Israel is committing “apartheid” against Palestinians, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has claimed, joining a growing number of rights groups to accuse the country of crimes against humanity.
In a landmark report, HRW said its findings were based on what it argues is Israeli policy to “maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians”, as well as what it said were “grave abuses” committed against Palestinians.
The New-York based NGO said the abuses included wide-ranging movement restrictions in areas such as Gaza, the confiscation of more than a third of the land in the occupied West Bank, and harsh conditions that it said has led to the “forcible transfer” of thousands of Palestinians out of their homes.
It also claimed that there was the discriminatory allocation of vital resources such as water, and widespread denial of residency rights and building permits to Palestinians, sometimes leading to the demolition of thousands of Palestinian homes.
Israel vehemently denied the allegations and dismissed the 213-page report released on Tuesday as a “propaganda pamphlet” containing claims that were “fictional… preposterous and false”.
Omar Shakir, HRW’s Israel and Palestine director, told The Independent: “The first step is you can’t solve a problem without correctly diagnosing it.
“Too many people have spoken about apartheid as a warning and a possible scenario, but it is a reality for millions of Palestinians.”
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said denying millions of Palestinians their fundamental rights, solely because they are Palestinian and not Jewish, “is not simply a matter of an abusive occupation.
“These policies, which grant Jewish Israelis the same rights and privileges wherever they live and discriminate against Palestinians to varying degrees wherever they live, reflect a policy to privilege one people at the expense of another,” he added.
HRW concluded that Israeli authorities have deprived millions of people of their basic rights by virtue of their identity as Palestinians, which amounts to apartheid.
“These longstanding policies and systematic practices box in, dispossess, forcibly separate, marginalize and otherwise inflict suffering on Palestinians, amounting to apartheid,” the report read.
The Apartheid Convention defines the crime against humanity of apartheid 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 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court adopts a similar definition.
In a strongly-worded response, Israel dismissed the report as “fictional”.
In a statement shared with The Independent, the Israeli foreign ministry accused the New York-based rights group of having a “long-standing anti-Israeli agenda” and “actively seeking for years to promote boycotts against Israel”.
It dismissed Tuesday’s report saying the “fictional claims that HRW concocted are both preposterous and false. Their decision not to share this report for review or comment with any Israeli authority, is [a] clear indication that it is a propaganda pamphlet, which lacks all credibility.
“HRW’s founder, Mr. Robert Bernstein, has criticized his organization in 2009 for ‘issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state’.”
Israel added that the report is “yet another part of the organization’s ongoing campaign, led by a known (BDS)[Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] supporter, with no connection to facts or reality on the ground”.
HRW is the first major international rights group to conclude that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians amounts to apartheid, although it follows similar accusations made by Israeli organisations B’Tselem this January and Yesh Din, in July last year.
In the 1967 Six-Day war Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza and immediately occupied east Jerusalem, which was annexed in 1980, in a move not recognised internationally.
There are now more than 400,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and some Israeli, Palestinian and international rights groups argue the West Bank has also been de facto annexed.
In Gaza, Israel withdrew troops and settlers from the strip in 2005 but imposed a blockade and control after the militant Hamas group violently seized power there two years later.
Over the past two years Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s threats to formally annex swathes of the West Bank, an action which is illegal under international law, have sparked mounting discussions about apartheid, although, so far, UN officials have stopped short of using the word.
In May, Michael Lynk, the UN special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, told The Independent that annexation “would mark the rise of the 21st century apartheid one-state”.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh welcomed the report, calling it a “remarkable addition to earlier international reports and judicial verdicts, which asserts the urgent need for the international community to bear its responsibilities, per international law and human rights principles, by holding Israel accountable for its crimes.”
Israeli rights groups also welcomed the move. B’Tselem called the report “groundbreaking legal analysis”.
HRW zeroed in on some recent statements and actions by the Israeli authorities in recent years, which it said made plain “that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power and land has long guided government policy”.
Among them was the surge in settlement construction and development in the occupied West Bank over recent years.
The group also highlighted the 2018 Nation State law, which holds a constitution-like status, and defines Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, who have the exclusive right to self-determination in Israel. Other articles within the law downgraded the status of Arabic from an official language and stated that developing Jewish settlements is “a national interest”.
The HRW report urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate and prosecute those credibly implicated in the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution. It encouraged states to do the same using their national courts under universal jurisdiction.
The group also called for the creation of a special UN commission of inquiry to investigate systemic repression in Israel and Palestine and recommended targeted sanctions against any individuals implicated.
Arms sales and military and security assistance to Israel, the group said, should be conditioned on the authorities taking “concrete and verifiable steps toward ending their commission of these crimes”.
The ICC is currently investigating crimes committed in the occupied Palestinian Territories, and HRW’s Omar Shakir said that the ICC had the jurisdiction to look into apartheid crime as well.
However, the crime of apartheid has never been prosecuted before, and according to international law experts no one knows what kind of evidence judges would demand to find that a state has engaged in apartheid.
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