Palestinian population [who are refugees], dividing Palestinians based on where they live, and cabins everything from the genocidal military occupation to racist marriage laws inaccurately as apartheid,” Lamis Deek, an attorney and member of Al-Awda New York: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition, told MEE.

By focusing on aspects of Palestinian life that coincide with those under South African apartheid, which shaped both historical and legal understandings of the term, “the apartheid framework limits the definition of liberation,” she added. “It also glorifies the sort of nonviolent movement associated with the civil rights-oriented resistance, which in part relies on the oppressor, thereby defanging the armed resistance, which is the only form of self -defense left to the Palestinians and the only one that has liberated any Israeli occupied lands or deterred Israeli violence.”

IAW’s benefit, Jamjoum said, is its ability to bring Palestine into contemporary focus using clear, political language.

“The narrative surrounding Palestine is dominated by notions that it's an age-old religious conflict, or another instance of terrorism and the war against terrorism, or a tale of two peoples – whether Arabs versus Jews or Palestinians versus Israelis – who just can't seem to agree or get along. IAW is one of the few moments where a broader public gets access to analyses that pierce through these mythologies.”

And ten years in, the campaign’s participants and observers agree that its staying power is among its core strengths.

“The global movement against South African apartheid took decades before it gained significant global traction,” Hallward said.

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