A leading Israeli human rights group has begun describing Israel as an “apartheid” regime, using an explosive term vehemently rejected Israel’s leaders, the Israeli mainstream, and Israel’s supporters.
In a report released Tuesday, B’Tselem said that while Palestinians live under different forms of Israeli control in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and within Israel itself, they have fewer rights than Jews in the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
“One of the key points in our analysis is that this is a single geopolitical area ruled by one government,” said B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad. “This is not democracy plus occupation. This is apartheid between the river and the sea.”
Israel’s leaders officials note, by contrast, that within its sovereign borders, its non-Jewish Arab minority enjoys equal rights, that it has withdrawn from the Gaza Strip to the pre-1967 lines, and that remains open to negotiating the future of the West Bank.
That an internationally resonant Israeli human rights organization is adopting a term long seen as taboo even by many critics of Israel, however, may point to a broader shift in the debate as the Jewish state’s half-century of military control over war-won lands drags on, and hopes for a two-state solution fade.
Peter Beinart, a prominent Jewish-American critic of Israel, caused a similar stir last year when he came out in favor of a single binational state with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians. B’Tselem does not take a position on whether there should be one state or two.
Israel considers itself a thriving democracy in which Arab citizens, who make up about 20% of its population of 9.2 million, have equal rights. But B’Tselem said those citizens, to whom it referred as Palestinian Israelis — as many of them see themselves — still face serious discrimination.
Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank (from its Jordanian occupiers) 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.
Israel withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005. It imposed a blockade after the Hamas terror group seized power there two years later, saying the move was needed to prevent arms smuggling; the Islamist Hamas is avowedly committed to destroying Israel, has fought three wars against the state since it took power, organized violent demonstrations at the border, and frequently fired rockets and launched other explosive devices into Israeli targets.
Israel considers the West Bank disputed territory whose fate should be determined in peace talks. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war in a move not recognized internationally and considers the entire city its unified capital. Most Palestinians in East Jerusalem have the status of permanent residents, but aren’t citizens with voting rights. The US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, but that designation is not shared by most of the international community.
B’Tselem argues that by dividing up the territories and using different means of control, Israel masks the underlying reality — that roughly 7 million Jews and 7 million Palestinians live under a single system with vastly unequal rights.
“We are not saying that the degree of discrimination that a Palestinian has to endure is the same if one is a citizen of the state of Israel or if one is besieged in Gaza,” El-Ad said. “The point is that there isn’t a single square inch between the river and the sea in which a Palestinian and a Jew are equal.”
Israel’s harshest critics have used the term “apartheid” for decades, evoking the system of white rule and racial segregation in South Africa that was brought to an end in 1994. The International Criminal Court defines apartheid as an “institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group.”
“There is no country in the world that is clearer in its apartheid policies than Israel,” said Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “It is a state based on racist decisions aimed at confiscating land, expelling indigenous people, demolishing homes and establishing settlements.”
In recent years, as Israel has further entrenched its rule over the West Bank, Israeli writers, disillusioned former generals and politicians opposed to its right-wing government have increasingly adopted the term.
But until now B’Tselem, which was established in 1989, had only used it in specific contexts.
Israel adamantly rejects the term, 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.
Most Palestinians in the West Bank live in areas governed by the Palestinian Authority, but those areas are surrounded by Israeli checkpoints and Israeli soldiers can enter at any time. Israel has full control over 60 percent of the West Bank.
Itay Milner, a spokesman for Israel’s consulate general in New York, dismissed the B’Tselem report as “another tool for them to promote their political agenda,” which he said was based on a “distorted ideological view.” He pointed out that Arab citizens of Israel are represented across the government, including the diplomatic corps.
Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum, said the fact that the Palestinians have their own government makes any talk of apartheid “inapplicable,” calling the B’Tselem report “shockingly weak, dishonest and misleading.”
Palestinian leaders agreed to the current territorial divisions in the Oslo accords in the 1990s, and the Palestinian Authority is recognized as a state by dozens of nations. That, Kontorovich said, is a far cry from the territories designated for Black South Africans under apartheid — known as bantustans — to which many Palestinians compare the areas governed by the PA.
Kontorovich said the use of the word “apartheid” was instead aimed at demonizing Israel in a way that “resonates with racial sensitivities and debates in America and the West.”
Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, rejected the term. “Occupation, yes. Apartheid, absolutely not.”
But he acknowledged that critics of Israel who had refrained from using the term, or who had used it and been attacked, “will now conveniently say, ‘Hey, you know, Israelis are saying it themselves.’”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, which estimates its reach at more than 1.5 million people in 850 congregations across North America, said the situation in the West Bank and Gaza is a “moral blight” and an “occupation,” but not apartheid.
“What goes along with saying that, to many in the international community, is that therefore Israel has no right to exist,” he said. “If the accusation is apartheid, that is not simply a strong critique, it’s an existential critique.”
El-Ad pointed to two recent developments that altered B’Tselem’s thinking.
The first was a contentious law passed in 2018 that defines Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” Critics say it downgraded Israel’s Arab minority to second-class citizenship and formalized the widespread discrimination they allege they have faced since Israel’s founding in 1948. Supporters say it merely recognized Israel’s Jewish character and that similar laws can be found in many Western countries.
The second was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex up to a third of the West Bank, including all of its Jewish settlements, which are home to nearly 500,000 Israelis. Those plans were frozen indefinitely as part a normalization agreement reached with the United Arab Emirates last year, but Netanyahu has insisted the pause is only temporary.
B’Tselem and other rights groups argue that the boundaries separating Israel and the West Bank vanished long ago — at least for Israeli settlers, who can freely travel back and forth, while their Palestinian neighbors require permits to enter Israel.
There have been no substantive peace talks in some six years. Israel’s military control of the West Bank, which critics have long warned is unsustainable, has endured for 53 years.
“Fifty years plus, that’s not enough to understand the permanence of Israeli control of the occupied territories?” El-Ad said. “We think that people need to wake up to reality, and stop talking in future terms about something that has already happened.”