Human Rights Watch on Tuesday (4/27) released a report accusing Israel of pursuing a policy of “apartheid and persecution” that favors Israeli Jews over Palestinians in both Israel and the “occupied territories.”
HRW does not draw a direct comparison with the South African regime that segregated and subjugated people based on their skin color. Instead, it cites international laws that define apartheid as a crime against humanity in which one racial or ethnic group dominates another through intentional, systematic, and inhumane acts of oppression.
HRW argues that these policies persist, to varying degrees, across the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and within Israel itself, where Arab citizens of Israel are subjected to “institutional discrimination.”
In the West Bank, the report says, Israel has created a two-tier system with some Palestinians living under military rule and Israeli settlers under a civil legal system with greater freedoms, an inequity that “amounts to the systematic oppression required for apartheid.”
The report argues that Israel uses checkpoints and a permit system to regulate Palestinian movement between areas of nominal Palestinian self-rule and Israel. It further cites “the forcible transfer of thousands of Palestinians out of their homes, denial of residency rights to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and their relatives, and the suspension of basic civil rights to millions of Palestinians” as policies that meet the definition of apartheid.
Under “Recommendations,” the report calls on the Palestinian Authority to “end forms of security coordination with the Israeli army that contribute to facilitating the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.” It accuses the U.S. of failing “to press the Israeli government to end its systematic repression of Palestinians,” and European and other states of building close ties with Israel, thus enabling “apartheid to metastasize and consolidate.” It calls on the ICC prosecutor, and all governments, to investigate and prosecute individuals “credibly implicated in these crimes.” It calls on states to establish, through the UN, “a position of a UN global envoy for the crimes of persecution and apartheid,” and to “vet agreements, cooperation schemes, and all forms of trade and dealing with Israel to screen those directly contributing to the commission of the crimes of apartheid and persecution against the Palestinians.” It further calls on states to impose “individual sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes” against implicated individuals and to “condition arms sales and military and security assistance to Israel on Israeli authorities taking concrete and verifiable steps towards their commission of the crimes of apartheid and persecution.”
(Following the report’s publication, and in response to criticism, some HRW representatives have highlighted a distinction that the report does not go to great lengths to emphasize and that has been lost in much subsequent commentary: while it accuses Israel of violating the rights of Palestinians inside Israel, the HRW report does not find that Israel is committing the crimes of apartheid or persecution within its borders. The allegations that satisfy all of the elements of these crimes that are recounted in the report originate entirely in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.)
The Israeli government strongly condemned the report. “The mendacious apartheid slur is indicative of an organization that has been plagued for years by systemic anti-Israel bias,” said Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Netanyahu, adding: “To allege that Israeli policies are motivated by racism is both baseless and outrageous, and belittles the very real security threats posed by Palestinian terrorists to Israeli civilians – whose fundamental human rights to live in freedom and security are callously ignored by H.R.W.” Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Gilad Erdan, said the report bordered on anti-Semitism. “When the authors of the report cynically and falsely use the term apartheid, they nullify the legal and social status of millions of Israeli citizens, including Arab citizens, who are an integral part of the state of Israel,” he said.
American Jewish Committee perspectives
The HRW report spans over 213 pages and contains many allegations against Israel. The purpose of this memo is not to refute every allegation, but rather focus on the report’s most glaring biases.
A Genuine and vibrant democracy: Israel is certainly not above criticism, but the HRW report not only criticizes Israeli policy and conduct in the Palestinian areas but also calls into question Israel’s democratic values and rule of law within its own borders. The history of the 20th century is replete with examples of democracies – notably, those in Europe between the two world wars – that, under internal and external pressures, collapsed and turned into dictatorships. Israel, in contrast, has remained a true democracy, indeed the only democracy in the Middle East, despite a permanent security threat and the challenge of transforming hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from all over the world into a coherent, modern nation.
Not an apartheid state: In 1948, the same year that the term apartheid was first used to denote legal separation of the races in South Africa, Israel issued its Declaration of Independence, which stated:
The State of Israel…will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…
To the Arab inhabitants of Israel, the Declaration promised “full and equal citizenship and due representation in its provisional or permanent institutions.” Consistent with these principles, Israel has maintained a democratic political system based on majority rule. Israel’s Arab citizens participate fully, actively and without any restrictions in this system and are represented in the Knesset and all branches of the government. Transportation, public services and universities are open to all citizens, Jews and Arabs alike. Hospitals and other medical facilities are also open to citizens of neighboring Arab states who seek medical treatment in Israel. Muslim law has equivalent legal status in Israel with Christian and Jewish law in personal matters relating to marriage, divorce and inheritance.
The relationship between majority and minority is never simple, and Israel is no exception, all the more so because the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict compounds the situation for both Jews and Arabs in Israel. Yet despite this difficulty, Israel has achieved a remarkable degree of coexistence between these two communities.
Not a racial conflict: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a political conflict between two peoples with competing national goals – and should be addressed as such. Attempts to transform it into a racial or religious conflict make it much more difficult to resolve. By embracing the two-state solution and making generous peace overtures, Israel has made it abundantly clear that it does not want to rule the Palestinians, let alone impose an “apartheid regime” upon them.
Palestinian refugees: Echoing a long-standing Palestinian claim to a “right of return,” HRW criticizes Israel for prohibiting the return of Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war, and their descendants, to Israel. Israel rightly says that such refugee return is unacceptable, since a large influx of Palestinians would mean the end of the Jewish state. The solution for the Palestinian refugees lies in their settlement in the Arab lands where they currently live, or their repatriation to a future Palestinian state. Israel has already indicated its willingness to participate in an international effort to implement such a solution.
“Occupation:” The HRW report condemns Israel for perpetuating what it calls occupation of Palestinian areas while ignoring the historical circumstances that led to the occupation. In May 1967, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt violated international law by closing the Straits of Tiran and deploying 100,000 troops in the Sinai Peninsula, presenting an existential threat to Israel. After exhausting all diplomatic options, Israel was left with no choice but to exercise its right of self-defense. Israel did not attack Jordan, hoping that Jordan would stay out of the war, and indeed sent messages to King Hussein promising not to attack unless it was attacked first. Unfortunately, King Hussein ignored Israel’s peaceful overtures, and instead used artillery and air power to attack Israeli population centers and ground troops to capture the UN headquarters in Jerusalem. It was only in response to these attacks, in a clear-cut case of self-defense, that Israel captured the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem.
Right of self-defense: The report accuses Israel of launching three large-scale military offensives in Gaza since 2008, “in the context of hostilities with armed Palestinian groups.” Those offensives, the report claims, “included apparently deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure and killed over 2,000 civilians.” The report ignores the asymmetrical warfare that Hamas and other terror organizations have imposed on Israel, thus effectively dismissing Israel’s right of self-defense.
The IDF has been guided by international humanitarian law, including the principles of “distinction” and “proportionality.” These require IDF units to direct their attacks solely against military objectives and to try to ensure that civilians are not harmed. Where damage to civilians or civilian property cannot be avoided, the IDF makes extraordinary efforts to ensure that force is not excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.
Israel’s quest for peace: In 2000, seven years after the Oslo process was launched, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, with American help, tried to conclude a two-state agreement with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. Barak offered Arafat the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and the bulk of the West Bank, with its capital in East Jerusalem. Initially, Barak agreed to concede 80 percent of the West Bank, but he gradually increased that percentage up to 90-91 percent. President Clinton, under the so-called Clinton parameters, increased that percentage to 94-96 percent, but the Palestinians declined to accept the offer.
The real tragedy: The only way the Palestinians can fulfill their legitimate national aspirations is by reaching an agreement with Israel based on the principle of two states living side-by-side in peace and security. Yet the Palestinian leadership refuses to return to the negotiation table, insisting that its maximalist demands be accepted by Israel in advance. The real tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that at every historical turning point the Palestinian leadership has failed its people. Rather than urging that leadership to change course, HRW has opted to echo some of its baseless allegations against the Jewish state, thus further undermining the prospects of peace.