MADRID -- The mayor of Barcelona has severed her city’s official ties with Israel, accusing the country of “the crime of apartheid against the Palestinian people.”
Wednesday’s decision by Mayor Ada Colau has little practical impact – with the most concrete effect being a halt to its 25-year-old twinning agreement with Tel Aviv.
But the announcement by the city, a popular tourist destination and home to one of the world's best-known soccer clubs, carries significant symbolism and adds to a growing list of critics that have labeled Israel an apartheid state. Israel rejects such accusations as delegitimizing and antisemitic and called the decision “unfortunate.”
In a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Colau said the step came in response to a campaign by dozens of local groups and thousands of activists.
She cited a number of Israeli policies, including its 55-year military occupation of the West Bank, its annexation of east Jerusalem and its construction of settlements on lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.
“As mayor of Barcelona, a Mediterranean city and defender of human rights, I cannot be indifferent to the systematic violation of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian population,” she wrote. “It would be a severe mistake to apply a policy of double standards and turn a blind eye to a violation that has been, for decades, widely verified and documented by international organizations.”
In recent years, three well-known human rights groups – Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Israel’s B’Tselem – have accused Israel of apartheid, both inside the country as well as in the occupied territories.
Amnesty and the other groups say the very fragmentation of the territories in which Palestinians live is part of an overall regime of control designed to maintain Jewish hegemony from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
They point to discriminatory policies within Israel and in annexed east Jerusalem, Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has been ruled by the Hamas militant group since 2007, and its continued control of the West Bank and construction of Jewish settlements that most of the international community considers illegal. The election of Israel's new hard-line government, dominated by ultranationalists opposed to Palestinian independence, has added to these concerns.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, areas captured by Israel in 1967, for a future independent state.
Israel says its own Arab citizens, who make up about 20% of the population, enjoy equal rights, including the right to vote, and have reached the upper echelons of business, entertainment, law and entertainment. It considers the West Bank to be disputed territory whose status should be resolved through negotiations and says it it withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, two years before Hamas seized control.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry called Barcelona’s decision “unfortunate” and claimed it went against the wishes of the majority of the city’s population.
“The decision gives support to extremists, terrorist organizations and antisemitism,” it said. “The friendship between Israel and Barcelona is long-standing, and is based on shared culture and values. Even this unfortunate decision will not damage this friendship.”
The grassroots Palestinian-led movement promoting a boycott of Israel welcomed Barcelona’s decision. Alys Samson, an activist with the “Stop Complicity with Israel” coalition in Barcelona, said the group had gathered almost 5,000 signatures for its campaign.
“We are very happy,” she said. “We hope many more governments and institutions will follow suit.”
Meanwhile, the mayor of Barcelona's arch rival Madrid immediately offered to take up the twinning agreement with Tel Aviv, as both he and Colau jostle for position on international issues and investment in an election year.
José Luis Martínez-Almeida, the Spanish capital's conservative mayor, accused Barcelona's leader of antisemitism and tweeted that he had written to Tel Aviv's mayor to share “Madrid’s commitment to democracy and freedom."
“It would be an honor to be twinned with Tel Aviv,” he added. Spain’s right-wing politicians are increasingly making diplomatic and commercial outreach to Israel.
Spain’s two largest cities are constantly at odds on everything from politics to soccer. Colau, distrusted by the Catalan pro-independence movement, is a leading left-wing politician who is facing a difficult election in May.
Federman reported from Jerusalem.