In a 213-page report published this week, the US-based NGO Human Rights Watch accuses Israel of apartheid, the oppressive system of institutionalized racial segregation implemented by South Africa’s white regime from 1948 to 1991.
The report – titled “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution” – was primarily written by Omar Shakir who is the “Israel and Palestine director” of HRW. In it, HRW urges the UN to apply an arms embargo against Israel – similar to the one that targeted apartheid South Africa – until verifiable steps are taken to end its alleged crimes.
“Prominent voices have warned for years that apartheid lurks just around the corner if the trajectory of Israel’s rule over Palestinians does not change,” declared HRW executive director Kenneth Roth. “This detailed study shows that Israeli authorities have already turned that corner and today are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”
HRW asserts that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, both within sovereign Israel and in the territories, meets the legal definition for apartheid crimes set out by the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Apartheid crimes are defined as inhumane acts of a character similar to other crimes against humanity “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”
To back up its claim, HRW points to Israel’s 1950 Law of Return, which grants citizenship to all Jews who want to immigrate to Israel. It says this discriminates against Palestinian refugees and their descendants who want the same “right of return.” It also cites the 2018 Nation-State Law, saying the legislation shored up Israel’s identity as a Jewish state at the expense of equality for all its citizens. Laws and policies adopted by the Israeli government to preserve a Jewish majority have afforded benefits to Jews at the expense of the fundamental rights of Palestinians, it alleges.
Yet, as organizations such as NGO Monitor and CAMERA have correctly pointed out, the Law of Return is neither racist nor peculiarly Israeli.
“Similar laws have been in effect in many democracies, especially those with large diasporas, such as Mexico, Ireland, Finland, Greece, Poland, Germany, Italy and Denmark,” said Alex Safian, the associate director of CAMERA. Safian said such laws are expressly permitted by the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, which permits nations to favor certain groups for citizenship provided there is no discrimination targeting any particular group.
Gerald M. Steinberg, who heads the Institute for NGO Research in Jerusalem, noted that the HRW report reiterates the main claims of a 2017 submission to the ICC by a group of NGOs linked to the PFLP terror group, alleging that “Israel persecutes the occupied Palestinian population and subjects them to the crimes of persecution and apartheid.”
“By drawing a direct line to South Africa and labeling the Jewish state as inherently racist, the goal is to delegitimize the concept of Jewish sovereign equality, regardless of borders or policies,” Steinberg wrote in The Jerusalem Post. “The South African regime was characterized by cruel and systematic, institutionalized dehumanization. In contrast, and notwithstanding the ongoing conflict, Israel’s non-Jewish citizens have full rights, including voting for Knesset representatives.”
HRW’s exploitation of the apartheid image in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Steinberg said, is a cynical appropriation of the suffering of the victims of the actual apartheid regime.
As anyone who lives here knows, the HRW claims are patently false. Any analogy between Palestinians in Israel today and blacks in South Africa in the second half of the 20th century not only diminishes the horrors of apartheid, but feeds the very hatred it is purportedly targeting.
No one is saying that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not need to be addressed and resolved. But reports such as the latest one by HRW contribute to the false narrative that Israel is guilty of apartheid, conveying a message that the best way to rectify the problem is to dismantle the Jewish state. It is this hypocrisy that needs to be exposed – and not Israel’s alleged crimes.