Israel: an illegitimate, Middle Eastern democracy

Other than the fact that Israel is not the only example of democracy in the Middle East: is a democratically elected government legitimate if they are elected to pursue systematic colonialism?

In 2009, The Israel Project, a US-based, pro-Israeli organisation, authoured a not-for-distribution booklet titled “Global Language Dictionary” (that was directly leaked to Newsweek). This PR guide had the objective to identify talking points that made public support for Israel increase. Page 10 highlighted one of the arguments that seemed to work particularly well in the United States: “Israel, America’s ally, is a democracy in the Middle-East”.

In the past decade or so, the Israeli state and pro-Israel organisations have grown to use ‘Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East’ as their main talking point. Yet, it is not because a lie repeated again and again becomes a truth.

In 2019 alone, the United Nations’ General Assembly condemned Israel 8 times for its Human Rights violations. In 2018, out of the 27 condemnations issued by the United Nations, 21 regarded Israel. This year, the UN Human Rights Office published a list of 112 companies directly implicated in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are a violation of the article 49th of the Geneva convention which states that: “The Occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population in the territory it occupies”.

Other than the fact that Israel is not the only example of democracy in the Middle East, this therefore begs the question as to whether or not it is significant that a government is democratically elected if they are elected to pursue systematic colonialism.

UN bodies are not the only institutions accusing Israel of grave violations of human rights and other international treaties. In 2019, Fatou Bensouda, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), announced that ‘following a thorough, independent and objective assessment […] all the statutory criteria under the Rome Statute for the opening of an investigation [into Israeli human rights violations] have been met’.

The assessment came to the conclusion that war crimes have and are being committed in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Israel, did not deny the allegations, but rather denied the court’s jurisdiction over the territories, alongside applying pressure onto the court with the help of Germany, the UK, France and the United States, the latter going as far as to apply sanctions on the ICC.

Thinking about responsibility to protect, international legal rulings bring the legitimacy of the Israeli state – a state that survives and thrives from territorial expansionism – into question. If the state is illegitimate, what good is pointing to an illegitimate party that is democratically elected?

In a fight against Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and lives, the Palestinian and the International civil society launched the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement modelled on the anti-South African apartheid movement. The movement has attracted international attention with the endorsement of artists like Roger Waters (a member of Pink Floyd) and the support of the African National Congress (the ruling party in South Africa since the end of Apartheid).

In response, the Israeli state, alongside different lobbies, launched public and legal attacks against the movement in an ostensible attempt to render it both unpopular and illegal. Yet, banning BDS is a deeply concerning move, as it’s a violation of consumer rights, but also of a freedom of thought and of expression that is far less problematic than the idea that colonialism is acceptable if it is the outcome of free and fair democratic, political expression.

The criminalisation of BDS in France has led to condemnation of the nation’s move by the European Court of Human Rights, giving a strong blow to all BDS criminalisation attempts in Europe and the United States. Furthermore, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) frequently publish reports detailing Israeli violations of human rights and humanitarian law. Those reports have led to the expulsion of Omar Shakir from Israel, an HRW director based in the region.

During Shakir’s career as a human rights defender, two other countries have banned him – Egypt and Bahrain – two autocratic countries known for mass incarceration and massive violations of human rights and international law. But international organisations are not the only institutions fighting Israeli policies. Key Israeli organisations like B’Tselem are the spearhead of the fight for democracy in Israel, demanding equal rights for all those residing in Israel and occupied Palestine.

Legally, the crime of apartheid, which is considered a crime against humanity by the Rome Statute (which established and gives authority to the ICC), is defined as ‘the implementation and maintenance of a system or legalised racial segregation in which one racial group is deprived of political and civil rights’.

There is only one solution for Israel’s action in Palestine to not be considered apartheid. It is for Israel to be occupying the territory for a temporary period of time and planning on giving it full independence. One should not fall into the trap of using the dichotomy between Palestinians residing in occupied Palestine and those residing in Israel as Israeli citizens. Both groups face persecution and compromised rights in comparison with non-Palestinian Israeli citizens.

Such apologetics additionally willingly ignore the fact that Palestinians in Israel have lived under military rule until 1966 and were subject to the need for travel permits, administrative detentions (arrest with trial) and expulsions (just like Palestinians in the West Bank today are).

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