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HRW report accusing Israel of apartheid widely condemned

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Israel

There has been widespread local and international condemnation over a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report accusing Israel of apartheid and persecution.

The United States-based HRW published a 213-page report this week accusing Israel of pursuing policies of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians and against the country’s own Arab minority that amount to crimes against humanity. The report claims the Israeli government enforces an overarching policy to “maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians”.

HRW said that after decades of warnings that an entrenched hold over Palestinian life could lead to apartheid, it had found that the “threshold” had been crossed.

The report titled “A threshold crossed: Israeli authorities and the crimes of apartheid and persecution” was authored by Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine country director at HRW. Shakir was deported from Israel in 2019 for his alleged support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“HRW’s credibility as a human-rights watchdog has been hopelessly compromised by its obsessive anti-Israel bias, so much so that its founder has distanced himself from it,” says David Saks of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. “Its latest report is just another rehashing of this politically-driven, factually distorted vendetta against the Jewish state.”

Israel’s foreign ministry rejected the claims as “preposterous and false”, and accused HRW of harbouring an “anti-Israeli agenda”, saying the group had sought “for years to promote boycotts against Israel”.

Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Michael Biton said the purpose of the report was “in no way related to human rights, but to an ongoing attempt by HRW to undermine the state of Israel’s right to exist as the nation state of the Jewish people”.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the report.

The HRW said its report wasn’t aimed at comparing Israel with apartheid-era South Africa, but rather at assessing “whether specific acts and policies” constitute apartheid as defined under international law. The report said Israel met the legal definition for crimes of apartheid as set out by the Rome Statute.

This is the first time in HRW’s 43-year history that it has accused Israel of apartheid. It has called on the United Nations (UN) to verify the claims, and apply an arms embargo against Israel until steps are taken to end such “crimes”.

The report said Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, both within and outside sovereign Israel, met the definition of the crimes of apartheid.

The report provides an example of discrimination, citing Israel’s Law of Return which grants citizenship to Jews who want to emigrate to Israel. It says Palestinian refugees and their descendants who had lived on territory now under Israeli sovereignty didn’t have that same right of return.

NGO Monitor said that for close to 20 years, HRW had backed various BDS campaigns against Israel and companies that do business in Israel. “Recently, HRW was active in [failed] BDS attacks targeting Airbnb and FIFA, as well as in lobbying intensively for the UN BDS Blacklist.”

In its extensive analysis of the HRW report, the nongovernmental organisation accuses the HRW “of deviously erasing the context” of the Law of Return.

“The Law of Return was enacted in the shadow of the Holocaust to provide a safe haven for Jews who for centuries suffered persecution around the world. The sharp rise in physical violence and other forms of antisemitism around the world in recent years only highlights the need for Israel as a safe refuge from persecution.”

The report addressed Israeli policies against Palestinians in the West Bank, including settlement activity, the demolition of Palestinian homes, and lack of freedom of movement for Palestinians.

The report also highlights problems with the 2018 Nation State Law.

NGO Monitor condemned the apartheid accusation, saying it was part of a larger global campaign to discredit Israel and undermine its identity as a Jewish state.

Shaun Sacks of NGO Monitor told the SA Jewish Report that over the past 18 months, NGOs had intensified their campaign to highlight the term “apartheid” in discourse about Israel.

In January, Israeli organisation B’Tselem made exactly the same case, also accusing Israel of apartheid for the first time.

“This campaign reinforces the actions of the ICC [International Criminal Court] prosecutor, who after 10 years, agreed to launch an investigation against Israel.

“Our analysis of this report shows this isn’t merely a critique of Israeli policy in the West Bank, but an attack on the very foundations of Israel and a rejection of the legitimacy of a Jewish state, regardless of borders. It’s the culmination of decades of obsessive attacks against Israel.”

Sacks said Shakir had “devoted many years to delegitimising Israel, and in 2019, his Israeli work visa wasn’t renewed because of his involvement in BDS campaigns in violation of Israeli law.”

The president of NGO Monitor, Professor Gerald Steinberg, said in a statement, “The demonisation of Israel through comparisons to the heinous legacy of the South African apartheid regime has deep roots, going back to the Soviet and Arab campaigns and the infamous Durban NGO Forum. HRW’s latest contribution consists of the standard mix of shrill propaganda, false allegations, and legal fictions. Exploiting the ‘apartheid’ image for propaganda is a cynical appropriation of the suffering of the victims of the actual apartheid regime.”

Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, said the HRW was biased against Israel.

“It’s not surprising that HRW has produced yet another anti-Israel report based on distortion, misinformation, and the political agendas of the writers. Even HRW’s original founder, Robert Bernstein, has distanced himself from the organisation over its obsessive and ongoing anti-Israel focus. HRW has admitted in the report that it doesn’t base its claims on the repeatedly debunked notion that Israel is similar to apartheid South Africa. This is yet another attempt to dilute the meaning of actual apartheid practices in South Africa and the victims who suffered under it.”

Polovin said the facts on the ground “simply don’t comport with the fantasy being portrayed in the report”.

“Whilst this report is being promulgated, multiple Arab nations are signing peace treaties with Israel and scaling up their involvement with the Jewish state. Democratically elected political parties with constituents from Arab-Israeli communities are engaging in the Israeli Knesset with their counterparts, and Israel is faced with rocket attacks not just from Gaza but from Syria as well. This reality isn’t portrayed in the report, and strongly contradicts the allegations it makes.”

Said Saks, “As for the impact of this report, it depends in part on how effectively the message gets out that HRW cannot be trusted, especially on this issue.”

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Israel considers the option of war with Iran

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Israelis are being asked again whether or not they support a proactive strike on Iran, even at the risk of starting a war. The overwhelming majority – more than 70% – say yes!

In a recent poll, just more than one in two also said that Israel should have attacked Iran years ago during the “early stages” of its nuclear development rather than wait for a negotiated settlement.

The debate is back in the news after last week’s reports that Jerusalem had approved $1.5 billion (R22.1 billion) for aircraft, intel-gathering drones, and unique armaments needed for a potential strike on Iran.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned that even more funds would be necessary. “Israel is challenged militarily on many fronts,” he said, “the most significant threat facing Israel – and the one for which the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) most needs to allocate its resources – is Iran and its nuclear programme”.

The goal of an Israeli strike on Tehran would be twofold.

Primarily, it would aim at preventing the regime from being able to build an atomic bomb. From the start, the previous Israeli government under then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was against the July 2015 nuclear deal signed between Tehran and world powers.

Under its terms, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear programme and open its facilities to more extensive international inspection in exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief.

But three years later, to Israel’s delight, former American president Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement and since then, the Islamic Republic has again started to ramp up its nuclear activities. It has also refused access to the International Atomic Energy Agency to repair surveillance equipment damaged in a June attack on a nuclear site that has been blamed on Israel.

The blast destroyed a camera and heavily damaged another, although it’s unknown how many cameras are there in total.

There is now renewed rigor by the current American administration and European powers to bring Iran back to the negotiating table, but their patience is running thin. Tehran is stalling, even more so after ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi won the presidential election in June.

The second goal of a potential IDF strike on Iran would be to reduce the country’s efforts, through its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, to establish a permanent base of operation on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, close to the Israeli border.

In recent months Israel has conducted numerous strikes on Syria, the latest reportedly on Monday morning, 25 October, to prevent precisely this.

But such attacks are becoming more difficult for Israel as Syria continuously improves its air defence capabilities, partly due to upgraded Iranian-made components. Iran also recently begun deploying advanced air defence systems in Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon to protect its forces and proxies in those countries from Israeli strikes.

In a five-hour meeting last Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to maintain Moscow’s tacit acceptance of these strikes.

In spite of the fact that Bennett has replaced Netanyahu (only temporarily, many Israelis would tell you), the county’s leadership is on the same page when it comes to Iran.

Everyone – as in the Israeli political elite and the public – understands that bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would effectively amount to declaring a war. For this reason, most in Israel would prefer the United States and Western countries to take the lead and for Israel not to have to shoulder the full responsibility and consequences of an attack on Iran.

There is also a lot of tension in the Islamic world, and Tehran is far from popular. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries in the Gulf that Israel recently signed peace treaties with, like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, are also concerned about Iran’s nuclear capability. But their messages are ambiguous, and it seems that their preference, at least in the short term, would be for actions short of war.

What’s more, an Israeli assault on a major Muslim country could very well unite Arab countries against the Jewish state.

First prize for Israel, of course, would be if any of these countries came on board a planned Iranian strike. But if they don’t, and before Iran’s nuclear programme reaches the point of no return, there seems to be an understanding in Israel that she would have to strike alone.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi has admitted that Israel has “greatly accelerated” preparations for action against Iran’s nuclear programme.

Already at the beginning of the year, Kohavi publicly declared that Israel was preparing fresh “operational plans” for a potent military strike. Two months ago, he admitted that Iran’s nuclear progress had prompted the IDF “to speed up its operational plans”. Reports suggest that an IDF strike plan is in the “draft stage”.

But an Israeli strike on Iran presents numerous challenges. In addition to having to find ways to strike Iranian facilities that are buried deep underground and that require specialised munitions and tactics, the Israeli Air Force will have to deal with increasingly sophisticated Iranian air defences in order to conduct such a strike. The air force will also have to prepare for an expected retaliation against Israel by Iran and its allies throughout the region.

The Iranians, for their part, have sounded a note of defiance in the face of Israeli threats.

One of Iran’s most senior leaders recently threatened that if Israel attacked its nuclear programme, the country’s response would require Israel to spend “tens of thousands of billion dollars” to reconstruct the country.

Israel views the Iranian nuclear project as a near existential threat. Amidst the international community’s hesitancy regarding Tehran’s real intentions and reluctance to take action – at least for now – Jerusalem will increasingly prepare for a D-Day when it might just be forced to go the road alone.

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Israel’s vaccination rules may hinder South Africans, olim advocate says

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Travelling to Israel may get easier soon, but with some rules that could hold South Africans back. According to former member of the Knesset (MK) Dov Lipman, from 1 November 2021, travellers to Israel may have to have a third booster shot, or have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 within six months of their visit. “Those who were vaccinated more than six months ago may have a challenge in entering Israel. We are trying to influence the decision for the better,” he says.

As some time has passed since most South African Jews received their vaccines, and with no possibility of a third booster shot being offered anytime soon, this may make travelling to Israel difficult. Lipman is concerned that tourists who have access to third booster shots may be able to travel to Israel, but relatives of olim may be left out in the cold. Ironically, those who got vaccinated earliest may have the most difficulty, which he said is a “sad” reality.

Not all superheroes wear capes – some of them wear kippot – and Lipman is doing everything he can to stop this from happening. His organisation, Yad L’Olim, works to help olim thrive in Israel and lobbies the Knesset to drive government policies that provide new immigrants with the tools that they need to succeed in Israel.

Lipman did just that in a speech to the Knesset on 12 October. Addressing ministers and MKs, he said, “Right now, they are talking about a new plan. They are talking about tourists who will come from all over the world. There are countries with Zionistic Jews whose family members made aliyah. And they have no ability to get the third vaccine dose. They have no ability to get it. So what’s going to happen? We’re going to have a state filled with tourists from all around the world who don’t have any special connection to Israel, and I am happy that they will come.

“But families who supported their family member’s decision to move to Israel won’t have the ability to come here. There must be an outcry from Knesset, from MKs and ministers, not to allow this to happen,” he said. “Yes, open the country to tourists, that’s fine, I have no problem with that. But let there be a plan. Actually, continue with the current policy enabling relatives who cannot get a third shot to come, and especially for there to be a true exceptions committee.

“There should be an easy to use link for those who have family weddings, Bar/Batmitzvahs or births. You cannot close the door on olim and their families when you are opening the door to tourists. I call on all of you to be our voices and take care of this.”

Lipman says that though Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wasn’t there when he spoke, “two MKs from his party were, and we’re now following up on what I said”. He says olim are already coming to him with concerns that their families may not be able to visit.

“We’re trying to make sure that they have the right balance of not shutting the door on everyone while changing the rules. Things are still in flux regarding final decisions. I’m recommending to anyone who can get a shot [vaccine], whether it’s a booster, or their first one, or someone who has recovered [from COVID-19] last year, if you can get one, I’m recommending that. Because it will ease your ability to get into Israel after 1 November, and that would apply even if you didn’t have a first-degree relative in Israel.”

He says he spoke out because “I’m concerned that there’s no mechanism in place for first-degree relatives to visit if they haven’t been vaccinated according to Israel’s requirements. And I believe that if people are going to undergo a full quarantine, testing, and the like, then there should be an option.

“Israel needs to be a place where olim know that their families can come. And yes, we have to take health concerns into account, and I’m not suggesting therefore just to open things up. But we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of families of olim coming. I also know that there are exceptions for weddings and births, and things like that, but the process has been complicated and not easy to use. I’d rather make it as user-friendly as possible for the benefit of olim and their families.”

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Israel’s status on agenda of AU executive

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On the eve of the meeting of the Executive Council of the African Union (AU) this week, there has been much speculation about whether Israel’s recent granting of observer status will be debated, and if calls for the decision to be rescinded will be heard.

The announcement in July that Israel had been granted observer status at the AU drew sharp reaction from several countries on the continent, including South Africa.

Last week, International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) Minister Naledi Pandor met her Palestinian counterpart, Riad Malki, and again expressed dissatisfaction with Israel’s status. (See story on page 1.)

During the official bilateral talks held at Dirco, Pandor said South Africa wasn’t party to the AU’s “shocking” decision to grant Israel observer status.

In July, Pretoria moved swiftly to lobby other Southern African Development Community states against the decision.

Many said the decision had been taken unilaterally by AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, and expressed solidarity with Palestine.

Out of 55 member states, 46 enjoy diplomatic relations with Israel. There are about 17 member countries opposing observer status.

It’s understood that the matter was placed on the agenda of the AU executive council following complaints by some member states.

Professor Hussein Solomon of the University of the Free State wrote recently that South Africa was “out of sync” with the views of most African heads of state. “Isolating Israel won’t work in promoting the well-being of Palestinians. This was tried for decades by Arab countries and has failed.”

Jean-Pierre Alumba Lukamba, the international director of the African Diaspora for Development, (ADD), told the SA Jewish Report this week that according to the guiding principles of the AU, Israel should be at the opening of the AU’s executive council meeting this week as an observer member for the first time in nearly 20 years.

The ADD has reiterated its call to African heads of state to maintain unanimously the admission of the state of Israel as an observer member.

In a statement, the ADD said, “The African people will derive great benefit from the state of Israel, which has notably established agricultural co-operatives, youth training centres, and medical facilities in countries such as Ghana, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Côte d’Ivoire.

“Israel supported the use of technology for the sustainable development of Africa in accordance with a resolution adopted by the United Nations,” it said, and it was “convinced” that admission to the AU of Israel would help to advance the African continent towards a better future for the well-being of African people.

The ADD joined its voice to those of other civil society organisations, and asked the African heads of state to include it on its agenda this week.

Earlier this week, the ADD held a peaceful rally in Abuja in support of Israel’s observer status.

Olubunmi Fagbuyiro, the Economic Community of West African States representative of the ADD, said that there was still concern about countries who opposed this observer status. “The AU should embrace Israel, as the country has already demonstrated its willingness for fruitful partnership with Africa,” Fagbuyiro said.

He said Israel had been pivotal in the provision of green energy, health infrastructure, and infrastructure for sustainable water supply in many countries on the continent. He noted Israel’s contribution to the fight against Ebola in Africa.

“It’s our view that the AU can play an important role in bringing about peace between Israel and Palestine, drawing on lessons from the African nationalist movements and the experiences of decolonisation and reconciliation following various conflicts can be used to inspire negotiation and peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.”

Meanwhile, the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) has joined various African civil society organisations from across the continent in their call for African heads of state to reaffirm unanimously Israel’s admission as an observer member of the AU.

“Israel has had a mutually beneficial relationship with African states for more than 70 years. It has been at the forefront of efforts to help solve some of the most important developmental challenges on the continent. These include the areas of health, agriculture, youth development, water, education, and energy.

“The admission of Israel as an observer to the African Union, alongside more than 70 other countries, is a historic and welcome development. It should be celebrated and not undermined by those who aren’t interested in peace and prosperity on the continent,” it said.

The SAZF called on other organisations connected to Africa and its diaspora to sign a letter of support to the AU.

The letter is signed by prominent progressive international African organisations, companies, leaders, activists, youth movements, and trade unions. It says Israel’s admission seeks to “enhance the work of Israeli African co-operation on development programmes at bilateral and multilateral levels. Admittance is in the interests of peace and dialogue.”

Faki Mahamat accepted the credentials of Aleligne Admasu, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, on 22 July.

He said at the time that he hoped the move would contribute to the “intensification of the advocacy of the AU for the fulfilment of the principle of two states and the restoration of peace between Israel and Palestine” and reiterated the “unflinching commitment” of the AU to the fundamental rights of the Palestinians.

This included their “right to establish an independent national state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, within the framework of a global, fair, and definitive peace between Israel and Palestine.”

Faki Mahamat said the reservations expressed by “a few members” about this decision justified his intention to include it on the agenda of this week’s session of the executive council.

Israel obtained AU observer status after 20 years of diplomatic efforts. It had previously held the role at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), but was long thwarted in its attempts to regain it after the OAU was disbanded in 2002 and replaced by the AU.

Apart from South Africa, other countries opposing Israel’s member status include Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.

Most other countries on the continent have sought closer ties with Israel, such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda, and have secured Israeli help, expertise, and investment in many areas from water and agriculture to tech start-ups.

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