In its latest report, Human Rights Watch states that the Israeli authorities are pursuing a policy towards Palestinians that should be directly called apartheid and persecution.
Apartheid stands for state-sanctioned racial discrimination and is a crime against humanity. We analyze what was included in the 224-page report.
Background of the conflict – basic information
Currently, in the territory of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (i.e. West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza), there are approximately 6.8 million Jewish Israelis and 6.8 million Palestinians. Most of these areas are under Israeli sovereignty. Palestinians from the remaining parts have only limited self-governance – Israel’s sovereignty remains paramount.
With the creation of Israel in 1948, more than 700,000 Palestinians have fled or been driven out of their homes. In turn, more than 400 Palestinian villages have been destroyed.
The Israeli authorities placed most of the Palestinians who remained within the borders of the newly created state under military rule. Palestinians were then deployed in dozens of enclaves where their basic rights are still restricted. A similar situation occurs in areas that Israel has annexed over the past decades.
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According to HRW experts, Israel’s policy has been for years guided by three basic factors: demography, maintaining political power, and maintaining control over the territory. To this end, it methodically privileges Israeli Jews and discriminates against Palestinians in many areas of life.
There have been numerous cases of expropriation, illegal imprisonment, forced separation of families, and forceful submission to the Israeli authorities. The report clearly states that this is apartheid and persecution.
Apartheid and persecution – crimes against humanity
According to the provisions of the Rome Statute, crimes against humanity are extremely serious violations of human rights. These are crimes that are not individual, separated cases.
It is the planned and consistent policy of a government or a commonly accepted, tolerated cruelty. In international law, we distinguish 11 types of crimes against humanity – apartheid and persecution are among them. All the crimes are treated with the same seriousness – they are not sorted in any hierarchy. Palestine signed the Rome Statute in 2015 – since then, the International Criminal Court has the power to deal with crimes against humanity committed in this territory.
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Apartheid is a term associated primarily with specific practices of government in South Africa, but over the last half-century, it has become a universal term. We call apartheid strict institutional system discrimination and the systematic oppression that is exercised by one racial group against another racial group. The prohibition of apartheid is a customary norm in international law.
We can speak of committing the crime of apartheid if three conditions are met:
- There was an intention to maintain a system based on the domination of one racial group over another;
- There has been systematic oppression by one racial group against another racial group;
- One or more inhuman acts were commonly or regularly committed against a racial group.
According to HRW experts, the Israeli government’s policy meets all the above-mentioned conditions.
On the other hand, persecution according to the provisions of the Rome Statute is a deliberate and intensive deprivation of basic rights because of the identity of a given group or community. It can be about a political, racial, ethnic, or cultural background. The Palestinians have become such a group. Persecution is one of 11 crimes against humanity and one of two that, according to HRW, Israel is committing against Palestinians.
Israel’s domination is no coincidence
According to HRW, the system based on the domination of one race over another did not arise accidentally. Quite the contrary. The statements of Israeli politicians and the policy pursued for years prove that the intention to create such a system is not open to discussion. This is evidenced by the Israeli actions concerning five occupied territories. Those include Galilee, the West Bank, Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the Negev desert.
Galilee is an area torn by decades of territorial grabbing and discriminatory segregation from the autonomous Palestinian Authority. It has been taking place for years. At the same time, care is taken to ensure that the Jewish community grows in the neighboring villages. “I intend to Judaize the Galilee,” said former Israeli Mister of Transport, Bezalel Smotrich, in 2019.
Israel’s policy towards the West Bank has for decades been aimed at keeping the territory in which Jewish settlement takes place as much as possible. At the same time, Palestinians were placed in densely populated small areas. Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about the West Bank in 2020: “We dictate the rules of security… they will remain Palestinian subjects.”
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The subjugation of Jerusalem for decades has been one of Israel’s main goals. As early as 1984, the then-mayor of that city, Teddy Kollek, said: “I am worried about… Arab growth in and around Jerusalem.” The main goal of the 2000 Jerusalem partition plan was to achieve a demographic proportion that would guarantee Israel an advantage. It was established that Jews should constitute 60% of the population and Palestinians 40%.
The main goal of Israel’s policy towards the Gaza Strip has for years been isolation from the West Bank. It was supposed to remove over 2 million inhabitants from the demographic balance. In this way, Israel can dominate the Palestinians. Gaza’s demographics have been a major threat to Israel’s activities for many years. As Shimon Peres emphasized in 2005: “We are withdrawing from Gaza because of demographics.”
The area of the Negev desert is mainly associated with the Palestinian Bedouins. Israel refuses to recognize 35 villages inhabited by approximately 90,000 Palestinians. Their houses are regularly destroyed to allow the continuation of Jewish settlement. “They [the Bedouins] will bite into the reserves of our country’s territory,” said then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2000.
Inhuman treatment and harassment – what are they?
Human Rights Watch highlights that the Israeli authorities are committing numerous violations of the fundamental rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Many of them can be considered inhuman treatment and persecution. This is the last element that testifies to apartheid.
Severe restrictions on movement are one of the most common violations. Gaza is a closed territory. A system of residence permits has been introduced in the occupied territories, and Palestinian enclaves are increasingly fenced off. Nearly 600 checkpoints and other obstacles to movement have been created in the West Bank.
Land confiscation is another serious violation. More than ⅓ of the areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been confiscated by the Israeli authorities over the past decades.
The inability to build houses and the systematic destruction of Palestinian homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem result in forced displacement.
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Since 1967, over half a million Palestinians in the occupied territories have been stripped of their legal status. Residence permit refusal is another violation made by the Israeli authorities. That happens especially in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.
For several decades, nearly 5 million Palestinians have been deprived of their basic civil rights. They have no freedom of speech, the right to protest, and freedom of assembly.
The everyday life of Jews and Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or the Negev looks completely different. According to HRW experts, unequal treatment and discrimination are an integral part of the system created by the Israeli authorities. They are visible in almost every sphere of life of the inhabitants.
Everyday life in apartheid – the example of the West Bank
How does Israel’s apartheid look in practice? Just look at the example of the West Bank. Palestinians living in the West Bank in Area C (under Israeli control) face unequal treatment in various areas of life.
Can a Palestinian go freely to Jerusalem? No – they need rarely given Israeli consent. However, if they exceptionally manage to obtain such a permit – they will still have to pass through the checkpoints. Such control for Palestinians regularly involves delays and inhuman treatment. On the other hand, a resident of Israel, born in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, can freely travel to Jerusalem. Additionally, they can use roads that have been deliberately led through Palestinian enclaves. The roads were built to make it easier for Israelis to get to Jerusalem.
Can a Palestinian build a house? They cannot because it is prohibited by Israeli law, in force in 60% of the West Bank territory. The Palestinian home is more likely to be destroyed. In the case of Israelis, the situation is completely different. For years, the Israeli authorities have been ensuring that thousands of Jewish homes are built in the West Bank.
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Palestinians also cannot count on a fair trial. If arrested, they will be prosecuted by an Israeli military court. The probability of a conviction is 100%. It is also highly probable that a Palestinian will be detained without trial and a final sentence, basing only on secret evidence. In turn, a resident of Israel from the West Bank will be prosecuted in an Israeli civil court with full procedural rights.
What about freedom of speech and the right to protest? These are other human rights that the Israeli authorities are taking away from the Palestinians. Freedom of speech and protest are prohibited, above all, by the army and military orders. Disobedience can result in a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. On the other hand, Israelis can expect state repression only if they “seriously threaten” the state’s security.
These are just a few examples.
How to end apartheid?
In the report, experts indicate various recommendations, the application of which could lead to the abolition of apartheid. In the first place, Israel was called to stop the described practices and numerous violations of human rights and norms of international law were highlighted.
According to HRW, the Palestinian Authority authorities should end all forms of cooperation with the Israeli army. It should focus primarily on the situation of the civilian population, not on political goals. Moreover, the international community, the UN, and the International Criminal Court should make every effort to punish those responsible for the functioning of apartheid. They have to cooperate with Israel dependent on the way it treats Palestinians. Experts also highlighted the key role of sanctions in relations with Israel. Israel remains the country that most frequently ignores and violates UN resolutions.
It is important to emphasize that the HRW experts refer only to the policy of the Israeli authorities. The accusations of apartheid and persecution are directed explicitly to the rulers – not Israel’s society. Showing their systemic privileges serves only to explain the functioning of a system based on the domination of one group over another.
Anna Słania – national and international security expert, journalist. Interested in the issues of contemporary armed conflicts, terrorism, and humanitarianism in international relations. Works in the field of peace journalism. Member of the Salam Lab team. Follow Anna on Instagram: @annaslania and Facebook: anna.slania4
Trans. Justyna Siwiec – philologist and translator. Food and music lover interested in the history and culture of the Middle East. Member of the Salam Lab team. Follow Justyna on Instagram: @siwcowe.
- Human Rights Watch, A Threshold Crossed. Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,
- Visualizing Palestine Project.
Cover photo: A Palestinian boy and an Israeli soldier near the Israeli separation wall in West Bank. Credit: Justin McIntosh via Commons.wikipeda.org.