Rights group accuses Israel of apartheid, persecution

JERUSALEM, Israel (AP) — One of the world’s best-known human rights groups said yesterday that Israel is guilty of the international crimes of apartheid and persecution because of discriminatory policies toward Palestinians within its own borders and in the occupied territories.

In a sweeping, 213-page report, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) joins a growing number of commentators and rights groups who view the conflict not primarily as a land dispute but as a single regime in which Palestinians — who make up roughly half the population of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza — are systematically denied basic rights granted to Jews.

Israel adamantly rejects that characterisation, saying its Arab minority enjoys full civil rights. It views Gaza, from which it withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005, as a hostile entity ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, and it considers the West Bank to be disputed territory subject to peace negotiations — which collapsed more than a decade ago.

Human Rights Watch focused its report on the definitions of apartheid and persecution used by the International Criminal Court, which launched a probe into possible Israeli war crimes last month. Israel rejects the court as biased.

Citing public statements by Israeli leaders and official policies, HRW argued that Israel has “demonstrated an intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians” in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, coupled with “systematic oppression” and “inhumane acts”.

“When these three elements occur together, they amount to the crime of apartheid,” it said.

As to the charge of persecution, the group cited “grave abuses” in the occupied territories, including land confiscation, the systematic denial of building permits, home demolitions and “sweeping, decades-long restrictions on freedom of movement and basic human rights”.

The report cites a range of policies it says are aimed at ensuring a Jewish majority in Israel and lands it intends to keep, while largely confining Palestinians to scattered enclaves under overarching Israeli control, with policies that encourage Palestinians to leave.

While such policies are far more severe in the occupied territories, HRW said they can also be found in Israel itself, where Palestinian citizens, who make up roughly 20 per cent of the population, face widespread discrimination when it comes to housing, land access and basic services.

Omar Shakir, the author of the report, said that from the heady early days of the peace process in the 1990s up until the Obama years, “there was enough there to question whether there was an intent for permanent domination”.

But with the demise of the peace process, Israel’s plans to annex up to a third of the West Bank, which were put on hold but never abandoned; its massive expansion of settlements and infrastructure linking them to Israel; and the passing of a controversial nation-state law favouring Jews — many say it’s no longer possible to view the current situation as temporary.

“Prominent voices have for years warned that Israeli conduct risked turning into apartheid,” Shakir said. “This 213-page report finds that the threshold has been crossed.”

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