Say Israel is committing apartheid? It’s not a decision we reached lightly.
When I arrived in Jerusalem in 1989 as Human Rights Watch’s first Israel-Palestine researcher, I did not imagine the word “apartheid” applying to the Israeli and Palestinian context. But this week, HRW published a report that I edited, as the organization’s acting Middle East director, finding that Israeli officials are committing the crimes of apartheid and persecution — crimes against humanity.
I knew 30 years ago that apartheid had legal meaning beyond its origins in South Africa. For more than a decade there had been an international convention that defined apartheid as a crime committed when officials systematically oppress one group in the territory under their control, and subject it to inhumane acts, with the intent to maintain the domination over that group for the benefit of another group.
At the height of the first intifada, I documented inhumane acts as the Israeli army used brutal tactics to repress the popular uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. And it has become clear over the years that there is systematic oppression of the Palestinians in the occupied territory.
But the third element, the intent to maintain that system, remained less clear.
The 1990s brought the first-ever public face-to-face peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and, subsequently, the Oslo Accords. That agreement created limited interim self-government institutions for Palestinians and a timetable for negotiations to resolve issues of permanent status.
Despite these developments, Human Rights Watch, alongside other watchdogs, reported on Israel’s continued use of unjustified lethal force against Palestinian demonstrators; systematic torture of suspects; widespread prolonged detention without charge; punitive home demolitions; other abuses.
The Israeli government responded to our reports with angry denials. And dovish Israelis, including my relatives and friends, responded along the lines of “Yes, but.” Yes, those terrible things continue, they would say, but they are symptoms of the festering conflict, so let’s focus instead on achieving peace.
That posture was understandable then. There was a nascent Palestinian Authority, and hope that Israeli military rule might soon end.
But hopes for a breakthrough in the peace process obscured the repressive status quo, and the increasingly clear intention of Israeli authorities to perpetuate a system designed to enable the flourishing of Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinians — that is, one of domination.
Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, more than doubled in population from 1993 to 2021 — from 270,000 to some 660,000.
The separation barrier, a wall that Israeli officials justified as necessary to stop suicide bombings inside Israel during the second intifada, dug deep into the West Bank in order to keep expanding settlements on the same side as Israel. Beyond such land grabs, authorities have integrated the settlements’ sewage system, communication and road networks, electrical grids and water infrastructure with those of Israel proper. Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister since 2009, proclaimed in 2019 that Israel “will continue to rule the entire territory, up to the Jordan” River.
When I arrived in 1989, Palestinians had some ability to move within the West Bank, between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and into Israel, though Israel sometimes imposed temporary curfews and closures to crush resistance, including demonstrations that could sometimes be violent. Three decades later, nearly 600 permanent checkpoints and obstacles vastly complicate the ability of Palestinians to move around the West Bank. An Israeli closure limiting the flow of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip deprives 2 million Palestinians of their right to free movement, including to the West Bank, with rare exceptions.
Even when West Bank Palestinians obtain rarely-issued permits, soldiers at checkpoints can turn them back or delay them for hours, while cars with Israeli license plates zip past.
When our Gazan research assistant obtained, with our help, an exit permit in 2018, it was the first time she had ever left the 363-square-kilometer territory. She was 31 years old. A generation earlier, far more Gaza residents her age had traveled outside Gaza.
Israeli authorities justify these measures as necessitated by security concerns, including deadly attacks by Palestinians on Israeli troops and civilians. But we have found that even policies that have a genuine security component are implemented with little effort to balance security against the human rights of millions of Palestinians.
Other policies, such as massive confiscation of land in the West Bank and the revocation of residency rights for many Palestinian Jerusalemites, have more to do with establishing Jewish Israeli control over demography and land than security. A settler can acquire residency for a foreign spouse; their Palestinian neighbor cannot.
This kind of two-tiered treatment was always there. What’s gone is the possibility of saying, with a straight face, that it is temporary. Israeli authorities today clearly intend to maintain this system of severe discrimination into the future — an intent that constitutes the third prong of the crime of apartheid.
After working for three decades on issues of human rights in Israel and Palestine, this is a difficult conclusion for me to reach. The human-rights work I have been part of over the decades has helped to ease some harmful policies and alleviate suffering, but we have not managed to stop Israel’s increasing control over land, or to systematically improve the basic freedoms of Palestinians. At 64, and having spent most of my career at Human Rights Watch, I would like to believe that our efforts have made a difference.
To bring real change, we need to call the situation what it is: an oppressive and discriminatory system that shows no signs of going away, and that meets the legal definition of apartheid.
We must raise the political price for Israel to maintain the status quo.
It is past time to grant Palestinians the basic rights and protections they are entitled to, no matter when an Israeli-Palestinian political agreement is finally reached, or the shape it takes.
Eric Goldstein is the acting Middle East North Africa Director at Human Rights Watch.