One of the world’s best-known human rights groups said Tuesday that Israel was guilty of the crimes of apartheid and persecution because of discriminatory policies toward Palestinians within its own borders and in the Palestinian territories — accusations Israel immediately rebuffed.
In a sweeping 213-page report, the New York-based Human Rights Watch joined a growing number of commentators and rights groups that view the conflict not primarily as a land dispute but as a state of affairs in which Palestinians — who, including Arab Israelis, make up roughly half the population of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza — are systematically denied basic rights granted to Jews.
Israel rejected the report. Human Rights Watch “is known to have a long-standing anti-Israel agenda,” the Foreign Ministry said. “The fictional claims that HRW concocted are both preposterous and false.”
Israel has long adamantly denied apartheid accusations, saying its Arab minority enjoys full civil rights, as well as the term “occupation” to describe its activities in the West Bank and Gaza. It views Gaza, from which it withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005, as a hostile entity ruled by the Islamic terror group Hamas, and it considers the West Bank to be disputed territory subject to peace negotiations — which collapsed more than a decade ago.
Human Rights Watch focused its report on the definitions of apartheid and persecution used by the International Criminal Court, which launched a probe into possible Israeli war crimes last month. Israel rejects the court as biased.
Citing public statements by Israeli leaders and official policies, HRW argued that Israel has “demonstrated an intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians” in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, coupled with “systematic oppression” and “inhumane acts.”
“When these three elements occur together, they amount to the crime of apartheid,” it said.
As to the charge of persecution, the group cited “grave abuses” in the territories, including land confiscation, the systematic denial of building permits, home demolitions and “sweeping, decades-long restrictions on freedom of movement and basic human rights.”
The report cited a range of policies it said are aimed at ensuring a Jewish majority in Israel and lands it intends to keep, while largely confining Palestinians to scattered enclaves under overarching Israeli control, with policies that encourage Palestinians to leave.
While such policies are far more severe in the territories, HRW said they can also be found in Israel itself, where Arab citizens of Israel, who make up roughly 20% of the population, face widespread discrimination when it comes to housing, land access and basic services.
Omar Shakir, the author of the report, said that from the heady early days of the peace process in the 1990s up until the Obama years, “there was enough there to question whether there was an intent for permanent domination.”
But with the demise of the peace process; Israel’s plans to annex up to a third of the West Bank, which were put on hold but never abandoned; its massive expansion of settlements and infrastructure linking them to Israel; and the passing of a nation-state law that critics say favors Jews — groups like HRW say it’s no longer possible to view the current situation as temporary.
“Prominent voices have for years warned that Israeli conduct risked turning into apartheid,” Shakir said. “This 213-page report finds that the threshold has been crossed.”
Israel adamantly rejects the term apartheid, saying the restrictions it imposes in Gaza and the West Bank are temporary measures needed for security due to repeated terror attacks emanating from those regions.
It also points to the existence of the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank under agreements signed in the 1990s.
The Palestinian Authority praised the report on Tuesday and called on the international community to “consider its recommendations,” according the official spokesperson for the Palestinian presidency, Nabil Abu Rudeineh.
He described the HRW report as “strong and righteous international testimony to the struggle and suffering of the Palestinian people under the Israeli military occupation and its colonial and oppressive policies.”
“We firmly believe that justice based on international legitimacy decisions, not impunity, is the only way to achieve lasting peace in Palestine, Israel and the region as a whole,” Abu Rudeineh continued.
“This report comes at a time when Israeli violations and crimes are escalating fiercely against our Palestinian people,” he added, referring to violence between Jews and Palestinians in East Jerusalem since the start of Ramadan two weeks ago.
Israel and the Palestinians have held several rounds of peace talks since the Oslo Accords signed in the 1990s. They included discussions of Palestinian independence but were unable to reach a final agreement.
Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative Israeli think tank, said the Palestinians were responsible for their fate because of their intransigence in negotiations. “They have chosen it by rejecting alternatives,” he said.
Kontorovich, voicing a common Israeli criticism, accused HRW of unfairly singling Israel out and trying to delegitimize it.
“Why say it’s apartheid? Why not just say Israel has some discriminatory policies that we don’t like?” he said. “Because for discriminatory policies, what do you do? You change the policies…. What do you do with an apartheid regime? You have to replace it.”
HRW and other rights groups say that despite the existence of the Palestinian Authority, Israel maintains overarching control over nearly every aspect of Palestinian lives in both the West Bank and Gaza.
B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization that controversially adopted the term apartheid to refer to Israel in January, said it welcomed the HRW report as an “urgent wake-up call.”
“Firmly grounded in a careful research of the unfolding reality between the river and the sea, the alarming findings by HRW are essential reading for anyone who desires to truly come to terms with Israel’s domination over Palestinians and its systematic oppression of them,” B’Tselem said in a press release. “To date, the international community has by and large refused to wake up to the reality of Israel’s apartheid regime.”
Israel has exclusive control over 60% of the West Bank, its borders and airspace, and imposes restrictions on movement and residency. The nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank have full Israeli citizenship, while the territory’s 2.5 million Palestinians live under military rule.
A recent point of contention was centered on Israel’s successful coronavirus vaccination campaign, with shots freely offered to settlers but largely denied to their Palestinian neighbors. Israeli officials maintain that the Palestinians are responsible for vaccinating their own people according to bilateral agreements, though Israel has undertaken to vaccinate some 100,000 Palestinians employed inside Israel.
In Gaza, an Israeli blockade imposed after the Hamas terror group seized power has largely confined 2 million Palestinians to the coastal strip and decimated the economy. Israel imposes heavy restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, as does neighboring Egypt, maintaining that a blockade is necessary to prevent the entry of weapons that could be turned upon residents of Israel’s south. Israel and Hamas, which is sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state, have fought several large-scale and many smaller battles in the past decade-plus.
The agreements reached in the 1990s were intended to be temporary, pending a historic peace accord that would establish a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War — lands that are home to nearly 5 million Palestinians and which the Palestinians want for a future state.
But a peace agreement appears farther out of reach than at any point in the last three decades.