International court should rule on Israeli “apartheid,” says UN official

UN report says Israel’s systematic abuses of Palestinian rights may amount to the crime of “apartheid.”

Issam Rimawi APA images

In his final report before completing his role as UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, Richard Falk gives a damning overview of Israel’s violations of the rights of the Palestinian people.

Falk repeats the 2007 call by his predecessor, noted law professor John Dugard, for the International Court of Justice to render an opinion on whether elements of the Israeli occupation constitute forms of colonialism and apartheid.

In the absence of such an opinion, Falk himself analyzes whether claims of apartheid are founded and concludes that the combined effect of Israel’s policies to ensure security for Israeli citizens, to facilitate and expand illegal settlements, and to annex land amount to hafrada (Hebrew for separation), discrimination and systematic oppression of and domination over the Palestinian people.

The crime of apartheid

Apartheid is expressly prohibited under international law, which defines it as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid says the crime of apartheid includes similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as those once practiced in southern Africa as well as other abuses committed with the purpose of maintaining racial domination.

According to Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, the abuses and discrimination may be based on race, color, descent or national or ethnic origin.

Extreme violence

Israeli forces continue to use extreme and escalating violence leading to more than 6,700 Palestinian deaths — including 3,100 civilians — from 2000 to October 2013. By comparison, nearly 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the previous period between 1987 and 2000.

Israel’s practice of “targeted killing” — extrajudicial execution — resulted in the deaths of 369 Palestinians from 2000 until October 2013. During these attacks, Israeli forces killed 453 Palestinian bystanders who were not the intended target of the assassination. 

Such unlawful taking of life or murder potentially constitutes an element of apartheid in the context where such acts are carried out to maintain Israeli dominance over Palestinians.

Torture and ill-treatment

The detention of Palestinians by Israel is closely linked to torture and ill-treatment.

As of September 2013, there were about 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners including 137 persons held without charge or trial, so-called “administrative detainees.”

Many prisoners are held in prisons inside present-day Israel in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The practice of administrative detention is discriminatory and unlawful under international human rights law, Falk’s report notes.

Despite the absolute prohibition of torture, Palestinians in Israeli detention are subjected to sleep deprivation, excessive use of handcuffs, beatings, verbal abuse, stress positions, solitary confinement, humiliation, and threats of killing, sexual assault and house demolitions, against the detainee or his or her family.

Child abuse

Moreover, the ill-treatment of Palestinian children held in the Israeli military detention system is widespread, systematic and institutionalized.

Falk reports that Israeli authorities have taken some limited steps to mitigate their abuses which include frightening nighttime home invasions to arrest children.

However, Israel’s military occupation regime systematically denies and fails to protect the rights of Palestinian children.

On average, approximately 700 children are detained and prosecuted each year in Israeli military courts. Meanwhile the children of Israeli settlers in conflict with the law are subjected to Israeli civilian courts where they receive much better treatment and protection.

The regular denial of the right to life and liberty — an element of apartheid — of significant numbers of Palestinians is reflected in Israel’s policies, laws and practices in the occupied Palestinian territories, Falk concludes.

Preventing ordinary life

Another element of the crime of apartheid, as defined in international law, consists of measures calculated to prevent a racial group’s full development and participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country by denying its members their rights to work, education, to leave and return to their country, to nationality and to freedom of movement and residence, opinion and expression, as well as peaceful assembly and association.

Falk illustrates the violations of these rights in paragraphs on the impact of Israel’s West Bank wall and the policies and laws related to the construction of Israeli settlements including in occupied East Jerusalem.

The ongoing blockade of Gaza is directly responsible for Palestinians there being denied the rights to work, freedom of movement, and to leave and return to their country. These abuses damage and deny the rights to health, education and work. The devastating economic impact of the siege has greatly increased poverty.

Israel has committed its most egregious violations of human rights in Gaza in the enforcement, using “excessive force,” of arbitrary restrictions on people entering areas of land and sea.

This has profoundly affected the lives of Palestinian fishermen and farmers and their families.

It is clear that Israeli measures have the effect of preventing Palestinians from full participation and development.


The crime of apartheid includes measures to divide the population along racial lines by creating separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups, and the expropriation of landed property.

It is obvious that Palestinian land is used for settlement expansion and the construction of the wall.

The fragmentation of Palestinian land and the creation of separate reserves and enclaves, including colonization plans that would cut East Jerusalem off from the rest of the occupied West bank, is well documented in UN reports.

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine has also concluded that Israeli laws and practices divide the Israeli Jewish and Palestinian populations and allocate them different physical spaces, with varying levels and quality of infrastructure, services and access to resources.

Such a policy is formally described in Israel as hafrada, Hebrew for “separation.”

It seems incontestable that yet another element of the crime of apartheid is amply met by these Israeli measures.


Finally, the persecution of those who oppose apartheid is another characteristic of apartheid regimes. It relates to a wide range of human rights violations against Palestinians under Israeli military occupation.

Palestinians as a people have a right to and desire to exercise self-determination.

Palestinians engage in activities to resist and oppose Israel’s policies and practices of segregation, restrictions and discrimination. The punitive response often meted out to those who demonstrate against the wall and its associated regime, or more generally oppose Israeli violations of human rights, fall under this element of apartheid.

Court action

Falk recommends that the UN General Assembly request that the International Court of Justice issue an advisory opinion on Israel’s prolonged occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and assess allegations that it constitutes colonialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing.




South Africa's Parliamentary Portfolio Committee held a "Solidarity Conference in Support of the Peoples of Palestine, Western Sahara and Cuba" on Thursday, 6th February and and recommended to forward the 2009 Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) report, which found Israel guilty of Apartheid, to international bodies including the International Parliamentary Union, the International Criminal Court, the United Nations and the African Union.

Adri Nieuwhof

Adri Nieuwhof's picture

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. Twitter: @steketeh