Top Israeli rights group breaks “apartheid” taboo

Palestinians have long described Israeli rule as a system of apartheid.

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Israel imposes a single system of apartheid rule from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, the prominent human rights group B’Tselem stated on Tuesday.

“There is one regime governing the entire area and the people living in it, based on a single organizing principle,” the Israeli group said, echoing what their Palestinian counterparts have stated for decades.

“The Israeli regime implements laws, practices and state violence designed to cement the supremacy of one group — Jews — over another — Palestinians,” B’Tselem states in its position paper.

B’Tselem’s position echoes that of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), which concluded in 2017 that “Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.”

ESCWA’s report was suppressed by the UN secretary-general and Rima Khalaf, the official who oversaw the report, was forced to resign.

In 2009, South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council similarly determined that Israel practices apartheid in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Even a US lawmaker has called Israel an apartheid state as the reality of the situation becomes impossible to ignore.

Despite the growing consensus that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is part of a regime of apartheid, the UN “has failed for decades” to investigate Israel for perpetrating this crime, the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee recently stated in a position paper.

And Israel’s apartheid regime will not likely be examined in any investigation by the International Criminal Court, though the document on which it was founded – the Rome Statute – recognizes apartheid as a crime against humanity.

“Fragmented mosaic”

In its new position paper, B’Tselem explains that Israel engineers space differently for each group living under its unequal rule.

“Jewish citizens live as though the entire area were a single space (excluding the Gaza Strip),” B’Tselem states.

Meanwhile, Palestinians live in a “fragmented mosaic” of several units that Israel “defines and governs differently” with varying degrees of limitations on their rights — “all of which are inferior compared to the rights afforded to Jewish citizens” living in the same area.

B’Tselem identifies four key ways Israel advances what the group calls “Jewish supremacy.”

These include “restricting migration by non-Jews and taking over Palestinian land to build Jewish-only communities while relegating Palestinians to small enclaves” — a practice implemented throughout Israel and the territories it occupies.

In the occupied West Bank, that can look like the forcible transfer of Palestinian herding communities in the Jordan Valley.

For Palestinian citizens of Israel, it means discriminatory land policies that prevent building to accommodate population growth.

In both cases, Palestinians face severe constraints on where they can live while Jewish communities face no such restrictions.

Additionally, Israel imposes “draconian restrictions” on the freedom of movement of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and denies their political rights.

A report published by Human Rights Watch in 2019 stated that Israel has denied Palestinians living under military occupation their fundamental civil rights for more than five decades, creating a highly oppressive environment.

Moreover, as B’Tselem states in its position paper, “Israel has sole power over the population registry, land allocation, voter rolls and the right (or denial thereof) to travel within, enter or exit any part of the area.”

“Demographic engineering”

One key aspect of Israel’s apartheid rule overlooked in B’Tselem’s position paper is the denial of Palestinian refugees’ right to return – a form of “demographic engineering” recognized in the ESCWA report suppressed by the UN.

“Israel defends its rejection of the Palestinians’ return in frankly racist language,” the ESCWA report states. “It is alleged that Palestinians constitute a ‘demographic threat’ and that their return would alter the demographic character of Israel to the point of eliminating it as a Jewish state.”

The UN body described Israel’s denial of the right of return as “integral to the system of oppression and domination of the Palestinian people as a whole.”

The right of return is enshrined in international law and is at the heart of the Palestinian liberation cause.

There is little debate that Israel exercises profound control over the lives of Palestinians living under its rule.

Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, has stated that Israel’s fragmentation of Palestinian society has forced people to make life choices as personal as who they marry and where they live “based on the constraints of Israeli policies.”

“Shattered facade”

B’Tselem concludes that “a regime that uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another is an apartheid regime.”

Apartheid, a term coined during white rule in South Africa, is defined by the International Criminal Court as an “institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group.”

While a regime of apartheid has “gradually grown more institutionalized and explicit” in the territories under Israeli rule, B’Tselem says, the state has “shattered the facade” of democracy with a temporary military occupation in recent years.

The rights group points to the recently passed so-called nation-state law, which stipulates that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

The rights group also says that Israel’s plans to formally annex large swathes of the West Bank demonstrate that the state’s “intention to achieve permanent control over the entire area has already been openly declared by the state’s highest officials.”

An apartheid framework complicates “the common perception in public, political, legal and media discourse” that there are two separate regimes in Israel and the Palestinian territories it occupies, B’Tselem notes.

(Israel has also occupied the Syrian Golan Heights since 1967, though its treatment of that territory is not discussed in B’Tselem’s paper.)

An apartheid analysis challenges the assumptions underpinning the two-state solution seeking a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel, as pushed by the UN and the EU.

The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee has stated that acknowledging and investigating Israeli apartheid is necessary “for achieving freedom, justice and equality for the Palestinian people.”

The committee added that the myth of negotiations with Israel has only enabled the apartheid state to “continue its longstanding practice” of annexation of Palestinian territory and its concomitant violence against Palestinians.

While not putting forth any political position – or explicitly supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in support of Palestinian rights, as ESCWA did in its report – B’Tselem states that “all of us must first choose to say no to apartheid.”




That Israel practises apartheid has been self-evident for a long time;
good that B’Tselem feels the time has come for public acknowledgment.

What's really new is that despite predictable Zionist dismissal of the report,
major media including the pro-Israel UK Guardian and even CNN have
prominently played this story. I suggest that EI follow up on the reaction.


An excellent clarifying opinion piece on the B'Tselem Report, but two
misleading aspects: (1) the ESCWA Report was an independent academic study sponsored
by ESCWA but never endorsed by the UN, containing a prominent displayed disclaimer as to whether the report expressed the views of the UN. (2) Rima Khalaf was not 'forced' to resign but chose to do so as her letter makes clear. The report was written by Virginia Tilley and myself. Grateful that the article highlighted the erasure of refugees from the B'Tselem Report.

Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.