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Comprehensively covers the concept of apartheid in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, international definitions, its practice, impact on Palestinian rights, and reports from human rights organisations.
Apartheid is defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as follows:
The crime of apartheid means inhumane acts and crimes against humanity, committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.
Israel effectively controls the lives of a total population of almost 14 million, including Jewish Israelis and Palestinians across the West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and Israel. Even the limited degree of self-rule afforded to Palestinians in parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are subject to Israeli control over borders, airspace, movement, security, and registration of the population. It has used this control to instil a system that prioritises the lives of Jewish Israelis while discriminating against Palestinians.
While human rights groups have documented Israeli authorities’ laws, policies, and actions that demonstrate such a system, some Israeli officials have confirmed this ambition in words. For instance, on renewal of the discriminatory citizenship law, former prime minister Ariel Sharon said, “There’s no need to hide behind security arguments. There’s a need for the existence of a Jewish state.” Benjamin Netanyahu, who at the time was the finance minister also said, “Instead of making it easier for Palestinians who want to get citizenship, we should make the process much more difficult, in order to guarantee Israel’s security and a Jewish majority in Israel.”
In fact, Israel has been implementing policies that aim to advance the interests and rights of the Jewish population at the expense of the Palestinians from the very start.
Israel’s 1952 Citizenship Law ensured a pathway for Jews immigrating to Israel to obtain automatic citizenship, which does not apply to Palestinians. In 2003, the Knesset also passed the temporary order on Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, which has been successfully extended in the following years as a means of denying long-term legal status or citizenship to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who marry Israeli citizens or residents. However, the same restriction does not apply to spouses of Israeli Jews of any other non-Israeli nationality, to whom an immediate status is granted.
Jewish Israelis’ domination across Israel and Palestine was further cemented when the Knesset passed the Nation-state law in 2018, declaring Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” The law declared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, subsequently declaring Hebrew as the only official language, downgrading Arabic, despite it being spoken by over 20 percent of Israel’s population.
A provision in the law reads: ‘The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.’ There is no mention of equality in the act, and as one of Israel’s Basic Laws, that serves as Israel’s de facto constitution, it trumps the 1948 Declaration of Independence, which promised “complete equality of social and political rights for all [Israel’s] inhabitants,” regardless of their religion, race, or gender.
Holding Israel to account
The crime of apartheid as practiced by Israel has increasingly been put to the world’s attention.
March 2017, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) concluded in a report that Israel has been committing acts of the crime of apartheid; although the report was not endorsed by the UN as a body, it was seen as groundbreaking, as it was the first UN agency to do so, albeit unofficial.
The Israeli human rights organisation Btselem in January 2021 stated that the situation in the whole of historical Palestine (which includes Israel proper, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem) should be seen as one in which a single regime has been advancing the rights of Jewish inhabitants at the expense of basic rights of the Palestinians, amounting to apartheid. Btselem also stated that the above-mentioned 2018 Nation State law enshrined Jewish supremacy in basic law, making it a constitutional principle; this makes it unchallengeable.
According to Human Rights Watch in an April 2021 report, dispossession, confinement, and forced separation make Palestinians second-class citizens and the treatment they are subjected to is so severe it amounts to crimes against humanity, specifically, apartheid, and persecution. The NGO states that Israel operates a system of institutionalised discrimination through “forcible transfer,” “expropriation of landed property,” “creation of separate reserves and ghettos,” and denial of “the right to leave and to return to their country, [and] the right to a nationality.”
This system has included limiting the Palestinian population and their political power by restricting their right to vote or move to Israel. It also consists of the state policy of separating Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza, preventing the movement of people and goods within Palestine, and the “Judaization” of areas with significant Palestinian populations in Israel, leaving Palestinians to live in impoverished areas.
Even in occupied East Jerusalem, which Israel considers part of its sovereign territory, Palestinians’ legal status as “permanent residents” is precarious; Palestinians in East Jerusalem have been stripped of this status for not providing a “centre of life” in Jerusalem.
Amnesty International, in a report published in February 2022, also defined the situation in Palestine as apartheid, distinguishing four ways in which Israel has implemented its policy:
- Fragmentation into domains of control (keeping Palestinians separated from each other)
- Dispossession of land and property (discriminatory land and property seizures, home demolitions and forced evictions)
- Segregation and control
- Deprivation of economic and social rights (the deliberate impoverishment of Palestinians)
The report by Amnesty differs from the reports of the other organisations by stating that Israel must recognise Palestinians’ right of return and ensure compensation for Palestinians who have been dispossessed since 1948. In this way, Amnesty, as one of the largest human rights organisations in the world, has brought to the world’s attention Israel’s apartheid policies from the state’s foundation and has called Israel to account not only for its crimes against humanity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but also inside Israel proper.
While these international human rights organisations have brought to light the discussion of apartheid to a worldwide audience, increasingly bringing it into the mainstream narrative, Palestinian human rights organisations, including al-Haq, Adalah and al-Mezan have been arguing for years that Israel has been carrying out a policy of apartheid in the areas of its control. This narrative has now also been embraced by the worldwide international human rights community, putting Israel and its main supporters further under pressure.