Israel has not been able to refute any part of a bombshell Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published last week.
For such a mainstream, establishment organisation, its charge of apartheid against Israel could hardly be more damning.
There should be no more doubt that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians merits the description of apartheid—and no more accusations of antisemitism for saying it.
In a systematic and detailed way, HRW describes exactly how Israel persecutes or discriminates against Palestinians in every area under its control (see below).
But what’s really damning is that it outlines explicitly how this is done to maintain Israeli Jews’ “domination” over Palestinian people and land.
“Israeli authorities methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians,” the report says.
“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.
“In pursuit of this goal, authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity.”
The point, says HRW, is to secure “maximal land with minimal Palestinians”.
Israel is intent on expanding the amount of land it owns and controls. Its problem is the Palestinians who live there.
HRW paints a picture of Israeli politicians and institutions completely obsessed with population sizes and demographics. They all think Israel’s existence as a Jewish state depends on having an overwhelming Jewish Israeli majority.
That means keeping Palestinians a repressed and marginalised minority.
The report lists how consecutive Israeli prime ministers unashamedly declared their intention to do just that. Many spoke in terms as explicit as percentages and ratios of just how many Arabs are acceptable.
Declaring Arabs a “demographic problem” current prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu once said they must not reach 35-40 percent of the population or “the Jewish state will be annulled”.
His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, also had what he called a “solution” to the “demographic issue”—“To maximise the number of Jews; to minimise the number of Palestinians.”
Ariel Sharon before him equated a “Muslim majority” with “the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state”. Before that, Shimon Peres said settlement in densely populated Palestinian areas “places the Jewish majority in Israel at risk”.
Peres’s predecessor Yitzhak Rabin went as far as to say, “The red line for Arabs is 20 percent of the population, that must not be gone over.”
HRW said, “Israeli authorities have adopted policies aimed at mitigating what they have openly described as a demographic ‘threat’ that Palestinians pose.”
Laws and policies limit where Palestinians can live and travel inside Israel’s official borders, or the areas under military occupation.
They include the 1952 Citizenship Law. This allows any Jewish person to emigrate to Israel and obtain citizenship while denying Palestinian refugees the right to return.
They also include policies that—over decades—have corralled Palestinians into shrinking enclaves while facilitating Jewish Israeli settlement on the same land.
HRW says that, in what it calls the OPT—occupied Palestinian territories East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—these amount to “inhumane acts”.
Taken altogether, it amounts to the crime of apartheid.
HRW is very specific about what apartheid is—inhumane acts “committed in the context of an institutionalised 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”.
That’s the definition of apartheid taken from the founding charter of the International Criminal Court. It’s a big part of what makes the HRW report so damning.
Governments and states that rely on Israel to protect their interests in the Middle East insist it is not guilty of apartheid.
HRW has shown how—by their own standards—it absolutely is.
We can use Human Rights Watch report to build resistance
There are some pitfalls to the legal approach.
HRW says that there is no legal definition of an “apartheid state”, only the crime of apartheid.
It also says that, while Israel only commits “abuses” against Palestinians inside its official borders. So, according to HRW, the crime of apartheid isn’t committed inside Israel itself.
Yet, as HRW points out, viewing the different areas separately ignores the fact that they form part of a single racist system.
“The fragmentation of the Palestinian population, in part deliberately engineered through Israeli restrictions, helps obscure the reality of the same Israeli government repressing the same Palestinian population group,” it says.
The report points to the fact that this racism is built into the foundation of Israel. It highlights Israel’s “basic laws”—which make up its constitution—that “re-enforce that the state is Jewish, rather than belonging to all its citizens”.
It notes how Israel’s founders—including first prime minister David Ben Gurion—oversaw plans to clear out Palestinian homes and establish a Jewish majority.
HRW also knows this means Israeli governments will continue to enforce—and extend—apartheid.
What is its solution?
The report’s call for Israel to be tried for apartheid by the International Criminal Court is damning. No state has ever been tried for apartheid before.
It also means calling on the US and European states to ditch the “peace process” that allows apartheid to continue.
This process “minimizes serious human rights abuses by treating them as temporary symptoms of the occupation that the ‘peace process’ will soon cure”.
It also says businesses should “cease activities that directly contribute to the commission of the crimes of apartheid and persecution”.
HRW’s demands of Israel strike at the very foundations of the state.
Top of the list is, “Dismantle all forms of systematic oppression and discrimination that privilege Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinians.
“End the persecution of Palestinians, including by ending discriminatory policies and practices in such realms as citizenship and nationality processes, protection of civil rights, freedom of movement, allocation of land.”
As the entire report painstakingly shows, this discrimination and persecution come out of the most fundamental laws and principles of the Israeli state.
HRW doesn’t say this—but if ending apartheid means ending these policies and practices, then it means dismantling the state itself.
A state free from apartheid would be a single, secular state in all of Palestine, with equal democratic rights for all its citizens.
Such a fundamental change needs a movement of resistance—and solidarity around the world. The HRW report helps give us the tools and arguments to build it.
West Bank—Aim is minimal Palestinians
Israel’s drive for “maximal land with minimal Palestinians” is most obvious in the West Bank, which it invaded in 1967 and has occupied ever since.
Confiscating land, and a state-backed programme of building large, town-like settlements connected to Israel, are the cornerstones of this.
The HRW report says Israel has confiscated land equal to “more than one-third of the West Bank”.
A common tactic is to declare land “state land” which Israel then builds settlements on.
The report describes how over decades, Israel deliberately built settlements in a way that divides Palestinian towns and cities.
The explicit aim is to make a Palestinian state impossible.
Settlements are connected directly to Israel through roads and infrastructure, and the people in them live under Israeli civilian law.
Palestinians in the West Bank live under a separate regime of military control. Under the “peace process” 60 percent of the West Bank is designated “Area C”—under full Israeli control. Palestinians there are prevented from building homes without permits that are hard to obtain.
“Israeli authorities have razed thousands of Palestinian properties in these areas for lacking a permit, leaving thousands of families displaced.”
Meanwhile, “Israeli authorities began construction on more than 23,696 housing units between 2009 and 2020 in Israeli settlements in Area C.”
The problem is that, as Israel absorbs more land, the Palestinians who come with it threaten its Jewish majority.
As HRW points out, the Palestinian population across all of Palestine is roughly equal to Israel’s Jewish population, both about 6.8 million.
Israel’s response is to hem Palestinians into fragmented, densely populated areas, surrounded by a system of borders and checkpoints.
Arabs in Israel face racism
Whenever Israel wants to deny it’s guilty of apartheid, it says Arabs inside its borders have the same rights as Jews, such as voting rights.
Yet as HRW points out, “These rights do not empower them to overcome the institutional discrimination they face from the same Israeli government, including widespread restrictions on accessing land confiscated from them, home demolitions, and effective prohibitions on family reunification.”
The government has “systematically discriminated against and violated the rights of Palestinians” in Israel “since the founding of the state”.
Israeli governments have worked to “maximise the land available for Jewish communities”.
Meanwhile, “Land confiscations and other discriminatory land policies in Israel hem in Palestinian municipalities inside Israel, denying them opportunities for natural expansion enjoyed by Jewish municipalities.”
Laws also allow small towns to exclude new residents “based on their asserted incompatibility with the town’s ‘social-cultural fabric’”. The law was explicitly brought in to stop Arabs from moving to Israeli towns.
In the Negev region, Israeli laws refuse to recognise most Palestinian Bedouin villages and try to push them into recognised townships while promoting Jewish settlement in the area.
“Israeli authorities demolished more than 10,000 Bedouin homes in the Negev between 2013 and 2019.”
Jerusalem—How Palestinians are driven out
As in the West Bank, Palestinians in East Jerusalem have faced attempts to force them out and replace them with settlements.
Israel also invaded East Jerusalem in 1967 and now claims the whole city as its own. Its politicians have been obsessed with keeping Palestinians a minority in Jerusalem ever since.
The government “sets the goal of ‘maintaining a solid Jewish majority in the city’” explains HRW—with an explicit target of 60 percent Jews and 40 percent Arabs.
Alongside construction restrictions and house demolition, Israel systematically denies Arabs the right to live there. One way is by giving the Arabs the status of “permanent resident”—rather than citizen, which can be withdrawn.
“The Interior Ministry has revoked this status from at least 14,701 Palestinians since 1967, mostly for failing to prove a ‘centre of life’ in the city.” Israeli Jewish settlers do not have to prove this.
Gaza Strip—Living under a permanent siege
Israel sometimes says it’s wrong to say it controls the Gaza Strip as it withdrew its forces and emptied its settlements there in 2005.
As HRW points out, this was at least partly because Israel’s government considered the Palestinian population there too large.
Instead, Israel has kept Gaza under more than a decade of permanent siege.
Palestinians face severe restrictions that stop them from leaving. Meanwhile, Israeli laws say that if Palestinian families separated between the West Bank and Gaza want to be reunified, they must settle in the Gaza Strip.