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Israel uses ‘apartheid’ to subjugate Palestinians: HRW

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Israel is committing “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution” against Palestinians and the international community must reevaluate diplomatic relations with the state, a leading human rights group said in a report on Tuesday.

The 213-page report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) details how Israel has sought to maintain Jewish-Israeli hegemony over the Palestinian people from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

 “While much of the world treats Israel’s half-century occupation as a temporary situation that a decades-long ‘peace process’ will soon cure, the oppression of Palestinians there has reached a threshold and a permanence that meets the definitions of the crimes of apartheid and persecution,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW, said.

“Those who strive for Israeli-Palestinian peace, whether a one or two-state solution or a confederation, should in the meantime recognise this reality for what it is and bring to bear the sorts of human rights tools needed to end it.”

Israel dismissed the organisation’s report, calling it “propaganda”.

“Human Rights Watch is known to have a long-standing anti-Israel agenda, actively seeking for years to promote boycotts against Israel,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

“Their decision not to share this report for review or comment with any Israeli authority is clear indication that it is a propaganda pamphlet, which lacks all credibility.”

The HRW report follows a conclusion reached by Israeli rights group B’Tselem, which published a study last January that found Palestinians, divided into four tiers of inferior treatment, are denied the right to self-determination.

Ines Abdel Razek, an advocacy director for the Ramallah-based Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy organisation, said the HRW report is a welcome development in shifting the goalposts of international engagement towards applying international law and human rights – rather than “sanctifying a two-state solution as an empty mantra that has only comforted Israel in its impunity”.

“[It] is clearly of major political importance in order to advance the urgent need to reframe the political understanding about Palestine and Israel,” she told Al Jazeera, “although frustrating for Palestinians to see that the world needs validation from international or Israeli NGOs spelling out what we have been documenting, analysing, saying and writing for decades.”

For Mouin Rabbani, a co-editor of Jadaliyya, an independent research website, the existence of apartheid has been “voluminously substantiated” by Palestinians and their supporters for decades.

“It is thus not Israel but rather HRW that has crossed a threshold,” he said. “HRW is the industry leader in its field, and that it has finally caught up with reality is in my view a significant development.”

The report’s significance, he continued, lies in HRW “explicitly denouncing Israel as an apartheid regime, calling for Israel to face real and serious consequences for what the report terms ‘crime against humanity’”.

“Perhaps most surprisingly, given its record on such matters, [HRW] is for once not ‘balancing’ its analysis of Israel with ritual denunciations of Palestinians,” Rabbani added.

Framing ‘apartheid’ as anti-Semitic

HRW’s report lists a range of Israeli abuses committed against the Palestinians: sweeping movement restrictions against Palestinians in the occupied territories, the demolition of homes and “near-categorical denial” of building permits, the military occupation, land expropriation, and rejection of the residency rights of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

In fact, the Israeli government’s own words and actions – such as the 2018 nation-state bill, which defined Israel as the “nation-state of Jewish people”, and its unrelenting settlement expansion policy, all point to its intent to preserve its domination, HRW said.

For Israel the term “apartheid” is explosive, vigorously rejected by itself and its supporters. It has long described itself as the only “democracy in the Middle East”, but analysts say its rejection of the label “apartheid” is in keeping with Israel’s tradition of denouncing any criticism as “anti-Semitic”.

“Even as Israeli politicians openly speak of annexation, expansionism and of maintaining presence in the occupied territories, the Israeli government points to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, a fraction of the total Palestinians under its control, as proof that it is not an apartheid regime, given their ability to vote and be represented in the highest levels of government,” Tareq Baconi, an analyst at Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera.

“They constitute a fig leaf which ultimately fails to negate that Israel continues to control the majority of the Palestinian people without recourse to rights.”

‘Dirty tricks’

By responding to criticism or condemnation of its policies, Israel resorts to delegitimising and, where possible, criminalising its critics and using the anti-Semitic canard as the core of its response, Rabbani said.

“It’s a well-worn playbook, often augmented with other dirty tricks and various forms of propaganda, such as denouncing critics as terrorists,” he said.

Anti-Semitism, Abdel Razek noted, has been deliberately redefined by the Israeli government and its supporters to equate with any criticism of Israel.

“The very problematic International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism explicitly includes as an example that calling Israel an ‘apartheid state’ is anti-Semitic,” she said.

Shifting from a political solution

The HRW report recommends that the international community adopt a rights-based and accountability approach regarding engagement with Israel – including conditioned military aid and vetting all forms of trade and cooperation – instead of relying on the so-called peace process, which has been deadlocked for years and has only served Israel to continue its policies with impunity.

“There can be no peace or negotiations in the current power structure, and as long as Palestinians are denied their fundamental national, political and civil rights,” Abdel Razek said.

Baconi agreed and argued the current focus should be on increasing the cost of sustaining Israeli hegemony and the continued denial of individual and collective rights for Palestinians.

“Policymakers must now shift their focus away from securing a political solution that might herald peace, and instead fight back against a trajectory of expanding Israeli territorial consolidation and Palestinian dispossession in the entirety of the land,” he said.

“Forced evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem is an example of a systematic state policy by the Israeli government that the international community can impose punitive measures on, regardless of whether a peace process is ongoing or not.”

A Palestinian protester is detained by Israeli police during a protest during the holy month of Ramadan in Jerusalem [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

‘Threshold not passed’

Palestinians have described their struggle as one against apartheid and settler colonialism for decades, but the international community has largely refrained from defining the Palestinian pursuit of rights in those terms.

While a leading rights group using the term “apartheid” to describe Israel’s policies against Palestinians is a step forward, it is nevertheless still unrealistic to expect it to have a direct impact on foreign policy.

“This report could serve as a valuable educational resource and assist in advocacy efforts and, as noted above, can serve to mainstream discussion of the issues it raises, including potentially at the political level,” Rabbani said.

“In calling out Israeli apartheid, HRW, as the industry leader and a prominent US organisation to boot, makes it more acceptable to have discussions about Israeli apartheid, and how Israel should be held to account, in polite society and mainstream media, particularly in North America and Europe,” he added.

For Abdel Razek, the framework put forth by HRW is “incomplete” as it omits the context that is embedded in settler colonialism.

“A ‘threshold’ has not been passed,” she said. “In fact, Israel’s settler-colonial project to conquer and systematically displace, dispossess and fragment Palestinians, who they consider a ‘demographic threat’, to replace them with Jewish settlers has been in place since 1948.”

Despite Baconi saying that Israeli Jewish and international human rights organisations coming to embrace using the word “apartheid” is indicative of a shift in how the Palestinian struggle is being seen on the international stage, the policy and political worlds are still lagging.

“The finding by HRW that Israel is practising the crime of apartheid foreshadows a future where it will be increasingly difficult for international governments to maintain the myth that Israel’s occupation and its control over Palestinians are temporary,” Baconi said.

“This is a necessary realignment in terms of how international governments and organisations understand the reality in Israel/Palestine today, and eventually, will make it harder for stakeholders to engage with the Israeli government without accounting for this reality.”