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ConflictsMiddle East

Israel committing 'crime of apartheid': HRW

Marcel Nadim Aburakia
April 27, 2021

Human Rights Watch has called on the International Criminal Court to investigate "systematic discrimination" against Palestinians.

Israeli border police fire in the direction of Palestinians taking part in an anti-Israel protest
Israeli border police fired in the direction of Palestinians taking part in an anti-Israel protestImage: Hazem Bader/AFP

In a report published Tuesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Israel of pursuing policies of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians.

Omar Shakir, the watchdog's Israel and Palestine director, said the report was "the starkest finding HRW has reached on Israeli conduct in 30 years."

The 213-page document alleges that Israel is committing the crime of "apartheid" by seeking to maintain Jewish domination over Palestinians and its Arab population.

Israel's Foreign Ministry has rejected the claims as "both preposterous and false."

The reported violations apply to Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, the blockaded Gaza Strip and annexed east Jerusalem, as well as of Arab Israelis — a term referring to Palestinians who stayed on their land following Israel's creation in 1948.

Israel an 'apartheid' state

The report drew on years of human rights documentation, analysis of Israeli laws, a review of government planning documents and statements by officials.

It summarized that there was a "present-day reality of a single authority, the Israeli government … methodologically privileging Jewish Israelis while repressing Palestinians, most severely in the occupied territory."

HRW executive director Ken Roth said "the oppression of Palestinians there has reached a threshold and a permanence that meets the definitions of the crimes of apartheid and persecution."

While the term "apartheid" was first used in relation to South Africa's racist segregation of non-white citizens, the report said it was now a "universally recognized legal term" that described crime against humanity under international law.

An apartheid system is defined by "an effort to maintain domination by one racial group over another, a context of systematic oppression by the dominant group over the marginalized group (and) inhuman acts," HRW said.

Persecution, which is also a crime against humanity, is defined as "the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights" of a group of people.

HRW has called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to "investigate and prosecute individuals who are implicated" in apartheid and persecution.

Last month, the ICC had already announced it would investigate war crimes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has said it will not cooperate with the probe.

Escalating unrest

Tensions between Jews and Palestinians have increased since a video emerged last week of an assault on an ultra-Orthodox Israeli man on a tram in Jerusalem. Two Arab suspects were later arrested. The attack was seen as a response to the ongoing eviction of 550 Palestinian people in the neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah.

Violence erupted on Thursday when around 300 far-right Jewish extremists marched toward the Old City chanting "Death to Arabs," threatened to burn Palestinian parts of the city and forcibly tried to remove Arab families from their homes.

Other videos showed Jewish youths attacking an Arab home just inside the Old City. Children's cries can be heard as an unseen woman shouts "Stop" in Arabic.

Here, radical Jews are seen stopping cars to check whether there are Jews or Arabs in them. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called the anti-Palestinian violence in Jerusalem "state terror."

The Damascus Gate, in particular, has been focus of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police following an Israeli decision to prevent people from gathering in the area, a popular nighttime focal point during the holy month of Ramadan. 

Israel rejects report's findings

In the past, when human rights organizations and different politicians had raised similar allegations, Israel has taken particular offense to the claim it discriminates against Palestinian citizens of the country, also known as Arab Israelis. It has cited equal rights laws and the fact that Arabs are represented in government and the judicial system.

Regarding the occupied West Bank, Israel has pointed to agreements signed in the 1990s that afforded Palestinians limited self-rule there. However, HRW has said the Israeli government still "retains primary control over many aspects" of their lives, including borders, natural resources and movement of people and goods.

Israel's Foreign Ministry has accused HRW of a "longstanding anti-Israeli agenda" and said the report was a "propaganda pamphlet" that had "no connection to facts or reality on the ground."

"The fictional claims that HRW concocted are both preposterous and false," it said.

HRW calls for legal action

Israel has occupied the West Bank since 1967, the same year it annexed east Jerusalem. Since then, Jewish settlers in both areas have absorbed increased amounts of land. Palestinians in east Jerusalem and across much of the West Bank are regularly denied building permits, while Jewish home construction has steadily grown.

Israel's settlement policy in the occupied Palestine is illegal under international law, particularly international humanitarian law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, which relates to the protection of civilians in time of war.

HRW has called on nations to stop viewing the occupation as an issue that can be resolved through a peace deal and foster accountability by reconsidering their Israel ties, including military cooperation.

It called on nations to "impose individual sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on officials responsible for committing these crimes."