UN official who resigned amid Israel ‘apartheid’ furor has no regrets
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Michael Oren: Apartheid charge is 'not just deeply offensive to Israelis. It is deeply offensive to the real victims of apartheid'

UN official who resigned amid Israel ‘apartheid’ furor has no regrets

Last month’s report by Beirut-based agency sparked an international uproar that prompted the walkout of its head, Rima Khalaf

Former UN official Rima Khalaf speaks in Amman, Jordan about her decision to resign as head of the ESCWA UN regional agency on April 19, 2017. (AP/Sam McNeil)
Former UN official Rima Khalaf speaks in Amman, Jordan about her decision to resign as head of the ESCWA UN regional agency on April 19, 2017. (AP/Sam McNeil)

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Labeling Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid” is like flinging a burning match into spilled gasoline — so combustible are the passions on both sides.

Rima Khalaf did just that when a report commissioned by her UN agency at the request of 18 Arab member states accused Israel of having established an apartheid regime designed to dominate the Palestinian people as a whole.

In a swift outcry, Israel slammed the 65-page document as anti-Semitic. The US demanded its removal and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ordered it taken off the agency’s website, saying it did not reflect his views. Rather than comply, Khalaf resigned as head of ESCWA, a Beirut-based agency, one of several UN regional bodies dealing with economic and social issues.

More than a month later, Khalaf has no regrets. The report’s charge of apartheid — a “crime against humanity” in the eyes of the International Criminal Court — deserves serious examination, she said in an interview.

Former U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia head Rima Khalaf in 2014 (YouTube screenshot)
Former U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia head Rima Khalaf in 2014 (YouTube screenshot)

“We are not here for defamation,” Khalaf said. “We are here for solving the problem.” The former UN undersecretary general said the international community has failed the Palestinians and must sanction Israel if it wants to regain credibility.

Kulanu MK Michael Oren disputed the apartheid charge as a “big lie,” portraying the report as the latest attempt to “apply a completely unique standard to Israel which by definition is anti-Semitic.”

Israel and its supporters are outraged at comparisons to apartheid-era South Africa, pointing to the many differences: Unlike disenfranchised blacks in segregated South Africa, Israel’s Arab citizens, about 20 percent of the population, can vote, are represented in parliament and on the Supreme Court, and easily mingle with Jewish Israelis in daily life.

“There are no separate bathrooms, there is no apartheid here,” said Oren, a deputy minister of diplomacy. “It’s not just deeply offensive to Israelis. It is deeply offensive to the real victims of apartheid.”

The report says apartheid is more than an exact replica of conditions in pre-1994 South Africa. It notes that international conventions and the ICC define it more broadly, as “inhumane acts” committed in the context of institutionalized and systematic oppression of one racial group by another, with the intention of maintaining that regime.

Kulanu MK Michael Oren seen at a conference organized by NGO Monitor, entitled "15 years of the Durban conference", held at the Knesset on June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Kulanu MK Michael Oren seen at a conference organized by NGO Monitor, entitled “15 years of the Durban conference”, held at the Knesset on June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

According to critics of Israeli policy, such expanded parameters could conceivably apply at least in some of the Israeli-controlled territories.

In the West Bank, military rule has sharply curtailed Palestinian movement, trade and access to resources, while Jewish settlers in the same territory enjoy full rights of Israeli citizens. Jews and Arabs in the West Bank live under different legal systems, with Jews having far more protections.

“While we recognize the Palestinians as a people, endowed with the right of self-determination in what they regard as their homeland, that recognition is not reciprocated,” Oren said, reflecting the widespread view in Israel that those making apartheid claims want to delegitimize and eliminate Israel as a Jewish state.

Many Israelis feel singled out because only their country has suffered the apartheid allegations so far, despite the fact that there are many cases of discrimination elsewhere, including in the Arab world.

UN chief Guterres hasn’t discussed the substance of the report despite appeals by Khalaf. But in a recent speech to the World Jewish Congress, an umbrella group of Jewish communities, he suggested he was siding with some of the complaints, saying that “the state of Israel needs to be treated as any other state.”

He stuck by his principles even when it required decisions that “create some uncomfortable situations,” he said an apparent reference to ordering the report removed from the ESCWA website.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks during a joint press conference held with Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir (unseen), in the Saudi capital Riyadh on February 12, 2017. (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks during a joint press conference held with Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir (unseen), in the Saudi capital Riyadh on February 12, 2017. (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)

“As far as we are concerned, it was not published by ESCWA,” said Guterres spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

Khalaf, who resigned two weeks before her scheduled retirement, believes Guterres was pressured by the US, Israel’s strongest ally, at a time when the Trump administration is threatening to cut UN funding significantly. Dujarric declined comment.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has praised Khalaf for “courage and support” for the Palestinian people.

Khalaf rejected allegations of bias by those who produced the report. One author is Richard Falk, a former Princeton University professor who published blistering critiques of Israeli policies in his former role as UN special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

“Let’s not focus on the messenger,” Khalaf said. “Let’s focus on the facts.”

She said she hopes the debate started by the report will continue.

“This is not a verdict by a court,” she said. “It is a scholarly work. We want to make sure everyone has a chance to look at it and discuss it openly, because we want a solution.”

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