Russell Tribunal on Palestine – Report on Cape Town Hearing to the final Brussels Appraisal Session 16-17 March 2013 by Ronnie Kasrils


The third session of the RToP took place in Cape Town, South Africa from 5-7 November 2011 and dealt with the question: “Are Israeli practices against the Palestinian people in breach of the prohibition of apartheid under international law?”

The venue was Cape Town’s hugely symbolic and popular DISTRICT SIX MUSEUM which houses testament and memory to the forced removals of the “coloured” inhabitants of the area, including house demolitions, during the criminal apartheid era – inhumane practices so illustrative of the fate of the Palestinian people. Indeed many of those victims of the infamous District Six removals in 1966 were present amongst the broad cross-section of South Africans who flocked to the proceedings. Jurists, witnesses, experts and visitors from abroad were earlier taken on a tour of the district by some of the very people who had been uprooted to acquaint them with that history and to draw parallels with Palestinian suffering and struggle.


Moving opening addresses to the Tribunal hearing by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the indefatigable Stephane Hessel, whose passing has been deeply mourned in South Africa, received rapturous applause which tribunal director Pierre Galand was hard put  to restrain given his preference for court-room rectitude. The trio set the tone for the proceedings and as in the previous hearings Pierre Galand introduced the jurors and explained the history, framework, programme and objectives of the RToP as well as the terms of reference of the Cape Town session. He paid tribute to the work accomplished by the South African Support Committee, presided by Judge Siraj Desai, Cape High Court judge, and chief organiser Rev. Edwin Arenson and the impressive local volunteer corps. He expressed appreciation for the  considerable funds they helped raise, without which the third session could not have taken place.

Jurists from the Barcelona and London sessions were augmented for the first time by Alice Walker (USA) and Yasmin Sooka (SA).  Apart from a strong contingent of South African and international witnesses and experts,  a bevy of activists from the Occupied Palestine Territories (OPT) and Israel, including the Palestinian diaspora, were  present to provide testimony. The Israeli regime was invited to submit its case to the Tribunal but as before ignored the invitation.

The previous findings of violations of international law by Israel; and the complicity of the European Union and multinational corporations dealt with in Barcelona and London, were referred to. The questions submitted to the RToP jury in Cape Town were whether Israel’s policy and practices affecting the Palestinian population residing in Israeli territory and in the OPTs amount  firstly to the breach of the international legal prohibition of apartheid ; and secondly constitute persecution as a crime against humanity?  In the event of affirmative findings, what legal consequences and obligations arise for Israel and third states?

For two days these questions were rigorously examined by experts who were selected on the basis of their familiarity with the facts of the situation; and by articulate witnesses that dealt with their experiences under South African apartheid and the measures faced by Palestinians inside Israel and the OPTs. Whilst South African witnesses who had also visited the OPTs, and were horrified by similarities with the country’s dark past and could draw parallels with what they saw, the point was made that what was at issue was not that Israel and apartheid South Africa were similar, but whether Israel was in breach of the prohibition of a system of apartheid under international law.

With regard to this legal context the first set of experts explained the Palestinian right to self-determination, the nature of this denial by Israel and its relation to apartheid and persecution; the prohibition of apartheid in international law; the law and practice of apartheid in South Africa and an overview of Israeli law and policy with respect to the prohibition on apartheid. Further experts testified on elements of the definition of apartheid relating to the status of racial groups under international law; Palestinian identity and the notion of racial domination; and the notion of apartheid as an institutionalised regime of systematic domination such as Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. It was at this session that the question of “sociocide” as a systematic process aimed at the social and cultural destruction of a people was presented.

The last part of day one and the whole of day two was taken up with searing testimony by witnesses who had experienced the brutal treatment and inhumane measures  against  those who resisted including arbitrary arrest, killing and torture;  persecution of organisations and people’s leaders; the control and exploitation of labour; the denial of human rights such as freedom of movement and residence ; measures to divide the population along racial lines etc. and persecution as a crime against humanity.

Some twenty-four experts and witnesses gave evidence amongst them Raji Sourani, Max du Plessis and John Dugard on law;  Alan Boesak, Mahmoud Hassan, Zwelinzima Vavi (Sec Gen Cosatu), Shawan Jabarin, Jeff Halper, Jamal Juma, Haneen Zoabi  (Knesset MP), Shwaqi Issa, Rafaelle Maison and Jazi Abu Kaf and others on persecution and abuse of human rights.

Sensationally, during the course of the hearing, a threat to Haneen Zoabi from a fanatic in the Israeli Knesset, who had been following proceedings courtesy of the Tribunal’s live stream broadcast channel, threatened to drag her before that bodies Disciplinary Committee with the aim of expelling her for daring to criticise Israel. The audience were shocked, but not surprised at this show of intolerance, and Pierre Galand stated that the Tribunal would approach the South African Government with a request to protect her rights


After deliberation the tribunal jurists found that Israel does subject the Palestinian people to an institutional regime of domination amounting to apartheid under international law. Palestinians living under colonial military rule in the OPTs are subject to an aggravated form of apartheid. Those living in Israel are excluded from the benefits of Jewish nationality and subject to systematic discrimination across a broad spectrum of human rights.

The Tribunal considered Israel’s rule over the Palestinians in the light of the legal definition of apartheid which applies to any situation in the world where the following elements exist: (1) that two distinct racial groups can be identified; (2) that inhuman acts are committed against the subordinate group; and (3) that such acts are committed systematically in the context of an institutionalised regime of domination by one group over the other.

The jury found that abundant evidence was presented constituting “inhuman acts” perpetrated against the Palestinian people by the Israeli authorities including widespread deprivation of life through military operations, targeted killings and the use of lethal force against demonstrations;  the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, arbitrary arrest and administrative detention without charge; systematic human rights violations precluding Palestinian people’s development in political, economic, social and cultural life. The jury agreed that refugees are victims of apartheid by virtue of the denial of their right of return as well as by laws that remove their property and citizenship rights; civil and political rights, including rights to movement, residence, freedom of association and opinion, are severely curtailed; socio-economic rights are adversely affected in such spheres as education, health and housing.

Since 1948 Israel has divided the Jewish and Palestinian populations allocating different physical space with inferior infrastructure, resources and services to the latter resulting in territorial fragmentation and segregation referred to in Hebrew as “hafrada” – segregation.

The jury found that the above acts do not occur randomly but are systematic and institutionalised.

In the Israeli legal system, preferential status is afforded to Jews over non-Jews creating a group privileged in residency rights, land ownership, access to services and social, economic and cultural rights. Many of these material privileges are granted exclusively to Israeli Jews through quasi-state institutions such as the Jewish Agency, JNF and WZO. The Tribunal found that witnesses had shown the existence of two entirely separate legal systems operating in the West Bank – military law for Palestinians and the Israeli civil law system for Jews in the illegal settlements. The result is a vastly different procedure and penalty for the same crime. In contrast to the explicit South African apartheid legislation, the Tribunal drew attention to the obscurity of the many laws, military orders and regulations underpinning Israel’s institutionalised regime of domination.

Much of the evidence heard relating to apartheid was also relevant to the crime of persecution. Persecution involves the intentional deprivation of the rights of an identifiable group in the context of systematic attacks against civilians, Israeli practices in the findings of the Tribunal such as the siege of Gaza; collective punishment of civilians; destruction of homes; the punitive effect of the separation Wall; the demolition of the Bedouin villages in the Negev.

Legal consequences:

In the Tribunal’s view:

Israel must cease its apartheid practices and persecution of Palestinians.  Israel must compensate the Palestinians for the loss of life, property and loss of profits. States and international organisations have a duty to cease all aid and assistance to Israel and assist in the prosecution of those responsible for committing international crimes against the Palestinians.

Recommended Actions:

The Tribunal urges:

Israel to dismantle its system of apartheid and cease acts of persecution against the Palestinians;

All states to co-operate to bring an end to this situation and consider appropriate measures to exert pressure on Israel such as the imposition of sanctions, severing of diplomatic relations and breaking off of bilateral relations;

The International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate international crimes committed by Israel, including the crimes of apartheid and persecution;

Palestine to accede to the Rome Statute of the ICC;

Global civil society to replicate the spirit of solidarity that contributed to the end of South African apartheid and supporting the BDS campaign;

The UN General Assembly to reconstitute the UN Special Committee against Apartheid  to take  measures involving the International Court of Justice and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination regarding the occupation and practise of apartheid as well as the responsibility of individuals and institutions – banks, corporations and charities amongst them – assisting Israel’s apartheid regime;

The South African Government to ensure that no reprisals are taken by Israel against the witnesses that testified in Cape Town.

Media Work & Publicity:

Much publicity was generated around the Cape Town hearing in South Africa and to some degree internationally by a hardworking media team led by Claude Colart, a Belgium journalist based in South Africa. Two highly successful media conferences were held prior to the event, one of which was hosted by Cosatu, the trade union federation at which Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi made a passionate statement in favour of the RToP. The rude behaviour of a Zionist journalist at the RToP media conference assisted in generating publicity; as was the case with Judge Richard Goldstone’s ill-judged and flawed article in the New York Times on the eve of the hearing. This was the catalyst for non-stop coverage and interest providing free publicity for the event. A response to Goldstone by John Dugard was published as a letter in the New York Times and elsewhere. Several opinion pieces by jurors and others, were carried by most South African mainstream newspapers as well as the Al Jazeera English site, Electronic Intifada, London Guardian, Jadaliyya, Middle East Monitor. There was coverage by South African TV channels and extensively by a host of national and local radio stations. All of these covered the final media conference which was extremely well attended and featured lively responses to questions by several jurists.  All this activity generated extensive  activity on Twitter and Facebook. The livestream was without a doubt a big success and was watched for example by the Norwegian Palestinian Committee amongst others.

The threat to Haneen Zoabi  attracted extra media attention including  the front page of some newspapers, as did the RToP letter handed in to the SA Government which called for the protection of her rights . Haneen  Zoabi’s testimony was covered by the Jerusalem Post. Coverage and interviews continued in South Africa well after the hearing with the important SA Sunday paper “City Press” publishing  an opinion piece on the RToP findings by Yasmin Sooka on November 13.


The Cape Town hearing of the RToP was a great success and certainly achieved its aims and objectives. The case that Israel’s policy and practises regarding the Palestinians within Israel and the OPTs amount to a breach of the international prohibition of apartheid and constitute persecution as a crime against humanity was conclusively proven. The legal consequences of this and actions required by the international community and activists was spelt out and gained wide publicity. It is highly significant that the Israeli government and its international and South African lobby showed great sensitivity with regard to the apartheid connection with the Zionist state. The mere fact of holding the tribunal in South Africa raised the alarm bells. The apartheid charge clearly has them on the defensive, has gained ground as result of the RToP, and served to mobilise and inspire activists internationally as well as the BDS movement which sees in the former work of the Anti-Apartheid Movement that isolated racist South Africa an act to follow. This is a lesson from Cape Town that should not be lost. Although there was disappointing lack of support from the SA government, despite considerable effort, the RToP should concentrate effort in that direction for support from that quarter could make a powerful difference to the international campaign. We strongly urge the fifth session in Belgium to explore that avenue. The Palestine solidarity movement in SA and the highly influential trade union federation COSATU would be reliable allies in this regard.

Finally, the hearing in Cape Town succeeded in further developing and consolidating a core of activists and groups strongly supportive of the RToP in its international mission and to have demonstrated such solidarity for the just cause of the Palestinian people. The people of South Africa and the District Six Museum were honoured to have successfully hosted and contributed to such a prestigious event.

Ronnie Kasrils, Cape Town,  3rd March 2013


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