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Israel is committing ‘crime of apartheid,’ Human Rights Watch says

Human Rights Watch, the widely respected research and advocacy group that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, on Tuesday released a report declaring that the Israeli government is committing the crime of apartheid. It is the first official use of the term by the group, which is based in New York but documents human-rights abuses across 100 countries and has long clashed with Israeli officials.

The 213-page report cites Israel’s “intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians.” Titled “A Threshold Crossed,” it alleges decades of persecution that cannot be justified by Israel’s security needs or the stalled peace process.

Human Rights Watch found that the Israeli government systematically discriminates against non-Jews in all areas under its control — including the nearly 2 million Arab citizens within the state’s 1948 borders — but that an additional layer of severe human-rights abuses in the occupied West Bank and Gaza amounts to the crime of apartheid. The report, an embargoed copy of which was given to the Forward and other news outlets on Thursday, contends that Israeli officials are using military rule to ensure a Jewish majority across the combined land of Israel and the West Bank.

Israeli officials called the report “preposterous and false.”

Eric Goldstein, acting director for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, said that the group’s report is intended to show that Israeli abuses against Palestinians were not isolated incidents.

“For years, the international community — and many Israelis — have the tendency to think of the cases we document as the unfortunate symptoms of a lack of peace,” Goldstein said in an interview. “But the peace process has unfortunately gone nowhere and the abuses have just become more entrenched.”

The report lands at a time of renewed tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, including a Jewish mob attacking Arab residents of Jerusalem last week and clashes over the weekend, along with the election of openly racist Jewish extremists to Israel’s parliament in the March elections. Meanwhile, Hamas has been firing rockets at Israel in recent days.

Human Rights Watch, often referred to as HRW, has a long and complicated history with Israel. Founder Robert L. Bernstein, now deceased, would come to decry what he described as the organization’s anti-Israel bias, citing its relatively frequent condemnations of Israel compared to Middle Eastern “authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records.”

But Aryeh Neier, former executive director of the ACLU and HRW, has defended the organization’s stance toward Israel, once writing that “the criticisms are based on misunderstandings and distortions of international humanitarian law.”

The report was written by Omar Shakir, the group’s Israel and Palestine director, who was expelled by Israel in 2019 because Human Rights Watch calls on companies not to do business in Israeli settlements.

An uncertain impact

Repercussions from the report may not be immediately evident, but among those who saw summaries before it was released, Palestinian activists hoped it would would re-focus attention on their people’s plight and Israel’s supporters worried it would further efforts to undermine the nation’s standing in the world.

The authors issue pointed recommendations, calling on the Palestinian Authority to end its security cooperation with Israel and for the United States to condition its military aid to Israel on the country ending its “commission of the crimes of apartheid and persecution.” It also recommends that all countries impose targeted sanctions and other restrictions on Israeli officials implicated by the report. It does not call for a full boycott of Israel.

That did not make the report any less offensive to Israeli officials.

“Human Rights Watch is known to have a long-standing anti-Israeli agenda, actively seeking for years to promote boycotts against Israel,” the Israeli foreign ministry said in a statement.

HRW’s founder, Mr. Robert Bernstein, has criticized his organization in 2009 for “issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state,” the statement continued. “This report is yet another part of the organization’s ongoing campaign, led by a known BDS supporter, with no connection to facts or reality on the ground. The fictional claims that HRW concocted are both preposterous and false.”

The ‘A’ word

While Palestinian groups have accused Israel of apartheid since the 1960s, and Israel Apartheid Week has been a fixture of campus activism in the United States since the early 2000s, the Human Rights Watch report levels the charge from a different source: a high-profile, widely-respected non-profit founded by Jews that has more than 400 employees across 40 countries.

Many human-rights and advocacy organizations continue to avoid using the term in relation to Israel, including the perhaps best-known human rights group, Amnesty International.

The fear that using the term “apartheid” to refer to the Israeli occupation would alienate Jewish audiences has dissuaded even some otherwise staunchly left-wing groups from using it. IfNotNow, an American Jewish anti-occupation organization, refrained from using the language until last spring, when Israel was actively discussing possible annexation of the West Bank. It still uses the term sparingly.

“IfNotNow has always aimed to speak in a language that is legible to the American Jewish public and ‘apartheid’ has been one of those words that, if you use it, there are people who simply won’t engage with you,” said Morriah Kaplan, an IfNotNow spokeswoman.

HRW’s report comes on the heels of two others authored by smaller, Israeli human-rights groups that apply “apartheid” to Israel. Yesh Din issued a legal opinion in July that said Israel was committing apartheid in the West Bank and B’Tselem, which has long documented Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, unveiled a sweeping position paper in January describing a “regime of Jewish supremacy” that amounted to apartheid.

Nathan Thrall, a researcher based in Jerusalem, has tracked the use of the term “apartheid” to refer to the Israeli occupation and said its increasing use stems from a growing belief that Israel does not ever plan to allow for Palestinian sovereignty. Instead, Thrall said, what was meant to be a temporary occupation after the 1967 war seems increasingly permanent, and Israel maintains a system across the West Bank where Jewish settlers have full Israeli citizenship rights and Palestinians live under a rigid system of military control.

“What’s happening is very much related to the death of belief in partition, or Oslo, or two states,” Thrall said. “It’s just a sense that, ‘Wow, this situation of domination by one group over another is indefinite or permanent.’”

The HRW report emphasized that it was using “apartheid” in the strict legal sense and not as a reference to South Africa, where domination by whites drew international condemnation and spurred a successful boycott movement that pro-Palestinian activists have tried to recreate. Human Rights Watch officials say they are not equating Israel to “an apartheid state,” a term they note does not exist under international law but is common in conversational usage.

But some observers are skeptical that the public discourse will reflect such a distinction.

Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli author and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, said that applying the term to Israel was intended to malign the Jewish state and ensured that the Israeli public would ignore whatever substantive criticism was behind the Human Rights Watch analysis.

“The game of those who seek to delegitimize Israel is to latch onto the words and the images that are most reprehensible to the moral sensibilities of our time, so it’s ‘apartheid, it’s ‘colonialism,’” Halevi said. “We don’t react well to being libeled.”

The report echoes the claims of Palestinian activists, who have long used the apartheid framework to describe the legal regime that covers both Israel and the occupied territories.

Diana Buttu, a former spokeswoman for the Palestine Liberation Organization, said she is hopeful that broader adoption of the concept will spur the international community to apply more pressure on Israel. But, she added, it is frustrating to see it take so long to confirm what Palestinians had long known.

“Nobody believes us until an international organization, or an Israeli organization, says this,” Buttu said.

‘A Threshold Crossed’

Human Rights Watch has previously leveled the charge of apartheid against the Myanmar government for its treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority and Indian officials for their discrimination against the dalit. The organization has also criticized the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas regime that rules Gaza for violating the human rights of residents under their control, and condemned Hamas for firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel, among other violations of international law.

The report also found that in addition to apartheid, Israel was guilty of “persecution” under international law, because it deprives Palestinians of “key fundamental rights” based on “their identity as Palestinians.”

It argues that the government’s treatment of Palestinians goes well beyond what is required to administer an occupation and prevent terrorism. It cites examples including land confiscation from Palestinians in the West Bank for use by Jewish settlers, the inability of Palestinians living outside the region to move into the West Bank and the tenuous status of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, who can be barred from returning to the city after study or travel abroad. There is also what the report describes as a “near-categorical” denial of building permits in parts of the West Bank that coerce Palestinians to abandon their homes.

In addition to its objections to the content of the report, the Israeli foreign ministry faulted Human Rights Watch for failing to provide the Israeli government a copy before its release date, which it described as “clear indication that it is a propaganda pamphlet, which lacks all credibility.” But Stacy Sullivan, spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, said the group sent an executive summary of the report to the prime minister’s office last week with a request to discuss it.

Goldstein said the difference between how Israeli officials treat Gaza and the West Bank demonstrates that Israel is restricting Palestinian rights for ideological reasons. Israeli policy, he said, seeks to minimize the number of Palestinians in the West Bank while allowing the population to grow in Gaza. For example, if a West Bank Palestinian marries a Gaza resident, the newlyweds are allowed to settle in Gaza but not in the West Bank. Likewise, some Palestinian prisoners from the West Bank are released on the condition they move to Gaza.

“That’s not about security, it’s really a demographic thing,” Goldstein said. “Israel does not covet the land in Gaza but it wants to maintain maximum land for Jews in the West Bank.”

Pro-Israel organizations argue that groups like Human Rights Watch are insensitive to the history of Jewish persecution and the need for a Jewish state. One such group, NGO Monitor, issued a response to the Human Rights Watch report condemning it for characterizing Israel’s demographic goals in a “sinisterly way.”

“The sharp rise in physical violence and other forms of antisemitism around the world in recent years only highlights the need for Israel as a safe refuge from persecution,” reads the NGO Monitor press release.

In addition to what the report describes as this “intent to maintain domination,” Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of a litany of abuses against Palestinians such as denying them the rights to free assembly and expression, including targeting them for speaking out against the occupation and shutting down “hundreds” of NGOs and “dozens” of media outlets.

One military order described in the report states that “participating in a gathering of more than 10 people without a military permit on any issue ‘that could be construed as political’” can subject Palestinians to a 10-year prison term.

“There’s no effort to balance legitimate security needs against the rights of the people involved,” Goldstein said.

Join Forward reporter Arno Rosenfeld in conversation with author of the Human Rights Watch Report Omar Shakir on Facebook Live tomorrow at 11 a.m. ET.

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