By Mouin Rabbani
THE HAGUE, Netherlands, Apr 30 2021 – Human Rights Watch’s 27 April report, A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution, could also have been entitled Better Late Than Never.
The evidence and analysis deployed in this 217-page report and its 867 footnotes, voluminous and sound as it is, has been at HRW’s disposal for years. Similarly, its conclusions have been common currency in the region, and often beyond, since before HRW was founded. It is thus not Israel, but rather HRW that has crossed a threshold.
The more pertinent question is why HRW chose this moment to formally recognize reality. HRW is the industry leader in its field. As an establishment institution that places a premium on access to the corridors of power, it generally avoids open conflict with US foreign policy.
And compared to its reporting on other states in the MENA region, it has until recently been extremely reticent about explicitly condemning Israeli conduct or unambiguously charging it with criminal conduct – unequivocal HRW denunciations have in fact traditionally been directed at the Palestinians and other Arabs rather than Israel.
Additionally, key HRW leaders such as founding Chairman Robert Bernstein and President-for-Life Ken Roth are known for their pro-Israel sympathies. Bernstein for example was a shameless apologist for Israel who never encountered an Israeli violation he wouldn’t justify.
It is common knowledge within the human rights community that HRW staff hold a rather different view of Israel and its conduct, and have been agitating for many years for their organization to hold Israel to the same standards it applies to others in the region.
When, particularly during the past year, Israeli human rights organizations, most notably B’Tselem, published major reports characterizing Israel as an apartheid regime, HRW’s continued silence on the matter became politically untenable and somewhat of an embarrassment.
As in other aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, the Americans follow the lead of their Israeli counterparts and almost never get ahead of them.
Similarly, HRW management has always been adept at divining the political winds, and it may be the case that it assessed the direction of the ongoing International Criminal Court (ICC) deliberations on Palestine, and saw benefit in getting on the right side of history and positioning itself to claim some of the credit.
A report by the world’s most prominent human rights organization accusing Israel of apartheid and calling for it to face real consequences for its policies is by definition a significant development. And precisely because of HRW’s history, and because it is a renowned US organization, this report acquires added importance.
For example, the campaign by Israel and its apologists to proscribe advocacy for Palestinian rights and delegitimize findings that Israel is an institutionally racist state has I suspect suffered a significant blow.
Whenever Israel is exposed as a racist state or compulsive violator of Palestinian rights it seeks to render such judgements irrelevant and delegitimize its critics – including, it should be noted, Jewish ones – with specious charges of anti-Semitism. It’s a well-worn playbook often augmented with other dirty tricks and propaganda such as denouncing critics as terrorists and fellow travellers. But the anti-Semitism canard remains the core of its response.
Similarly, authoritative reports by prominent Israeli and US organizations make it more difficult for Western media and officialdom to continue avoiding serious discussion of Palestinian rights and Israeli practices, and may empower those within such institutions seeking to promote greater debate about Israeli-Palestinian issues. Such reports can also serve as a valuable educational resource and assist in advocacy efforts.
The more interesting question is what if any consequences A Threshold Crossed and similar publications may have for Israel’s continued impunity in its dealings with the Palestinian people.
Apartheid is not a murder committed by a soldier who can theoretically be placed on trial, or a war crime commissioned by a commanding officer or government minister who can theoretically be held to account.
It is, rather, the intentional, consciously designed character of a state, and as such implicates not only the state itself but every participating leader, official, and bureaucrat. It will be interesting to see, for example, if such reports have an impact on the current deliberations within the ICC prosecutor’s office about the situation in Palestine.
It will be similarly interesting to see if such reports register within the United Nations system. In 2017, Secretary General Antonio Gutteres scandalously buckled to US and Israeli pressure, and disassociated the UN from, and tried to suppress, a report commissioned by UN ESCWA on this very subject.
This led to the resignation of ESCWA’s highly respected Executive Secretary, Rima Khalaf. Given that his spokesperson Stephane Dujarric recently refused to acknowledge the Armenian genocide on the spurious grounds that it transpired prior to the UN’s establishment (perhaps it is his view that the Nazi Holocaust commemorated by the UN this January was perpetrated during the 1970s), I am not particularly optimistic.