Joe Biden was a fierce critic of South African apartheid – now he’s accused of ignoring similar policies in Israel

Several of the world’s leading human rights groups have accused Israel of committing the crime of apartheid, writes Richard Hall

Thursday 14 July 2022 15:04 BST
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In 1986, a relatively fresh-faced senator from Delaware delivered an impassioned speech on the immorality of South Africa’s apartheid regime and his country’s support of it. During a Senate foreign relations committee hearing, a 43-year-old Joe Biden pounded his fist on the table in anger as he attacked George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, for backing the South African government, which imposed a system of segregation policies against its non-white majority.

“I’m ashamed that’s our policy [...]. I’m ashamed of the lack of moral backbone!” he said. “These people are being crushed, and we’re sitting here with the same kind of rhetoric.”

“What’s our timetable? What are we saying to that repugnant regime? Are we saying you’ve got twenty days, twenty months, twenty years? We asked them to put up a timetable, what’s our timetable? Where do we stand morally?” he asked.

It was a powerful condemnation of a system of racist oppression being carried out by a US ally, and one of many made by the senator on the subject throughout his career. But some 35 years later, those very same questions are being asked of Mr Biden as he visits Israel and Palestine for the first time since becoming president of the United States.

When Mr Biden travels in the coming days to Bethlehem he will be greeted by large billboards emblazoned with the words: “Mr President, this is apartheid,” alongside a map of what is left of the disconnected Palestinian territories — a stunt arranged by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

During an interview with Israeli television on Wednesday, the president was asked what he thought about “voices in the Democratic Party” who called Israel an apartheid state.

“There are few of them. I think they are wrong. I think they are making a mistake. Israel is a democracy. Israel is our ally. Israel is a friend. I think that I make no apology,” he said, before going on to tout the $4bn in military aid given by his administration to Israel.

It was a softball question, framed as an internal political disagreement rather than a practical reality. In any case, it was not answered fully. But there are reasons to expect that it should be.

Since Mr Biden’s last visit to Israel in 2016, a consensus has emerged among leading human rights groups on the question of apartheid in Israel. That consensus it is that Israel is now practising the very same crimes that Mr Biden once forcefully condemned as a senator.

Last year saw a significant shift in how rights groups described Israel’s occupation. In January 2021, B’Tselem published a detailed report in which it labelled Israel an “apartheid” state.

“By geographically, demographically and physically engineering space, the regime enables Jews to live in a contiguous area with full rights, including self-determination, while Palestinians live in separate units and enjoy fewer rights,” the group said.

“This qualifies as an apartheid regime, although Israel is commonly viewed as a democracy upholding a temporary occupation,” it added.

Soon after, in April last year, Human Rights Watch presented its own landmark 213-page report which came to the same conclusion. The rights group found that Israeli authorities are “committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution”.

“We reached this determination based on our documentation of an overarching government policy to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians coupled with grave abuses committed against Palestinians living in the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem,” HRW said.

Amnesty International followed suit in February of this year with a report that found Israel was committing the crime of apartheid against Palestinians.

The report “sets out how massive seizures of Palestinian land and property, unlawful killings, forcible transfer, drastic movement restrictions, and the denial of nationality and citizenship to Palestinians are all components of a system which amounts to apartheid under international law.”

And in March, Michael Lynk, the UN Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, called on the United Nations to address what he also described as apartheid.

“Apartheid is not, sadly, a phenomenon confined to the history books on southern Africa,” he said in his report to the Human Rights Council.

“There is today in the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel since 1967 a deeply discriminatory dual legal and political system that privileges the 700,000 Israeli Jewish settlers living in the 300 illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank,” he added.

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, responded to the reports by accusing the groups behind them of launching “a Jihad war against the only vibrant democracy in the Middle East.”

Yair Lapid, who was foreign minister at the time of the report but who greets Mr Biden as Israel’s prime minister today, said in a statement responding to the Amnesty report: “Israel isn’t perfect, but we are a democracy committed to international law, open to criticism, with a free press and a strong and independent judicial system.”

The Biden administration also said it rejected the view that Israel’s actions constitute apartheid. “The department’s own reports have never used such terminology,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters.

The Apartheid Convention, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1973, declares that apartheid is a crime against humanity and that “inhuman acts resulting from the policies and practices of apartheid and similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination” are international crimes. The 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court also set out apartheid as a crime against humanity.

There are, of course, significant differences between the South African apartheid regime and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. But there are also many similarities — Desmond Tutu, an anti-apartheid leader whom Mr Biden praised in his 1986 speech, spoke of them often.

"I have witnessed the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces. Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government,” he said in 2014.

Mr Biden has spoken often of his long-lasting and deep relationship with Israel. He has been a consistent supporter, both in word and deed. But critics say his refusal to properly address the question of apartheid in Israel makes his campaign pledge that “human rights will be the centre of our foreign policy” sound hollow. It is the kind of vague answer that a younger Joe Biden might have forensically interrogated, as he did to Mr Shultz.

The question Mr Biden has yet to answer is precisely how he disagrees with the world’s leading human rights groups and their designation of the crime of apartheid in Israel.

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