From Occupation to Apartheid in 6 years

September 21, 2017
Sarah Benton

Photo of Israel’s Apartheid Wall, as it is commonly known, by Ahmad Gharabi/AFP/Getty Images

Apartheid and the Future of Israel/Palestine

Interview with Richard Falk, posted on his blog

September 20, 2017

There has been lots of discussion prompted by the release of a report jointly authored with Prof. Virginia Tilley, a study commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA), and given by us the title, “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid.”

The interview, associated with my current visit to Belgium and France to speak on various aspects of the analysis and implications of the report, brings up to date the controversy generated at the UN by its release a few months ago, and by the willingness of the UN Secretary General to bow to U.S. pressure and order the removal of the report from the ESCWA website. The interview questions were posed by veteran Middle East correspondent, Pierre Barbancey, and published in l’Humanité, Sept. 6, 2017.

Richard Falk

1. Who commissioned your report“Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People…” and why?

The Report ± was commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia [ESCWA] in 2016 at the request of its Council, which has a membership of 18 Arab states. Professor Virginia Tilley and I were offered a contract to prepare a report on the applicability of the crime of apartheid to the manner in which Israeli policies and practices affected the Palestinian people as a whole and not only, as in previous discussions of the applicability of apartheid,  to those Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

The originality of the report is to extend the notion of apartheid beyond the Occupied Palestinian Territories and to investigate its applicability to Palestinians living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, to Palestinians enduring involuntary exile abroad, and to those existing as a discriminated-against  minority in Israel.

2) What are the conclusions of the ESCWA Report?

The most important conclusion of the Report was that by careful consideration of the relevant evidence, Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid as defined in the 1976 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid with regard to the Palestinian people as a whole. Palestinians living under occupation, as refugees, in involuntary exile and as a minority in Israel are all victimized by the overriding crime. The Report also found that Jews and Palestinians both qualify as a ‘race’ as the term is used in the Convention, and that Israel,  in order to  sustain a Jewish state,  established by ‘inhuman acts’ a structure of oppressive and discriminatory domination over Palestinians  as a people.

Co-author, VirginiaTilley

A second important conclusion  is that the Rome Statute governing the International Criminal Court regards apartheid as one type of ‘crime against humanity, which does not necessarily have the same features as the apartheid regime in South Africa, the origin of the concept and crime.

A third conclusion is that given the existence of apartheid, sustained to maintain a Jewish state in Palestine, all sovereign states, the UN, and civil society all have a legally grounded responsibility to take all reasonable steps of a nonviolent character to bring the commission of the crime to an end.

A fourth conclusion is that the Report is an academic study that draws conclusions and offers recommendations on the basis of a legal analysis, but it is not a duly constituted legal body empowered to make formal findings with respect to the allegations that Israel is guilty of apartheid.

3) What were the reactions?

We experienced two contradictory sets of reactions.

ESCWA received the report with enthusiasm. We were told it was the most important report that ESCWA had ever published, with by far the largest number of requests for copies.

Rima Khalaf, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) from 2010 to 2017. In March 2017 in Beirut [above] she resigned in protest at the UN Secretary General’s repudiation of the Falk/Tilley report

At the UN, the report and its authors were strongly attacked by the diplomatic representatives of the United States and Israel. They demanded that the UN repudiate the report. The Secretary General instructed the Director of ESCWA to remove the report from its website. She refused and tendered her principled resignation§, writing  an Open Letter to the Secretary General. It should be appreciated that this was an academic report of international law experts, and never claimed to be an official reflection of UN views. A disclaimer at the outset of the Report made this clear.

4) What happens now with the report?

The status of the report within ESCWA is not clear. As far as I know the report itself has not been repudiated by ESCWA. In fact, it has been endorsed in a formal decision of the 18 foreign ministers of the ESCWA countries, including a recommendation to other organs of the UN System that the findings and recommendations of the Report be respected. Beyond this, the report has altered the discourse in civil society and to some extent, in diplomatic settings, making the terminology of ‘apartheid’ increasingly displace the emphasis on ‘occupation.’

5) Israel says that the BDS movement is antisemitic. What is your answer?

This is an inappropriate and even absurd allegation. The BDS campaign is directed against Israeli policies and practices that violate international law and cause  suffering to the Palestinian people. It has nothing whatsoever to do with hostility to Jews as persons or as a people. That irresponsible allegation of antisemitism is made in order  to discredit BDS,  to discourage support and participation, to manipulate public opinion and government policy.

French support for BDS: screen capture from French news report of the arrest of a woman for wearing a pro-BDS T-shirt, March 2016.

6) In France you can be prosecuted if you act for BDS, as though that were a crime*. Do you know of similar situations in other countries?

I know there have been efforts in Europe and North America to criminalize support for BDS, but so far as I know, no formal laws have yet been brought into existence, and no indictments or prosecutions, outside of Israel and France*, have taken place. I am not entirely clear as to what has happened in Israel along these lines, although I know that Israel has been denying BDS supporters from abroad entry into the country.

7) What is your experience as the UN’s Special Rapporteur in the Palestinian territories and Israel?

My experience as UN Special Rapporteur on behalf of the Human Rights Council was both frustrating and fulfilling. It was frustrating because during my six years in the post the situation on the ground and diplomatically worsened for the Palestinian people despite the documented record of Israeli human rights abuses. It was fulfilling because it enabled me to make a forthright presentation of Israeli violations of basic Palestinian rights, which had some influence on the discourse within the UN, building support for corporate responsibility in relation to commercial dealing with Israel’s unlawful settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as shifted some of the discourse within the UN from ‘occupation’ to ‘settler colonialism’ and ‘apartheid.’

It was also something of a personal ordeal as I was constantly subject to defamatory attacks by UN Watch and other ultra-Zionist NGOs and their supporters. They also organized efforts to have me dismissed from my UN position and barred from lecturing on university campuses around the world. Fortunately, these efforts failed by and large, but they did have the intended effect of shifting the conversation from substance to auspices, from the message to the messenger.

7) Seventy years after the division of Palestine by the United Nations how do you see that decision?

The 1947 partition resolution [GA Res. 181] was part of the exit strategy of the British colonial administration in the mandate period that controlled Palestine after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the conclusion of World War I. This approach was flawed in several basic respects: it neglected the will of the majority Arab and non-Jewish domestic population, and imposed a solution to the conflict without consulting the inhabitants; it also within its own terms failed to secure Palestinian rights or its sovereign political community, or even to uphold international humanitarian law.

The UN never effectively implemented partition, and thus gave Israel the de facto discretion to impose its will on the entire territory of Palestine, including the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in the 1947 War, which overcame the demographic imbalance, and allowed itself to be branded to this day as ‘a democracy,’ even being hailed as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’

The US and Europe played a crucial geopolitical role in producing these developments, which rested on an Orientalist mentality lingering in the West.

8) Is there a solution for the Palestinians to recover their rights and to live in their own state?

It is difficult to envision the future at this stage, yet it is clear that the Palestinian national struggle is continuing both in the form of Palestinian resistance activities and by way of the international solidarity movement, of which the BDS Campaign is by far the most important undertaking.

In my judgment until enough pressure is exerted on the Israeli government to change course drastically, signalled by a willingness to dismantle the laws and procedures of the current apartheid regime, there is no genuine prospect for a political solution to the conflict. Such a change of course in South Africa occurred, against all expectations at home and abroad, and partly in response to pressures generated by this earlier version of an international BDS campaign.

My hope is that as the Palestinian people continue to win the ongoing Legitimacy War, this pattern will eventually be repeated, leading after a prolonged struggle to a sustainable peace between these two peoples based on the cardinal principle of equality.

This will not happen, tragically, until much suffering has been endured. This Palestinian ordeal has gone on far too long. Its origins can be traced back at least a century ago when in an undisguised colonial gesture of the British Foreign Office pledged its support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine to the World Zionist Movement in the form of the Balfour Declaration (1917). The competing national narratives of what transpired over the subsequent century tell different stories, each with an authentic base of support in the relevant community, but only the Palestine narrative can gain present comfort from the guidelines of international law, above all, the inalienable right of self-determination.±


± Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid.

Download full report, pdf file.

§ U.N. Under-Secretary General and ESCWA Executive Secretary Rima Khalaf announced her resignation at a news conferencin Beirut, Lebanon, on March 17, 2017.

*A number of French BDS activists have been prosecuted and found guilty on the grounds of discrimination and incitement of hatred. In October 2015 the Court of Cassation – the highest court of appeal – upheld convictions under France’s law on Freedom of the Press. This prescribes imprisonment or a fine of up to €45,000 for parties that “provoke discrimination, hatred or violence toward a person or group of people on grounds of their origin, their belonging or their not belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race or a certain religion.”

© Copyright JFJFP 2017