It is becoming harder to deny that Israel is an apartheid state

Now, the international community needs to take action to end this decades-old system of oppression.

In this December 3, 2020 file photo, Israeli border police officers and Palestinians clash during a protest against the expansion of Israeli Jewish settlements near the West Bank town of Salfit [File: Majdi Mohammed/AP Photo]

On April 27, the leading international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a 213-page report, titled “A Threshold Crossed”, condemning Israel for “committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians” in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT) and in Israel itself.

The report undoubtedly marks the crossing of a threshold for the rights group, which has long been shying away from such overt and comprehensive criticism of Israel, to the frustration of Palestinians and advocates of Palestinian rights.

But the threshold that the report’s name ostensibly refers to is a legal one that, in HRW’s analysis, Israel has finally crossed. “While much of the world treats Israel’s half-century occupation as a temporary situation that a decades-long ‘peace process’ will soon cure, the oppression of Palestinians there has reached a threshold and a permanence that meets the definitions of the crimes of apartheid and persecution,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW.

So, according to the group, Israel’s crimes against Palestinians have reached such severity that they can now be considered as crimes against humanity – crimes deemed by the international community to be some of the most serious, potentially warranting the most serious punishment.

But the designation of Israel’s settler-colonial endeavour as a form of apartheid is nothing new. The legal term “apartheid” has long been used to characterise Israel’s actions against Palestinians.

The 1973 Apartheid Convention and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court define apartheid as systematic and institutionally entrenched domination and repression by one racial group over another through “inhumane acts”. Among such acts are: “arbitrary arrest and illegal imprisonment of the members of a racial group”; measures “designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups”; “forcible transfer”; “expropriation of landed property”; and denial of “the right to leave and to return to their country, [and] the right to a nationality”. All these have been part and parcel of Israel’s settler-colonial project in Palestine since the very beginning. And UN diplomats, legal scholars and activists have applied the concept of apartheid to Israel since at least the 1970s.

In 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism to be a form of racism – later rescinded due to Israeli pressure. Although not defining Israel as an apartheid state, the Resolution made that association explicit. It based its equation of Zionism with racism on previous resolutions, including the 1963 Resolution 1904 (XVIII), which affirmed that “any doctrine of racial differentiation or superiority is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous”. Resolution 3379 also drew a line tying Israel to “the racist regimes in Zimbabwe and South Africa”, which were “organically linked in their policy aimed at repression of the dignity and integrity of the human being”. Other UN debates in this period also recognised the “collusion” of Israel, Zionism, and South Africa’s apartheid regime, as in Resolution 3151 of 1973.

After visiting the Holy Land in 2002, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, widely regarded as “South Africa’s moral conscience”, said what he saw in Israel’s treatment of Palestinians reminded him “so much of what happened to us Black people in South Africa”, an observation he has since reiterated. Since 2005, student activists on campuses across the globe have been organising educational events during “Israel Apartheid Week”. These events are staged to raise awareness of the Palestinian liberation struggle and to highlight the similarities between Palestinians’ efforts and the South African anti-Apartheid movement. And in 2017, ESCWA, a UN body, issued a report on Israel’s apartheid practices against Palestinians.

Although the HRW report refers to some other applications of the concept of apartheid to define Israel’s actions against Palestinians, it focuses on presenting “a detailed legal analysis based on the international crimes of apartheid or persecution”. More than just a legal category, however, the notion of apartheid is a moral and political designation, and this is what makes it so contested and powerful. By giving their report announcement the hashtag #Courage2FightApartheid, HRW acknowledged how political this legal analysis really is, perhaps also hinting at why it has taken the group so long to publicly accept a reality recognised by so many across the world for decades.

Whether HRW’s decision to recognise Israel as an apartheid state will be a watershed moment in the decades-old Palestinian struggle and instigate political change remains to be seen. Recent events – such as the February 5 International Criminal Court decision affirming its territorial jurisdiction over the OPT, the January report by Israeli NGO B’Tselem also labelling Israel an “apartheid state”, and pitched battles over the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism that seeks to silence criticism of Israel – already suggest that a tipping point may be approaching.

Indeed, as Israel’s Jewish supremacism became more explicit in recent years, it has become harder to argue against its classification as an apartheid state. How can a rights organisation, or anyone else continue to deny that Israel is an apartheid state after the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, proudly stated that “Israel is not a state of all its citizens … Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and them alone”?

How can they deny that Israel is committing the crime against humanity of apartheid after the Israeli parliament passed the Jewish Nation-State Basic Law which denies the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20 percent of the country’s population?

The HRW report is undoubtedly a positive development and a step in the right direction. But the question we are facing today is not whether Israel is an apartheid state. The question is, when will the international community act in concert to put an end to its obvious and obviously reprehensible system of oppression?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.