Apartheid in the Holy Land 

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A Palestinian man sits near Israel’s controversial separation barrier dividing the Palestinian neighbourhood of Al-Tur in the Israeli annexed East Jerusalem with the West Bank, on February 11, 2016. / AFP 

Fawaz A. Gerges

IN a new, well-documented report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) asserts that the Israeli government is enforcing a systemic policy to maintain the “domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians.” The nearly seven million Palestinians in the occupied territories and within Israel itself face collective persecution under an apartheid system.

Pointing to Israeli laws that enshrine extra-political rights for Jews over Arabs living in the same areas, HRW concludes that the Israeli government is “privileging Jewish Israelis while repressing Palestinians, most severely in the occupied territory.” While several hundred thousand Israeli settlers live in the occupied territories as full Israeli citizens, the report notes, 2.7 million Palestinians are concentrated in dense population centers under military rule.

Even more ominous are Israel’s emerging population-control measures. “The authorities have adopted policies to mitigate what they have openly described as a demographic ‘threat’ from Palestinians,” the report avers. “In Jerusalem, for example, the government’s plan for the municipality … sets the goal of ‘maintaining a solid Jewish majority in the city’ and even specifies the demographic ratios it hopes to maintain.”

The report’s central point is that, after decades of HRW (and others) warning that Israel’s control of Palestinian life might lead to apartheid, the “threshold” has now been crossed. Indeed, one of the more startling new findings in the report is that even the Palestinians living in Israel are subjected to a form of apartheid rule.

Apartheid and collective persecution are both crimes against humanity under the 1998 Rome Statute. There, apartheid is defined as an “institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other,” while persecution describes “the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights” of a group of people.

HRW is the first major international rights body to level such allegations, and its report will have serious implications for Israel and its key Western backers, particularly the United States. After the collapse of South Africa’s apartheid regime three decades ago, the world must not tolerate another, and particularly not one located at the heart of a volatile region, where it will serve as a catalyst for extremism and conflict.

In this context, Western inaction would undermine peace as well as Israel’s own long-term security. Given the special US-Israel relationship, it will be incumbent on President Joe Biden’s administration to remind Israeli officials of just how grave the accusation of apartheid is. The longer the charge sticks, the greater the threat it will pose to perceptions of Israel’s legitimacy.

Far from acting on a “longstanding anti-Israeli agenda,” as Israel’s foreign minister claims, HRW is echoing similar findings by Israeli human-rights organizations. B’Tselem, for example, released a report in January titled: “A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This Is Apartheid.” It based that conclusion on more than 30 years of reporting by human-rights groups documenting abuses in occupied Palestinian territories and within Israel.

HRW’s damning report also indirectly implicates US and Western leaders who have been complicit in Israel’s illegal actions and persecution of the Palestinian people. Having repeatedly affirmed that human rights is a pillar of its foreign policy, the Biden administration now faces an important early test of its commitment to these norms.

Unlike its predecessors, the Biden administration cannot bury its head in the sand and give Israel another free pass. Failure to act would call into question all of Biden’s recent criticism of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, China, and others for human-rights and rule-of-law violations. It would reinforce a widespread belief among Arabs and Muslims that the US and Europe practice a double standard in the Middle East, rewarding friends and punishing foes. If Biden ignores Israel’s systemic discrimination against Palestinians, the US will be open to accusations of hypocrisy and cynicism.

Equally important, Biden has committed his administration to eradicating systemic racism at home – a daunting and worthy challenge. Americans of all colors, including many African-Americans and American Jews, already see a direct connection between promoting human rights abroad and upholding them at home.

Moreover, if Biden and other Western leaders turn a blind eye to state-sanctioned “systematic discrimination,” they risk encouraging the Israeli right to commit even more abuses, from annexation of Palestinian land to expulsion of Palestinians from their homes.

The HRW report is a clarion call for Israel’s patrons to wake up to the dangers they have encouraged. Biden must not cede the moral high ground that he currently occupies relative to his predecessor. Donald Trump did Israel no favors by giving Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu everything he wanted. By empowering the most anti-democratic and xenophobic forces in Israeli society, the Trump administration brought Israel to its current crossroads.

The world is watching to see if America and the West will find Israeli apartheid as repugnant as they found South African apartheid. If they do, their support for Israel will have to be contingent on Israel’s respect for Palestinians’ dignity and humanity.

Biden’s current prestige gives him leverage. But the time to use it is now. The US must pressure Israel to end its apartheid policies and its occupation of Palestinian lands. A change in US policy is a crucial first step toward creating a Palestinian state that can live in peace alongside its Israeli neighbor.


Fawaz A. Gerges, Professor of International Relations and Middle Eastern Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, is author of the forthcoming The Hundred Years’ War for Control of the Middle East (Princeton University Press, 2021).

By arrangement with the Project Syndicate, 2021

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