Beyond the all-but-dead “peace process” of the past few decades, the organization pointed to the inescapable and unequal reality that defines life for everyone living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. “This is the most stark finding Human Rights Watch has ever reached on the conduct of Israeli authorities,” Omar Shakir, the organization’s Israel and Palestine director and the author of the report, told Today’s WorldView. “For too long, the international community has failed to recognize the reality on the ground for what it is.”
Shakir added that HRW is hardly alone in arriving at this conclusion.
For years, Palestinians have invoked apartheid in discussing the region’s status quo: where an Israeli military occupation governs over many aspects of their lives, where the security and political imperatives of the Israeli government curtail their own rights, and where the expansion of Jewish settlements inexorably entails further Palestinian dispossession.
The discrimination also extends to within Israel proper, where Israeli citizens of Palestinian descent have “a status inferior to Jewish citizens by law,” observed HRW. In the Palestinian territories, the weakness and dysfunction of the Palestinian Authority — which was meant only to be a transitional entity until Israel and Palestinian officials reached a more permanent settlement, but is now a bitterly unpopular institution that holds sway in parts of the occupied territories — does not absolve an Israeli government that effectively calls all the shots.
Many Israelis see this, too. “If we keep controlling the whole area from the Mediterranean to the river Jordan where some 13 million people are living … if only one entity reigned over this whole area, named Israel,” former prime minister Ehud Barak said in 2017, “it would become inevitably … either non-Jewish or nondemocratic.” In January, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem published a position paper arguing that the prevailing order in the country was that of an “apartheid regime,” whose program of supremacy has “gradually grown more institutionalized and explicit.”
Human Rights Watch is not arguing that Israel is an “apartheid state.” In its report, “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” the organization waves away the need to summon direct parallels to South Africa, whose white-supremacist regime introduced “apartheid” to the world. Instead, it points to the salience of apartheid as a universal legal term codified in a number of international conventions, including the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
“Laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy,” noted the organization. “In pursuit of this goal, authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity. In certain areas … these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”
In a statement to Today’s WorldView, the Israeli Embassy in Washington described the report as “filled with lies” and personally attacked Shakir, a U.S. citizen who was expelled from Israel in 2019 following a legal battle that went all the way to the country’s highest court. “We strongly reject the false accusations that Human Rights Watch is spreading about Israel,” it said. “This is an organization known to have a long-standing anti-Israel agenda, actively seeking for years to promote boycotts against Israel.”
Shakir was accused of supporting boycotts against Israel in a case that saw Israeli authorities mine his social media accounts to uncover college-era activism from more than 15 years ago in which he called for divestment from companies that profit from Israel’s rule in the occupied territories. “In [Shakir’s] four years as an employee of Human Rights Watch, he said neither he nor the organization have advocated for boycotts against Israel or companies doing business here,” my colleagues reported at the time. “They do call on companies, including Airbnb, not to operate in Israeli settlements, which they characterize as violating international humanitarian law.”
Now, in invoking the crime of apartheid, Human Rights Watch hopes for far tougher international scrutiny of Israel. The report, among other things, calls for the creation of a U.N. commission to investigate systemic discrimination in Israel, asset freezes and sanctions on certain Israeli officials, and the conditioning of military and security assistance to Israel on the basis of its unwinding its policies that constitute “apartheid.”
Such action looks unlikely. For all the increasing partisan rancor in Washington over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government and its close dealings with former president Donald Trump, there’s little political will to shake up the Israeli-Palestinian status quo. Three-quarters of the U.S. House of Representatives, including a roughly even mix of Republicans and Democrats, recently signed a letter denouncing a proposed bill that would place additional regulations on U.S. aid to Israel.
But the conversation around Israel is clearly, if slowly, shifting in the United States. “This new HRW report raises critical concerns that should deeply trouble both supporters of Israel and those who care about Palestinian rights,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel advocacy organization in Washington that does not use the term “apartheid” to describe the Israeli context.
“The fact that the occupation inherently threatens Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people and involves the systematic deprivation of Palestinian rights simply cannot be ignored,” he told Today’s WorldView.
Reports suggest the Biden administration will not expend much political capital in an attempt to get the peace process back on track, though it has sought to undo some of the damage caused by Trump, including by resuming funding to the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.
“Early indications from the Biden administration show this will not be a priority issue,” Shakir said. “But merely reversing 50 percent of what the Trump administration did” is insufficient. Some analysts argue that successive U.S. administrations, including Trump’s, allowed the steady erosion of any possibility of a “two-state solution” by turning a blind eye to Israeli settlement expansion and land grabs in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Israeli politics have drifted further to the right. Various leading politicians clamor for outright annexation of areas of the West Bank, while a party of far-right extremists associated with a violent Jewish supremacist hate group could join the country’s next ruling coalition government.
Last week, at an event moderated by Today’s WorldView, experts convened by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a report calling on the Biden administration to prioritize human rights for every Palestinian and Israeli over the old paradigm of a peace process. “Instead of reviving a moribund peace process or simply abandoning U.S. engagement, President Joe Biden’s administration should place a rights-based approach at the center of its strategy,” they wrote.
But the longer equal rights for Palestinians get deferred, the larger the question of apartheid looms.