The leading human rights group’s embrace of the term, seen by Israel and many Jewish groups as a way of accusing Israel of being essentially racist and illegitimate, set off a firestorm of outraged attacks from a number of major U.S. Jewish groups that charged Human Rights Watch with attempting to “delegitimize” Israel. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations called it “a collection of lies and fabrications, bordering on antisemitic.”
Human Rights Watch is an international group that monitors countries’ adherence to international human rights law. It has often been harshly critical of Israeli policy, and in 2019 Israel deported one of the group’s employees.
But this is the first time the group has used the word “apartheid” to describe Israeli policy. The report says Israel systematically discriminates against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well as against its Arab citizens, some of whom identify as Palestinian. But the report says the apartheid designation applies only to Israel’s policy in the West Bank and Gaza.
“To maintain domination, Israeli authorities systematically discriminate against Palestinians,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “In the occupied territory, the severity of the repression, including the imposition of draconian military rule on Palestinians while affording Jewish Israelis living in a segregated manner in the same territory their full rights under Israel’s rights-respecting civil law, amounts to the systematic oppression required for apartheid.”
Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six-Day War. In the West Bank, Israeli settlers are Israeli citizens with the right to vote and freedom of movement. West Bank Palestinians live under varying degrees of Israeli military control and Palestinian local governance, without citizenship or the right to vote in Israel.
Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from Gaza in 2005, and Israelis particularly reject the notion that Israel still controls the coastal strip. Israel does control most of Gaza’s border and airspace. And the Human Rights Watch report treats the West Bank and Gaza as a single entity despite their different realities.
Within Israel’s recognized borders, Arab Israelis are full Israeli citizens with the right to vote, equality under the law and representation in Israel’s parliament. Community leaders, however, have long complained of systemic discrimination in a range of fields.
Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the U.N. and the United States, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a statement that the report “is part of the organization’s ongoing campaign against Israel. He added, “When the authors of the report cynically and falsely use the term apartheid, they nullify the legal and social status of millions of Israeli citizens, including Arab citizens, who are an integral part of the State of Israel.”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella body for U.S. Jewish groups, called the report released Tuesday “disgraceful” and said it was an attempt to “demonize, delegitimize and apply double standards to the State of Israel.”
The Presidents Conference statement stopped short of calling the report antisemitic, but the “three d’s” cited in the statement is a formula coined by Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet refusenik, to describe when criticism of Israel crosses into antisemitism.
Other major U.S. Jewish groups including the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International, separately slammed the report. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, retweeted the Presidents Conference statement and two Republicans in Congress condemned Human Rights Watch. The Anti-Defamation League also called the report “yet another attempt to delegitimize the very concept of a Jewish and democratic state,” though the group added that the report “raises legitimate issues of concern about Israeli policies.”
Human Rights Watch is not the first group to apply the apartheid label to Israel. In January, the Israeli human rights group Btselem concluded that Israel should be considered an apartheid state.
The core of Israeli and mainstream Jewish objections to using the term apartheid is that in its original South African definition, it described a system that explicitly used race to discriminate against, oppress and disenfranchise minorities.
The Presidents Conference said that the “tyranny and dehumanization” of South African apartheid had “no equivalence” with Israel’s “vibrant democracy where all citizens of rights and representation in the national legislature.”
Human Rights Watch argued in its report that the term apartheid has been used since the collapse of South African apartheid to describe inequitable societies that are not explicitly based on racist laws, as South Africa’s was.
The group said Israel met the terms of what it says is this more recent definition in three ways: by maintaining domination over the Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through military occupation, citing statements from Israeli officials who suggest the occupation will continue in perpetuity; through Israeli laws that discriminate against Israel’s Arab minority, including one from 2018 that states Israel is the “nation state of the Jewish people”; and “inhumane acts” including restrictions on the movement and residency rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The report’s recommendations are far-reaching, including prosecutions of Israeli officials for crimes against humanity and restrictions on trade with Israel. It also calls for the international community to “establish through the United Nations an international commission of inquiry to investigate systematic discrimination and repression based on group identity in the [Occupied Palestinian Territories] and Israel.”
NGO Monitor, an Israeli watchdog of human rights groups, says such recommendations suggest a broader and more sinister agenda.
“This publication is not merely a critique of Israeli policy in the West Bank, but an attack on the very foundations of Israel and a rejection of the legitimacy of a Jewish state, regardless of borders,” it said in publishing its own report on the report.
At least two pro-Israel groups on the left said the correct reaction to the report should not be to focus on whether or not apartheid is an appropriate term, but to address the corrosive effects of the occupation described in the report.
“After 40 years of documenting and protesting against the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, we do know a thing or two about it,” said Americans for Peace Now, a constituent of the Presidents Conference. “And we know that the carefully documented facts in the HRW report on the occupation are largely indisputable. We also know too well what the occupation does to Palestinians and Israelis, and how desperately it needs to end.”
The president of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group, said his organization would not use the apartheid term, but called on other Jewish groups to refrain from “defaming” those who do use it.
“While we do not ourselves use the term ‘apartheid’ to describe the current situation in the occupied territories, we believe it’s deeply wrong and harmful to defame scholars, activists and political leaders who use it themselves,” Jeremy Ben-Ami said.
Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist group that has longed use the term, welcomed the report.
“It is long past time for the rest of the world to call this what it is,” JVP said on Twitter. “It could not be more clear. It’s apartheid.”