Palestinian defiance to apartheid Israel

by Brian Durrans

This article was completed on the seventieth anniversary of the founding of Israel in 1948 and the very different Palestinian Nakba (‘Catastrophe’) [note 1] which led up to and accompanied it: a process of systematic repression that has been going on ever since. Never have these two commemorations stood in starker contrast. On 14 May, at the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem - timed to set the scene for the following day’s independence celebrations - President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu proclaimed the event ‘historic’ when it simply marked just one more endorsement of Israel’s contempt for international law and was boycotted by most of the world’s diplomats.

But the dominant feature of the moment, and of the last month and a half, was the determination and courage of Gaza, on the eighth day of the ‘Great March of Return’, a series of weekly protests, together with expressions of Palestinian culture and socialising, on the Gazan side of Israel’s perimeter fence. Instead of factional insignia, almost everyone carried the Palestinian flag.  On Trump’s and Netanyahu’s ‘historic day’ alone, in what Israel’s own Ha’aretz newspaper described as a bloodbath, fifty-nine Gazan Palestinian demonstrators were shot dead by Israeli troops.  The final death toll and numbers of the injured for the whole period of the mass protests are still being calculated and no doubt more will die from their injuries or from further attacks.

The immediate repercussions of this carnage are hard to predict and its longer-term consequences even more so, but it is becoming clear that the struggle for Palestinian rights has reached a new stage both on the ground in Israel-Palestine and in the international arena. Allied with Israel’s increasingly open aggression against Syria, events are now moving so quickly that rather than try to record or anticipate them, which by the time you read this will in any case be chronicled elsewhere, it may be worth reflecting more broadly on these new developments. In doing so, I want to argue, first, that Palestinian resistance and global solidarity have been most successful when they are co-ordinated, and that this needs strengthening, and solidarity work expanding, as the case for regarding Israel as an apartheid state gains traction. This was already foreshadowed in the formulation and reasoning behind the Palestine National Boycott Committee’s call for ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] against Israel until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights’ (9 July 2005). [note 2] The second point is that building solidarity will be easier to do if we recognise that Israel’s domestic and foreign predicaments are also co-ordinated.


For seven Fridays from 30 March (Land Day, commemorating the great upsurge of resistance in 1976 to Israel’s further confiscation of Palestinian land) up to Nakba Day on 15 May, the ‘Great March of Return’ brought out tens of thousands of Gazans on their side of Israel’s perimeter fence to demonstrate that the right to return to the homes from which they were forced out remains a key demand of all Palestinians. According to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OCHA), fifty-three Gazans lost their lives and of the 9,800 people injured more than half needed hospital treatment from 30 March up to 11 May.  Up until 13 May, not a single Israeli casualty has been attributed to any of these demonstrations or incidents arising from them. Even before the massacre on 14 May, the UN Secretary-General had called for an independent investigation of the excessive use of force (especially of live ammunition) against unarmed demonstrators. [note 3]

Comparison with the previous sixteen month period suggests that there is something about the mobilisation of large numbers of unarmed Palestinians, with its potential to attract support from around the world, that particularly alarms the Israeli authorities and confronts them with a dilemma. [note 4]  When resistance is steadfast and principled in its objectives and strategy, it commands respect, as many other colonial regimes, including apartheid South Africa, discovered to their cost. Everywhere TV and computer screens turn ordinary Palestinians into icons of courage and sacrifice. Israel spends a fortune on propaganda to soften its image but Gaza on 14 May, without even the excuse of retaliation for rocket attacks, exposed the sheer brutality of the Occupation for all the world to see. 


It is one thing for the United Nations Secretary General to call for an inquiry, but potentially quite another if a body like the International Criminal Court (ICC) were to get involved, despite reservations about its willingness or capacity to pursue offenders among imperialist powers rather than minor dictators. Through its Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, the ICC issued an unprecedented statement on 8 April, well before the casualties had reached their maximum:

‘Since 30 March 2018, at least 27 Palestinians have been reportedly killed by the Israeli Defence Forces, with over a thousand more injured, many, as a result of shootings using live ammunition and rubber bullets. […] Violence against civilians – in a situation such as the one prevailing in Gaza – could constitute crimes under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, as could the use of civilian presence for the purpose of shielding military activities.’ [note 5]


In another recent and ongoing development, this time in the wider region, Israel has become engaged in military activity of an extent and intensity not seen since the war with Lebanon in 2006. On 9-10 May, following US withdrawal from the international nuclear agreement with Iran, and just before the US embassy transfer, Israeli jets attacked multiple targets in Syria, a sovereign state, in clear violation of international law.

For discussion of the wider context of these and other military developments, see the article Syria: the West’s war will continue, issue 31 The Socialist correspondent, but since the focus of this article is on the Palestinian struggle and its increasingly global character [note 6], I refer briefly to these international attacks to show how the terms used to justify them rely on distortions like those meant to excuse the repression of Palestinians themselves. The latest Israeli attacks on targets in Syria have been spun as retaliation for attacks launched from Syria on Israel itself. This fails to acknowledge, however, that Israel had been attacking Syria for several weeks before; that Iranian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) combatants operating in Syria are not an invading force but are there at the invitation of Damascus; and that no attack launched from Syria has so far hit Israel itself but rather the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, recognised by international law as part of Syria. [note 7] Likewise, Israeli attacks on unarmed Palestinians in Gaza are spun as ‘anticipatory retaliation’ against breaches of the perimeter fence that would jeopardize the security of the present inhabitants of some of the villages from which some of those now exiled in Gaza were originally expelled. The Israeli siege of Gaza alone would justify the anger of its imprisoned population, but that anger, especially when channelled into a shared demand for the political right of return, is treated by Israel as a threat to its own sovereignty. Israeli propaganda brackets Gazans with Hamas, Hamas with Iran and Iran with Syria. It quotes with impunity anyone it claims to speak for Hamas with categorical assertions of what the present leadership of Hamas stands for. Why should Israel, which in 1967 occupied the Syrian Golan Heights as well as the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, treat Syria with more respect than the Palestinians? The common denominator here is aggrandizement, an obsession with ‘security’ even though Israel’s own borders are left deliberately undefined, and contempt for the lives of those outside the dominant section of society.  The first casualty of war, and perhaps also of colonial occupation, may be not just Truth but also the ability to paint your way out of a corner. 


Now that Washington has finally admitted that the so-called ‘peace process’ is dead – hardly news since it has shown no sign of life for nearly forty years - Israel has not even this illusion with which to distract its more thoughtful friends or milder critics who object to at least some of its violations of international and humanitarian law, but who have not yet faced up to the argument that Israel qualifies as an apartheid state. The current legal definition of apartheid, established by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998, became operational in 2002. [note 8] If the ICC were to find Israel guilty of apartheid, the consequences could be far-reaching since apartheid qualifies as a crime against humanity, and states would then be legally obliged to impose sanctions not only against Israel itself but also against other states complicit with it, until the apartheid system were dismantled.


To put the recent upsurge of resistance into context - for the high level of commitment shown in recent days didn’t spring out of nowhere - it is worth noting that Palestinians last year continued, as they have been doing for decades, to resist (and remind the world of) Israeli Occupation in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza, inequalities imposed upon them inside 1948 Israel itself, and in the refugee camps and the diaspora elsewhere, by such means as demonstrations, strikes, prisoner actions, boycotts and social media campaigns.  Actions by and in support of Palestinian prisoners, including children, took place inside Palestine/Israel with co-ordinated expressions of solidarity across the world by ordinary citizens and their political representatives.

Although Palestinians and their supporters are rightly wary of over-personalising the struggle, partly because it can put individuals even more in harm’s way, but also because it’s appropriate to the necessarily shared character of the struggle itself, Israeli vitriol against Ahed Tamimi and her family and those who responded by rallying to her side made her almost a household name. Social media recorded her outside her own house slapping an Israeli soldier after her cousin had been shot in the head at close range, and the Israeli media and their followers were frantic for disproportionate revenge. Her detention, shocking interrogation and subsequent imprisonment for what amounts to a symbolic act, not least when contrasted with a barely longer sentence a soldier around the same time for killing an unarmed Palestinian youth, deserves more than a shrug of despair or a temporary expression of anger. At the very least, it poses the question on a global scale as to whether such contrasting treatments of people according to their ethnicity within a single political system does not meet the definition of apartheid.  For the Tamimi family, as for millions of other Palestinians, resistance has become routine, now and then exposing them to real danger, but never abandoned. Palestinian resistance is both routine and strategic, the latter planning activities around dates and anniversaries already etched into people’s political memory. Last year’s political prisoners’ strike was of that character, and so has been the Great March of Return. As a result of media coverage of the bloodbath in Gaza, millions of people around the world would have heard or understood the meaning of the Nakba for the first time. 


Palestinians have long learned self-reliance in their dealings with Israel. Regional allies would be great to have, but resistance cannot depend on unreliable or short-lived support from any government. In this sense, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and the development of solidarity in civil society and extending wherever possible into political and economic assistance by governmental and wider institutions, keeps Palestine on the global agenda. Before the age of the internet and social media, such a claim might have seemed fanciful, but is fully justified on present evidence of how quickly and profoundly people’s views are changing and their voices heard.



Notes (all online sources accessed between 13-15 May 2010)

[1] Although appropriately commemorated on the same day (15 May) the Nakba was not a single event but a series of brutal and terrifying experiences at the hands of Zionist militias which left 15,000 Palestinians dead, eradicated 400 villages and expelled 700,000, of whom 80% became refugees in the West Bank, Gaza or in nearby countries.

[2] Omar Barghouti, BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights. Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2011, appendix 2, pp.239-247. This book clearly explains the global thinking behind the BDS call. The Call itself is also available online:


[4] ‘Not a single rocket has been fired into Israel from Gaza in over two months, yet since March 30 Israel has killed more Palestinians in Gaza than it did in the previous 16 months, during which time militants launched over 60 rockets and mortars.’  (

[5] As Palestinian journalist Ali Abunimah, notes in the same article, ‘Bensouda’s reference to using civilians for “shielding military activities” appears to be a nod to Israel’s claims that the Great March of Return mass rallies organized by Palestinians […] are a Hamas ploy to shield “terrorist” activities. However, as an investigation by Human Rights Watch determined, and observations by journalists have confirmed, there have been no such “military activities” by Palestinians taking part in the demonstrations. The festival-like rallies have brought out tens of thousands demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the right of return for refugees.’  

[6]  By its ‘increasingly global character’ I mean two things: first, how Israel’s practices and resistance to them in Israel and the occupied territories attract international attention; and second, how Palestinian resistance itself on the ground is now increasingly co-ordinated with solidarity actions of various kinds across the world, whether political, diplomatic, economic or cultural, and at whatever level they are conducted, from individual consumers choosing to boycott Israeli goods to pension funds or corporations divesting from Israeli enterprises to governments and international bodies imposing sanctions. Thus, whilst there’s a big difference in ‘security’ terms between (say) an air-strike on Syria and an Israeli sniper killing a Palestinian in Gaza, one might be no less important than the other in terms of its impact on wider public understanding. That is hugely important, given Israel’s overwhelming dominance over Palestine in military power; and it endorses the Palestinian 2007 call BDS [see note 2]. 

[7]‘The strike was carried out in response to a barrage of 20 rockets that were fired from Syria at Israeli military outposts.’ (

[8] ‘"The crime of apartheid" means inhumane acts of a character similar to those referred to in paragraph 1 [e.g, murder, extermination, enslavement, forcible transfer, torture, rape, persecution on basis of political, racial or similar grounds, enforced disappearance, other inhumane acts causing great suffering or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health - i.e., apartheid is classified among the most serious crimes against humanity] committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime[.]’ (, Article 7, paragraph (h) p.94). For the most rigorous consideration of how apartheid relates to Israel, see the report by Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley, ‘Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid’, Palestine and the Israeli Occupation, Issue No. 1, Beirut, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA),  2017, pp.[iii-v], 1-64.  ( The report’s Executive Summary (pp.1-9) is strongly recommended as a short primer on the subject.  Unlike Israel, Palestine (as represented by the Palestinian Authority, which is formally but not in reality a representative body of Palestinians as a whole) is a member of the International Criminal Court, but it has so far succumbed to pressure from Israel, the US and others not to seek to bring Israel, or culpable individuals within Israel, to the ICC on charges connected with apartheid or war crimes or similar. The UN Security Council has the authority to refer any state to the ICC in respect of a situation in which a crime of such kind has occurred in that state’s territory even if that state is neither a member of the ICC nor lodged a declaration with it to observe its legal code. Although it keeps the ICC at arms-length, therefore, Israel would still be vulnerable to such a move but for the protective US  veto on the UNSC (  Despite the real opportunities a legal route could offer whether or not Palestinians embark on such a course will depend not only on their own judgement but also on support or obstruction by other powerful interests (as in the threat of the US veto in the UNSC):




15 May 2018: Boycott Israel protest in San Sebastian, Spain.