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Israel Accused Of 'Apartheid' Crimes By Human Rights Watch

Israeli security forces on a street during clashes with Palestinian youth in Hebron on April 25.
Hazem Bader
AFP via Getty Images
Israeli security forces on a street during clashes with Palestinian youth in Hebron on April 25.

JERUSALEM — In what it calls its most comprehensive report to date on Israel's treatment of Palestinians, Human Rights Watch on Tuesday accused Israel of committing "crimes against humanity" and said the U.S. and the international community have "turned a blind eye." It advocated an international commission of inquiry and sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against "officials and entities credibly implicated."

The group's 213-page report, titled "A Threshold Crossed," accuses Israel for the first time of "apartheid and persecution," as defined by international conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It claims the Israeli government perpetuates structural oppression to "maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians" in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, where today both groups of people are about equal in size.

In a statement, Israel's Foreign Ministry called the report a "propaganda pamphlet," accusing Human Rights Watch of a long-standing anti-Israel agenda. The report, it said, has "no connection to facts or reality on the ground. The fictional claims that HRW concocted are both preposterous and false."

While Tuesday's report does not contain new revelations about Israel's actions, it synthesizes previous studies into a reframing of the situation and reflects a shift in how human rights advocates are addressing the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict: moving from a focus on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip to questioning Israel's commitment to democracy and civil rights even within its own borders.

Human Rights Watch's Omar Shakir, the report's chief author, says he does not expect immediate international action on its findings but hopes for a "recognition of the crime."

"The international community's approach has been misguided," Shakir tells NPR. "There is a need for a reorientation to the reality of systematic oppression of Palestinians wherever they live."

Shakir, a U.S. citizen, was deported from Israel in 2019 under a law that bans foreigners who publicly advocate boycotts and sanctions of the country.

Israel's Foreign Ministry did not respond to the report's specific accusations and said Human Rights Watch did not share the report in advance with Israeli officials. The organization said it sought answers from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year and sent him a summary of the report last week but received no reply.

In the past, Israelis have defended against the charge of apartheid by noting that Israel has given some local control to Palestinian areas and has offered more autonomy — though the offers were far short of what Palestinian leaders say they need for an independent state.

The Palestinian president's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, called the report "a powerful testament to the struggle of the people of Palestine under Israel's belligerent military occupation and its colonial and oppressive policies."

Israeli advocates of Palestinian rights welcomed the report. They, too, have recently embraced the apartheid accusation, once taboo among progressive Israelis because of the comparison to apartheid South Africa, security concerns and characteristics of Israel's democracy, which allows Palestinian citizens of Israel to have representation in parliament.

In the U.S., some Democratic members of Congress have recently called for conditioning or restricting U.S. military assistance to Israel — the largest cumulative recipient of such aid since World War II — to ensure that U.S. funds are not used to undergird Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

That's in contrast to the approach of the Biden administration, which, in a departure from previous U.S. administrations, has ranked the Israeli-Palestinian issue low on its foreign policy priority list.

Human Rights Watch says that while Israel has legitimate security concerns, those concerns do not justify its actions in denying Palestinian building permits in many areas, revoking Palestinian residency rights and expropriating privately owned Palestinian land. It says other Israeli policies "use security as a pretext to advance demographic objectives" of prioritizing Israeli Jews over Palestinians, most severely in the West Bank and Gaza.

The report says the U.S. has "largely failed" to hold Israel to account for human rights violations against Palestinians. European nations and other countries, it says, have overprioritized a long-stalled peace process to end Israel's military occupation of Palestinian territory and create a Palestinian state.

"This approach, which overlooks the deeply entrenched nature of Israeli discrimination and repression of Palestinians there, minimizes serious human rights abuses by treating them as temporary symptoms of the occupation that the 'peace process' will soon cure," the report says.

"The international community has for too long explained away and turned a blind eye to the increasingly transparent reality on the ground," the report concludes. "Every day a person is born in Gaza into an open-air prison, in the West Bank without civil rights, in Israel with an inferior status by law, and in neighboring countries effectively condemned to lifelong refugee status, like their parents and grandparents before them, solely because they are Palestinian and not Jewish."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.