Claims that Israel is imposing 'apartheid' on Palestinians put new pressure on Trudeau Liberals

Two cornerstones of the Trudeau government's foreign policy have been its public statements in defence of human rights around the world and its less-publicized support for Israel at the United Nations. Now, a series of reports by the world's leading human rights organizations accusing Israel of employing a policy of apartheid in its treatment of Palestinians have put the focus on the tension between those two positions.

Trudeau's government has rejected the reports but isn't offering a rationale for its position

Women wave Palestinian flags and chant slogans during a rally in solidarity with Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Jerusalem in Gaza City, Friday, April 15, 2022. (Adel Hana/Associated Press)

Two cornerstones of the Trudeau government's foreign policy have been its public statements in defence of human rights around the world and its less-publicized support for Israel at the United Nations.

Now, a series of reports by the world's leading human rights organizations accusing Israel of employing a policy of apartheid in its treatment of Palestinians have put the focus on the tension between those two positions.

Canada doesn't usually dispute Amnesty International's conclusions — but the federal government has had little to say about Amnesty's report formally accusing the Israeli government of building an apartheid state in its occupied territories.

"I ask all my colleagues to read this report," NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson said after the report was published in early February. "This is a conversation we must have."

The Liberal government has not been keen to have that discussion, said James Kafieh of the Palestinian Canadian Congress.

"The Canadian government has responded with deafening silence," he said. "It has shown no interest in the rights of Palestinians. It doesn't want to acknowledge that leading human rights organizations, not only around the world but even in Israel itself, are finding that Israel is an apartheid state."

"We are aware of the recent report from Amnesty International," Patricia Skinner of Global Affairs Canada told CBC News. "Canada rejects the view that Israel's actions constitute apartheid."

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly says the government rejects the argument that Israel is pursuing a policy of apartheid. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Global Affairs did not respond to a question asking it to explain its rationale. When asked about the same report during a Commons committee hearing, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said she was "very much aware of this report" which "stated that Israel's actions constitute apartheid. We reject that view."

"Will you be providing any sort of acknowledgement of why that is the case or why you are rejecting it?" McPherson asked the minister. Joly offered no explanation but said she looked forward to discussing it at a later date.

The Trudeau government's position on Israel has gotten little attention in Canada, where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is less of a hot-button issue than it once was.

An MP changes her tune

Outside Canada, a growing number of legal and institutional voices are accusing Israel of pursuing an apartheid policy. Now, the issue is seeping into domestic Canadian politics as the NDP uses the explosive word "apartheid" more and more.

Infighting over the issue seriously damaged the Greens last spring when MP Jenica Atwin condemned leader Annamie Paul's equal-blame approach to the latest round of Mideast violence. "Totally inadequate statement," tweeted Atwin. "End Israeli apartheid!"

Atwin ended up leaving the Greens for the Liberals. Before crossing the floor, she dropped her previous position with a mea culpa on Twitter (since deleted) that said she was "still learning" and expressed "regret" if her "choice of words caused harm."

A woman smiling in front of a microphone. She is holding a notebook in her hands.
MP Jenica Atwin left the Greens after criticizing then-leader Annamie Paul's statement on violence in the Middle East. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

That sudden realignment caused the Globe and Mail to suggest snarkily that "perhaps the other side of the conflict Ms. Atwin didn't previously recognize was hiding under a handbook detailing MP pension eligibility."

As one MP came under the party's message control, another was freed to speak.

Yasmin Ratansi left the Liberal caucus in November 2020 for unrelated reasons. Shortly after, she began speaking publicly on behalf of constituents she said "have written to my office and expressed their horror" over the expulsion and killing of Palestinians.

"These Canadians are also concerned about the report from Human Rights Watch, calling the violation of international human rights and forcible removal by Israel apartheid," she told the Commons on May 25, 2021. "Canadians have always fought against apartheid. They want Canada to take a leadership role.

"Canada values human rights and we must fight for human rights for all, not a select few."

Such comments — and the fact that a handful of Liberals bucked the government's condemnation of the movement to boycott Israel in 2016 — suggest that not all Liberals have been equally comfortable with the approach taken by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

'Apartheid' label rejected

Pro-Israel organizations in Canada strenuously reject the apartheid label and have welcomed the Trudeau government's stance.

"Apartheid" describes the system of organized discrimination that prevailed in South Africa until 1991. Since the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court came into effect in 2002, it is also a crime in international law, defined as "inhumane acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them."

Like the word "genocide," "apartheid" carries a heavy emotional charge, said Shimon Fogel of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

"Especially for those who really don't drill down, as soon as you touch on certain touchstones within the human rights lexicon, it automatically shapes or frames their impression of something," he said.

In the past, claims that Israel maintains a system of apartheid came mostly from voices Israeli diplomats could dismiss as individuals with axes to grind against Israel.

Palestinian delegate Riyad Mansour wears a mask with the message "End Apartheid" at the United Nations Security Council. (UNTV)

That's changed. Detailed reports from the world's two best-known human rights organizations — Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International — and a report prepared for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have made the allegation.

In February, former Israeli attorney general Michael Ben Yair wrote that "with great sadness … I must also conclude that my country has sunk to such political and moral depths that it is now an apartheid regime. It is time for the international community to recognize this reality as well."

Prominent Israeli human rights groups B'Tselem and Yesh Din have levelled the same accusation against their government, and the issue has been widely discussed in Israeli media.

Support from South Africa

Some of the best-known fighters against the original apartheid state, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have said they see in the Occupied Territories a system like the one they fought at home.

Two former Israeli ambassadors to South Africa, Ilan Baruch and Alon Liel, wrote back in August that the South African and Israeli systems were both "predicated on the same idea of concentrating the 'undesirable' population in as small an area as possible … to thwart political autonomy and true democracy."

In February, South Africa withdrew its ambassador from Israel and its foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, said she had "further proposed direct action against well-documented apartheid practices of Israel."

Harvard Law School joined the chorus recently. In a brief to the UN, it says Israel has created "a dual legal system that systematically discriminates against Palestinians and suppresses their civil and political rights," a system that "amount[s] to the crime of apartheid under international law."

Roots in unresolved conflict

None of that has moved the Trudeau government. Fogel said that's because the Government of Canada understands that there are differences between the situation in 1980s South Africa and Israel today.

"They recognize that the current situation flows from a conflict, a conflict that has generated lots of misery, the largest portion of which has impacted on the Palestinian community in the West Bank and Gaza, that it is multi-layered and complicated, with everybody having to accept some portion of responsibility for the situation as it now stands," he said.

"Are there things that go on that are unfair, that are not infrequently inappropriate, unjustified and the like? Yes, that happens all the time. And that's the bitter reality of a confrontation and a conflict that has not yet found the path to a resolution."

Palestinian gunmen shoot in the air during the funerals for Sanad Abu Atiyeh, 17 and Yazid al-Saadi, 23, in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin on Thursday, March 31, 2022. Israeli forces raided a refugee camp in the occupied West Bank that week, setting off a gun battle in which two Palestinians were killed and 15 were wounded, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. (Nasser Nasser/Associated Press)

Fogel said the situation in the Territories is not intended to be permanent, but is a way station on the road to a Palestinian state. Palestinians in the Territories controlled by Israel cannot vote in Israeli elections and don't enjoy the same rights or legal protections as Jews because they don't want to be citizens of the Jewish state, he said.

"You cannot be both the hare and the hound," he said. "You don't want them to be Israeli citizens because the goal is not for them to be integrated into the state of Israel. You want them to be the anchor of an independent Palestinian state. And that's the most important difference between the reality there and a true apartheid state like in South Africa.

"The challenge there was not that the majority, the 80 per cent who were Black Africans, wanted a state of their own. They wanted equal status within the state. Whereas ... the Palestinians don't want equal status within Israel, they want to carve out an independent Palestinian state."

When temporary becomes permanent

But Kafieh said Palestinians do want equal rights within one state, because the argument that the occupation — 55 years after it began — is a mere temporary arrangement on the way to a two-state solution has become a hollow pretence.

Israeli settlements already have taken away much of the land where the Palestinian state envisioned at Oslo might have been created.

"At some point you have to say to the Israelis, 'Congratulations, you have been successful in making sure that there would never be a two-state solution,'" he said.

"Now the only question is, will the Government of Canada continue to support apartheid in Palestine? Or will you insist that Israel becomes a state that treats all that live within its borders as equal citizens?"

Members of Israeli security forces take position as Palestinians demonstrate against the establishment of Israeli outposts on their lands in Beit Dajan, east of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, on April 29, 2022. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images)

B'tselem also said the existence of two parallel jurisdictions — one living under democracy, the other under military occupation — is a feature and not a bug of the Israeli system.

"This state of affairs has existed for more than 50 years – twice as long as the State of Israel existed without it," the Israeli human rights group said in a media statement issued in January 2021.

"There is one regime governing the entire area and the people living in it, based on a single organizing principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group, Jews, over another — Palestinians."

Fogel questions the motivations of groups like B'tselem.

"The genesis of those organizations ... where they get their support, what their orientation is, all speak to why they would move toward particular conclusions when describing the state of Israel," he said.

He said international groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty are equally suspect.

"Notwithstanding other righteous things that groups like AI or HRW might do, they have a problem with Israel, period," he said. "And ironically, it's this very report that reveals that."

A Liberal 'double standard'

Kafieh said all indications are the Liberal government will continue to pursue a policy Palestinians see as hostile to them and to universal principles the government claims to support.

While the Trudeau government was among the first to call on the International Criminal Court to investigate Russia over killings of civilians in Ukraine, it has tried to discourage the court from hearing cases involving killings of civilians by Israeli forces.

Three successive Liberal foreign ministers in the Trudeau government have written to the court to urge it to refuse all Palestinian cases. 

The Canadian government, said Kafieh, "played a critical role in bringing about the end of apartheid in South Africa. And that was a (Progressive) Conservative government under [then-external affairs minister] Joe Clark that led the way."

He said the Trudeau government today has Canada playing the opposite role.

"More than 10 per cent of the countries in the world are subject to Canadian sanctions. We know what to do when there's a country that's violating human rights," he said. "But in the case of the government of Israel, (the Trudeau government) will simply do nothing, nothing but issue an occasional empty platitude.

"There's an overwhelming double-standard."


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.