International perspectives on apartheid and decolonization in Palestine

Omar Ahmed

Middle East Monitor  /  February 5, 2023

A conference was held in London yesterday, hosted by MEMO entitled “International perspectives on apartheid and decolonization in Palestine” and included a diverse group of academics and writers discussing three broad themes: apartheid, genocide and decolonization.

Dr Daud Abdullah, the Director of MEMO, kicked off the event by welcoming all attendees and those watching the live stream. He pointed out that “There are striking parallels between the socio economic conditions that exist in Palestine today and the degradation of the colonized peoples in the past.” This, he said was a consistent pattern in settler colonial regimes aimed at destroying and replacing indigenous populations of the Global South. However, the “tragedy” of Palestine need not remains constant, as Abdullah reminded that liberation ebbs and flows, “it comes in waves and it subsides.”

In the formal opening address, Professor Joseph Massad provided a lecture on the historical roots of the Palestinian issue, namely Zionism, which he explained started off as a Christian Protestant movement, and not a Jewish cause dating back to the 16th century. By the 18th century, this increasingly secular ideology would eventually evolve into the idea that European Jews are directly linked with the Asiatic, ancient Hebrews of the Middle East. These are key Zionist arguments which are continually being used to justify the on-going colonization of Palestine. This Zionist project, in true colonial fashion, went on to serving as a “buffer state” for the European powers. After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the Zionists started labelling the indigenous resistance as “anti-Semitism,” which has since become a central component of the project.

Academics Suja Sawafta and Sara Husseini shed light on the dynamics of settler-colonialism, both past and present as the topic of the day’s first panel. Sawafta spoke of the relevance of Orientalism, without which one would find it impossible to talk about the plight of the Palestinian people. As with other settler-colonialists, Zionists appropriated notions of supremacy and “othering” the native people of Palestine, who would be portrayed as less civilized and in need of being saved from their own “barbarity.” Husseini who is the director of the British Palestinian Committee noted how the settler-colonialist and the apartheid state have essentially been omitted in prevailing discourse, with the “conflict paradigm” reduced to two peoples – Palestinians and Israelis fighting, in need of making peace. However, such an approach, she argued obscures the reality and the root causes of the issue. By extension, this narrative also obfuscates Britain’s facilitating role in the Nakba as the former mandatory power. This international impunity that Israel currently enjoys is being challenged, though, as mounting evidence of the apartheid state’s crimes become more widely available and publicized by civil society.

The second panel concerned “Apartheid as a prelude to genocidal practices”, and included contributions from Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor of Middle East Studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar who focusses on researching disinformation and digital media. Jones shed light on the “utopian and dystopian” contrasts in social media which have permeated across the world over the past decade, especially during the Arab Spring, where it was once thought that such digital technology could give a voice to the voiceless and oppressed, thereby challenging the power of the state. However, states especially in the Middle East have also co-opted this technology, often with the complicity of private companies for surveillance and to spread disinformation. He gave the example of how certain Gulf states have been utilizing anti-Palestine hashtags, amid the surge in popular sentiments of solidarity being expressed by Arab netizens, particularly in opposition to the growing push for normalization between Israel and Arab states. An interesting angle, was what Jones referred to as the emergence of “digital orientalism,” which is a situation where digital companies are treating the Global South with “minimum responsibility in terms of how they’re trying to abuse but also exploiting those places to make profits.” He gave the example of the genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar and how Facebook acknowledged that it allowed hate speech to proliferate on its network without properly moderating the Burmese-language content.

Dutch-Palestinian Middle East researcher and analyst Mouin Rabbani discussed the apartheid state’s demographic engineering and fragmentation of the Palestinian people, both of which have been central to Israel’s strategy of colonization. The very future of Israel’s existence, he said, depends to a large extent on the apartheid state’s ability to perpetuate these. However, he also noted that these practices also exist with the complicity of the West and indeed among the Palestinian Authority. This complicity in the fragmentation of the Palestinian people “is nothing short of criminal and tantamount to support for continued Israeli domination of Palestinian lives.”

The keynote address was delivered by Professor Michael Lynk, an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario and former UN Special Rapporteur for the human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian Territories. In his experience, human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian Territories are rife and continuously getting worse, yet despite diplomats and policymakers being familiar with these illicit practices, nothing was being done, this in turn has spurred his own work on the subject. If the West or the Global North had taken the necessary action such as an end to trade and military agreements, Lynk contended, there would be an almost instantaneous end to the occupation.

The third and final panel session was on the topic of resistance and liberation. Cuban diplomat and director of the Research Centre for International Policy (CIPI) in Havana, Jose Ramon Cabañas, spoke at length of the history of the Caribbean nation’s support for Palestine, highlighting that it even opposed the partition of Palestine, having itself been subjected to a colonial and later, an imperial power blockade.

Jeff Halper who self-identifies as “Jewish Israel” is an anthropologist and co-founder of “The One Democratic State Campaign” (ODSC) and was the last speaker on the panel and spoke optimistically of the one-state solution, a Palestinian-led movement. Halper who acknowledged he is a “settler” stressed that the liberation of Palestine must only come from the Palestinian people themselves. However, this will also depend on the outcomes of an “intra-Palestinian” conflict as to what the national agenda will resemble. The Palestinian liberation struggle Halper said, will exist within a wider struggle, in which “there’s not going to be the total liberation that the Palestinians have always dreamed of,” that is returning to the Palestinian nation, becoming Palestine again. He also cautioned that ending an apartheid state does not mean decolonization, giving the example of South Africa, which although saw the end of the apartheid system, wasn’t decolonized immediately. Settler-colonialism is much larger than an apartheid regime. For Halper, both sides will have to contend with the fact that neither “nation” will be leaving and will be there to stay, hence the proposition of the “one-state” solution, which could in theory take three different forms. The most realistic being a shared state with “a new civic identity”.

Omar Ahmed has an MSc International Security and Global Governance from Birkbeck, University of London