HRW: Israel commits crimes of apartheid and persecution

Palestinians protest against Israel’s occupation in the West Bank city of Hebron in February 2012.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler ActiveStills

The International Criminal Court should investigate Israeli officials “implicated in the crimes against humanity of apartheid or persecution,” Human Rights Watch says in a report released on Tuesday.

In its paradigm-shifting study, the New York-based group calls for an approach centered on human rights and accountability rather than the long moribund “peace process” that has been the prevailing framework for decades.

Human Rights Watch has now joined a growing consensus finding that “Jewish supremacy” – in the words of the human rights group B’Tselem – is Israel’s “single organizing principle.”

Israel has “pursued an intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians throughout the territory it controls,” Human Rights Watch concludes.

In the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, “the intent has been coupled with systematic oppression of Palestinians and inhumane acts committed against them.”

The combination of these three elements “amount to the crime of apartheid,” the group adds.

UN member states should establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate “systematic discrimination and repression based on group identity” in both the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel, Human Rights Watch urges.

Palestinian human rights groups such as Al-Haq have already called for “a fact-finding mission into Israel’s apartheid regime and full international cooperation with the International Criminal Court.”

The UN “has failed for decades” to investigate Israel for perpetrating the crime of apartheid, the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee observed earlier this year.

The committee said that the so-called peace process towards a two-state solution has only allowed Israel to “continue its longstanding practice” of annexing Palestinian territory.

Human Rights Watch has come to a similar conclusion.

The group notes that “many European and other states have built close ties with Israel, while supporting the ‘peace process.’” That support has involved building the capacity of the Palestinian Authority and occasionally making mild criticism of Israel’s abuses against Palestinians.

This approach “overlooks the deeply entrenched nature of Israeli discrimination and repression of Palestinians,” the rights group argues.

“Serious human rights abuses” are minimized and treated as “temporary symptoms of the occupation that the ‘peace process’ will soon cure.”

The peace process paradigm – notably pushed by the UN secretary-general and his envoy – has made it easy for states to resist accountability and has allowed “apartheid to metastasize and consolidate,” Human Rights Watch adds.

States should “stop assessing the situation through the prism” of a hypothetical future peace process “and focus instead on the longstanding reality on the ground that shows no signs of abating,” the group says.

Drive to preserve a Jewish majority

Israel’s transfer of its civilian population into the West Bank – a violation of international law – since 1967 gives lie to the “widely held” assumption that its military occupation is only temporary.

In both the occupied territories and within its boundaries, Israel has sought to “maximize the land available for Jewish communities and largely confine Palestinians to dense population centers,” according to Human Rights Watch.

“Laws, policies and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish control over demographics, political power and land has long guided government policy.”

Achieving this objective has entailed dispossessing Palestinians of their land. Israel has also imposed myriad movement restrictions, geographically fragmented the West Bank and Gaza and has “subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity.”

“In certain areas,” Human Rights Watch adds, “these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

The report focuses on Israel’s policies exercised in the territories under its physical control but recognizes their implications for the rights of Palestinian refugees.

Human Rights Watch observes that as part of Israel’s drive to “preserve a Jewish majority,” Jewish citizens of other countries are guaranteed the right to residency and to gain citizenship in Israel.

Palestinian refugees and their descendants languishing in refugee camps meanwhile are prohibited by Israel from residing in their homeland and exercising their right to return as enshrined in international law.

In its report, which exceeds 200 pages, Human Rights Watch details these Israeli policies and their harm done to Palestinians but does not identify individuals responsible.

The International Criminal Court – which launched a probe of international crimes perpetrated in the West Bank and Gaza last month – prosecutes individuals, not states.

Human Rights Watch calls on UN member states to establish an international commission of inquiry to identify individuals credibly implicated in Israel’s crimes of apartheid and persecution.

“The inquiry’s mandate should be sufficiently broad to cover the role of other actors, including companies and officials of other states,” the group urges.

The report recommends that states impose “targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes” against implicated officials and “entities.”

Arms sales and military aid to Israel should be conditioned on that state “taking concrete and verifiable steps towards ending” the crimes of apartheid and persecution.

Calls on US and EU

Human Rights Watch specifically calls on the US government to adopt this measure and assess the use of weapons and equipment, whether of US origin or purchased with US funds, in serious violations of international law.

A new US congressional bill would require the government to certify whether Israel is breaking the prohibition on using US funds to violate human rights.

The proposed legislation would also prohibit US funds from aiding Israel’s crimes of military detention and the abuse and torture of detained Palestinian children, among other crimes.

In a forceful rebuke of the bill, three-quarters of the House of Representatives have signed a letter rejecting conditions on the $3.8 billion in assistance the US provides to Israel each year.

US President Joe Biden has also rejected conditions on assistance to Israel, deeming it “irresponsible.”

As for the EU, Human Rights Watch calls on the 27-member bloc to assess “the implications for EU and member states relations with Israel arising from the findings of the crimes of apartheid and persecution.”

The group adds that the EU and member states should apply enhanced screening in its “bilateral agreements, cooperation schemes and all forms of trade and dealing with Israel.”




HRW is already under serious assault for being anti-Israel. It has been accused of lack of objectivity in other reporting; on Venezuela for example. Such is the problem of an organisation which sets out to monitor human rights abuses worldwide. Just as the "freedom fighter" is the "terrorist" to the supporter of the regime in question, so "human rights abuses" are "security" and "anti-terrorism" to those who believe the State should resort to violence, often extreme violence, in the face of perceived threats. The demand for objectivity from HRW is naive in so far as our sense of injustice, of what amounts to abuse, is not objective in its essence. Objectivity means nothing more than what can be confirmed by many or all subjectivities: two and two make four is objective because no subjectivity can fail to confirm it. When we say that Israel is an apartheid regime, we run up against the difficulty that, no matter how much evidence is adduced, supporters of the Israeli State will offer interpretations which subvert confirmation. Objectivity breaks down when people have a sectional, rather than a universal, interest to defend. Thus, HRW will be accused of bias whatever it does; but what we can do is to keep relying on uncontroversial evidence. No one can deny Israel has defied UN resolutions, refuses to define its borders, holds the people of Gaza under siege. Of course, Israeli Statists will reply that this is necessary to fend off a supposed existential threat. Such is politics. But expect an onslaught of vilification of HRW from the Israeli lobby. No means will be eschewed if it can bring the HRW into disrepute and suggest it is biased in its very choice of cases. The facts will be swamped by rhetoric and a befuddled public will have difficulty making sense of it. We are fighting with facts in the mind Israel's facts on the ground, or, if you like, brute force with reason. It's a long struggle. No easy victories. Shoulder to the wheel.


B'Tselem's recent declaration that Israel is an apartheid state was unwelcome, to be sure. That opinion, delivered by an explicitly Israeli civil organization, will lead some to question the Zionist project for the first time. But it can also be dismissed as the work of malcontents within a free and open society. The Human Rights Watch report, on the other hand, issues from a more widely known source, moreover one habitually given credence by mass media outlets around the world. Further to that, HRW has long taken positions favorable to US aims and interests, particularly in Latin America and the Middle East. That such a prominent NGO now condemns Israel and in so forensic a manner suggests that pro-American elements in the western consensus of elites are seriously reconsidering the viability of the Zionist project.

Ironically, while celebrated as historically liberating, Israel's current round of public alliances with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states identifies the country more directly with violent reactionary regimes in the region. One of Israel's greatest selling points in the West has long been the claim that the Jewish state represents a clear, progressive alternative to the gruesome desert monarchies. Along with findings such as those contained in the new report from HRW, this growing and very public intimacy with the Arab Gulf states deprives Israel of a vital propaganda tool. The proclaimed antagonism of those regimes was a valuable element in Israel's case for protection. Now, the spectacle of Israel rapidly running out of enemies- saving Iran, of course- will undercut support for money and weapons to a state threatened only by its own madness.

Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.