Rights group B’Tselem revives controversy decrying Israeli ‘apartheid’
JERUSALEM--A leading Israeli human rights group has begun describing both Israel and its control of the Palestinian territories as a single “apartheid” regime, using an explosive term that the country’s leaders and their supporters vehemently reject.
Its description of Israeli policies as reminiscent of South Africa’s racial segregration sparked a vehement pushback in Israel and among the Jewish state’s supporters abroad.
In a report released Tuesday, B’Tselem says that while Palestinians live under different forms of Israeli control in the occupied West Bank, blockaded Gaza, annexed east Jerusalem and within Israel itself, they have fewer rights than Jews in the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
“One of the key points in our analysis is that this is a single geopolitical area ruled by one government,” said B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad. “This is not democracy plus occupation. This is apartheid between the river and the sea.”
That a respected Israeli organisation as B’Tselem is adopting a term long seen as taboo even by many critics of Israel points to a broader shift in the debate as its half-century occupation of war-won lands drags on and hopes for a two-state solution fade.
Peter Beinart, a prominent Jewish-American critic of Israel, caused a similar stir last year when he came out in favor of a single binational state with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians. B’Tselem does not take a position on whether there should be one state or two.
Israel has long presented itself as a thriving democracy in which Palestinian citizens, who make up about 20% of its population of 9.2 million, have equal rights. Israel seized east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war — lands that are home to nearly 5 million Palestinians and which the Palestinians want for a future state.
Israel withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 but imposed a blockade after the militant Hamas group seized power there two years later. It considers the West Bank “disputed” territory whose fate should be determined in peace talks. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in 1967 in a move not recognised internationally and considers the entire city its unified capital. Most Palestinians in east Jerusalem are Israeli “residents,” but not citizens with voting rights.
Unequal in rights
B’Tselem argues that by dividing up the territories and using different means of control, Israel masks the underlying reality — that roughly 7 million Jews and 7 million Palestinians live under a single system with vastly unequal rights.
“We are not saying that the degree of discrimination that a Palestinian has to endure is the same if one is a citizen of the state of Israel or if one is besieged in Gaza,” El-Ad said. “The point is that there isn’t a single square inch between the river and the sea in which a Palestinian and a Jew are equal.”
Israel’s harshest critics have used the term “apartheid” for decades, evoking the system of white rule and racial segregation in South Africa that was brought to an end in 1994. The International Criminal Court defines apartheid as an “institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group.”
“There is no country in the world that is clearer in its apartheid policies than Israel,” said Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “It is a state based on racist decisions aimed at confiscating land, expelling indigenous people, demolishing homes and establishing settlements.”
In recent years, as Israel has further entrenched its rule over the West Bank, Israeli writers, disillusioned former generals and politicians opposed to its right-wing government have increasingly adopted the term.
But until now B’Tselem, which was established in 1989, had only used it in specific contexts.
Israel adamantly rejects the term, saying the restrictions it imposes in Gaza and the West Bank are temporary measures needed for security. Most Palestinians in the West Bank live in areas governed by the Palestinian Authority, but those areas are surrounded by Israeli checkpoints and Israeli soldiers can enter at any time. Israel has full control over 60% of the West Bank.
Itay Milner, a spokesman for Israel’s consulate general in New York, dismissed the B’Tselem report as “another tool for them to promote their political agenda,” which he said was based on a “distorted ideological view.” He pointed out that Arab citizens of Israel are represented across the government, including the diplomatic corps.
Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum, says the fact that the Palestinians have their own government makes any talk of apartheid “inapplicable,” calling the B’Tselem report “shockingly weak, dishonest and misleading.”
Palestinian leaders agreed to the current territorial divisions in the Oslo accords in the 1990s, and the Palestinian Authority is recognised as a state by dozens of nations. That, Kontorovich says, is a far cry from the territories designated for Black South Africans under apartheid — known as bantustans — to which many Palestinians compare the areas governed by the PA.
Kontorovich said the use of the word “apartheid” was instead aimed at demonising Israel in a way that “resonates with racial sensitivities and debates in America and the West.”
Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, rejects the term. “Occupation, yes. Apartheid, absolutely not.”
But he acknowledged that critics of Israel who had refrained from using the term, or who had used it and been attacked, “will now conveniently say, ‘Hey, you know, Israelis are saying it themselves.’”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, which estimates its reach at more than 1.5 million people in 850 congregations across North America, says the situation in the West Bank and Gaza is a “moral blight” and an “occupation,” but not apartheid.
“What goes along with saying that, to many in the international community, is that therefore Israel has no right to exist,” he said. “If the accusation is apartheid, that is not simply a strong critique, it’s an existential critique.”
El-Ad points to two recent developments that altered B’Tselem’s thinking.
The first was a contentious law passed in 2018 that defines Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” Critics say it downgraded Israel’s Palestinian minority to second-class citizenship and formalised the widespread discrimination they have faced since Israel’s founding in 1948. Supporters say it merely recognised Israel’s Jewish character and that similar laws can be found in many Western countries.
The second was Israel’s announcement in 2019 of its intention to annex up to a third of the occupied West Bank, including all of its Jewish settlements, which are home to nearly 500,000 Israelis. Those plans were put on hold as part a normalization agreement reached with the United Arab Emirates last year, but Israel has said the pause is only temporary.
B’Tselem and other rights groups argue that the boundaries separating Israel and the West Bank vanished long ago — at least for Israeli settlers, who can freely travel back and forth, while their Palestinian neighbours require permits to enter Israel.
There have been no substantive peace talks in more than a decade. The occupation, which critics have long warned is unsustainable, has endured for 53 years.
“Fifty years plus, that’s not enough to understand the permanence of Israeli control of the occupied territories?” El-Ad said. “We think that people need to wake up to reality, and stop talking in future terms about something that has already happened.”