A prominent Israeli human rights group argues in a position paper released Tuesday that far from being a democracy, Israel is an "apartheid regime" whose policies oppress Palestinians living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
In its new report (pdf), B'Tselem rejects "the common perception in public, political, legal, and media discourse... [of] two separate regimes operat[ing] side by side in this area"—a democratic regime in the state of Israel that is home to about seven million Jewish citizens and almost two million Palestinian citizens, plus another regime in occupied Palestinian territories where nearly five million inhabitants "whose final status is supposed to be determined in future negotiations" are subject to "temporary" restrictions on mobility and/or military control by Israeli forces.
"There isn't a single square inch between the river and the sea in which a Palestinian and a Jew are equal."
—Hagai El-Ad, B'Tselem
"One organizing principle lies at the base of a wide array of Israeli policies: advancing and perpetuating the supremacy of one group—Jews—over another—Palestinians," B'Tselem says. "We must look at the full picture and see it for what it is: apartheid."
Contrary to the claims of the Israeli government, the report states, the Palestinian residents of Israel do not enjoy equal rights. And Palestinians living in annexed East Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank, and blockaded Gaza—territories seized by Israel in the 1967 war—are subject to various forms of Israeli domination, regardless of the existence of the Palestinian Authority (PA). In other words, The Associated Press reported Tuesday, B'Tselem argues that "roughly seven million Jews and seven million Palestinians live under a single system with vastly unequal rights."
"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."
"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."
The report—released one day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved the construction of new illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, where about 450,000 Jewish settlers live alongside roughly 2.8 million Palestinians—marks a change in how Israel's violations of the rights of Palestinians throughout the entire region are perceived.
Human rights advocates "have used the term 'apartheid' [to describe Israel] for decades, evoking the system of white rule and racial segregation in South Africa that was brought to an end in 1994," AP reported. "That a respected Israeli organization 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."
Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said that "no country in the world" provides a clearer expression of apartheid policies. Israel, he said, "is a state based on racist decisions aimed at confiscating land, expelling indigenous people, demolishing homes, and establishing settlements."
Before Tuesday, B'Tselem, which was established in 1989, "had only used [the term apartheid] in specific contexts," AP noted. But "two recent developments" caused the group to change its 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 formalized the widespread discrimination they have faced since Israel's founding in 1948...
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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 others "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 neighbors require permits to enter Israel," AP reported.
"That a respected Israeli organization 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."
—Joseph Krauss, AP
Another Israeli human rights group, Yesh Din, "published a legal opinion (pdf) last summer in which it argued that apartheid was being committed in the West Bank," The Guardian reported Monday. "However, B'Tselem's report goes further, claiming Israel has created a system over all the territory."
According to B'Tselem, "the key tool Israel uses to implement the principle of Jewish supremacy is engineering space geographically, demographically, and politically."
Jewish citizens "go about their lives in a single, contiguous space where they enjoy full rights and self-determination," the organization states. "In contrast, Palestinians live in a space that is fragmented into several units, each with a different set of rights—given or denied by Israel, but always inferior to the rights accorded to Jews."
As The Guardian put it, B'Tselem says Palestinians are "divided into four tiers with various levels of rights depending on where they live."
- At the bottom of the hierarchy, the report explains, are the roughly 2 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, where Israel's blockade gives it "effective control" over the impoverished territory.
- Above them are Palestinians located in the West Bank, where they live in "dozens of disconnected enclaves, under rigid military rule and without political rights," the report explains. The PA "is still subordinate to Israel and can only exercise its limited powers with Israel's consent."
- The next tier is populated by the roughly 350,000 Palestinians who live in annexed East Jerusalem. While "Israel has offered citizenship to these residents," The Guardian reported, "many have refused on principle and for those that try, the process has a high rejection rate."
- Finally, Palestinian citizens of Israel are in a relatively better position, but "they are also kept below Jewish citizens," as evidenced by "land discrimination, immigration laws that favor Jews, and a law that affords Jewish people extra political rights," The Guardian reported.
Itay Milner, a spokesperson for Israel's consulate general in New York, claimed that Palestinian representation in the Israeli government contradicts charges of apartheid. Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum, said that the presence of an independent Palestinian government renders the apartheid label "inapplicable."
Yet, even though "most Palestinians in the West Bank live in areas governed by the PA... those areas are surrounded by Israeli checkpoints and Israeli soldiers can enter at any time," AP reported, which is why "many Palestinians compare the areas governed by the PA... [to] the territories designated for Black South Africans under apartheid—known as bantustans."
Calling Netanyahu's plan to further annex the West Bank a "vision of a 21st century apartheid," 47 United Nations experts last year warned that it "would be the crystallization of an already unjust reality: two peoples living in the same space, ruled by the same state, but with profoundly unequal rights."
Is more than 50 years of evidence "not enough to understand the permanence of Israeli control of the occupied territories?" El-Ad asked. "We think that people need to wake up to reality, and stop talking in future terms about something that has already happened."
"This sobering look at reality need not lead to despair," El-Ad said, "but quite the opposite. It is a call for change. After all, people created this regime, and people can change it."