The South African government of apartheid broke in the 1990s under the weight of international sanctions and condemnations. In contrast, despite its long history of war crimes and violations of international law over the course of 72 years, successive Israeli governments are repeatedly rewarded with favored trading status, state welcomes for officials, and more. Yes, resolutions have been passed chiding their behavior, but actions are needed if anything is to change. Sanctions must be deployed consistently, fairly and humanely.
Normalisation instead of sanctions
In September 2020, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed a normalisation agreement with Israel, followed by Sudan in October.
UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid Al-Khalifa signed the agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ironically, the latter is included in a secret list Israeli government officials have assembled of people likely to be arrested abroad if the International Criminal Court investigates alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories. Netanyahu, led the 2014 war on Gaza that a U.N. commission found rampant with possible war crimes.
The UAE went further, directly supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. In October, the US International Development Finance Corp. announced that the United States, Israel and the UAE will establish a fund “to enable the modernization of Israeli-operated checkpoints for Palestinians.”
Sanctions in international law
The United Nations has several tools at its disposal to maintain or restore international peace and security. Chapter VII of its charter allows it to impose penalties against governments and other entities that commit grave human rights violations. These penalties may include trade sanctions, travel bans, arms embargoes and restrictions on financial transactions.
Since 1966, the UN Security Council has imposed sanctions 30 times, on Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, the former Yugoslavia (twice), Haiti, Iraq (twice), Angola, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Eritrea, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Liberia (three times), Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, Lebanon, North Korea, Iran, Libya (twice), Guinea-Bissau, Central African Republic, Yemen, and South Sudan and Mali. In addition, three non-state actors have been sanctioned: ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida, and the Taliban.
For example, in November 1977, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 418, which imposed an arms embargo on South Africa. The resolution mandated that all states cease “any provision to South Africa of arms and related materiel of all types, including the sale or transfer of weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary police equipment, and spare parts for the aforementioned.” The sanctions on South Africa were not limited to an arms embargo. The UN resolution also urged states to halt cultural and academic relations with the South African government to further pressure it to abide by international law. In 1985, another resolution by the General Assembly (40/64) went a step further, urging states to cease all collaborations with the racist regime of South Africa. The assembly requested that all governments adopt legislation or other measures to ensure the “observance of sports, cultural, academic, consumer, tourism and other boycotts of South Africa.”
The case for sanctions
In several respects, the basis for the call to action against South Africa is similar to the case that has been made against the government of Israel. If anything, the facts on the ground, along with reports by the UN and other international organisations, show that the Israeli government has committed more war crimes and killed more civilians in Palestine than the apartheid regime did in South Africa. However, no actions with any real “teeth” have been taken against it.
Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, successive governments have committed dozens of human rights violations that amount to war crimes under international law.
The prime example is the expulsion of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, forcing them to become refugees around the world—an event called the Nakba (catastrophe) by the victims. Yet for the past 72 years, there has been no effort to prosecute the perpetrators. Today, the number of those refugees has ballooned to 6 million.
Following the end of apartheid in South Africa, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed. It found that 19,050 people were killed by the governing apartheid regime. Contrast that with the 24,731 Palestinians that B’tselem and international organisations estimate were killed by Israel over 35 years, (During the Nakba and between 1987 – 2020), or less than half the duration of the 72-year Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Targeting of children
Like apartheid South Africa, Israel has a track record of turning a blind eye to the special protection that international humanitarian law gives to children.
On the morning of 16 June 1967, thousands of black South African high school students protested in the streets of Soweto against the ruling that Afrikaans should be the language of instruction in schools. The police responded with excessive force, killing 176 protesters.