Prominent rights group labels Israel an 'apartheid regime' for first time

A leading Israeli human rights group first referred to Israel as an “apartheid regime”, which sparked heated controversy by using a term that Israeli leaders have vehemently opposed.

B’Tselem, a well-known rights organization, said in an explosive report Tuesday that Israel cannot be a democracy while maintaining an occupation in the Palestinian territories.

“It’s a regime between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, and we need to look at the bigger picture and see what it is: apartheid,” the group’s executive director Hagai El-Ad said in a statement.

Palestinian workers line up to cross a checkpoint at the entrance to the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim near Jerusalem in June. Oded Balilty / AP file

Some critics of Israel have used the term “apartheid” to describe how Palestinians have fewer rights than Jews in the occupied West Bank, the blocked Gaza Strip, annexed East Jerusalem and Israel itself.

However, the term, which is reminiscent of the 1994 ending system of white rule and racial segregation in South Africa, has remained taboo for many.

Ohad Zemet, spokesman for the Israeli embassy in the UK, slammed the organization’s report and said it was nothing more than a “propaganda tool”.

“Israel rejects the false claims made in the so-called report because they are not based on reality but on a distorted ideological view,” he said. “Israel is a strong and vibrant democracy that grants all citizens unrestricted rights, regardless of religion, race or gender.”

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According to The Associated Press, Palestinian citizens make up around 20 percent of Israel’s 9.2 million population. Israel has also exercised varying degrees of control over Palestinian territories since it captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Land Palestinians want a future state.

Most of the international community regards the Palestinian territories as occupied. However, as early as 2017, US officials began removing public references to the West Bank as “occupied,” and in 2019 the US reversed its decades-long position that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal.

In recent years, rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have say The Israeli authorities have attempted to undermine the work of legal defenders, including slandering Israeli lawyers and arresting Palestinian activists.

In 2019, Israel expelled Omar Shakir, local director of Human Rights Watch, for allegedly supporting an international boycott movement against the country. Human Rights Watch neither said it nor Shakir has called for a total boycott of Israel.

In his report, B’Tselem said that there is an organizational principle behind a number of Israeli policies: “Promote and maintain the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians.”

The organization said Israel used land, among other things, to implement the principle of “Jewish supremacy”. The Jews lived in a space where they enjoy full rights and self-determination, while the Palestinians live in fragmented territory, each with its own set of rights, given or denied by Israel, but always inferior to those granted by Jews were.

Two recent developments showed that Israel was more explicit with its “Jewish supremacist ideology,” it added.

The first, it was said, was a controversial law passed in 2018 that stated, among other things, that only Jews have the right to self-determination. The law’s critics said it would maintain the inferior status of Arabs in Israel.

The second, it was said, was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement in 2019 that he would annex parts of the West Bank. The group said this shows Israel’s long-term intentions and debunked allegations of “temporary occupation”.

Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem, a conservative thank you, said B’Tselem’s allegation was “shockingly weak, dishonest and misleading”.

Israel “has no policy of racial or ethnic separation,” he said in a statement.

“By creating a ‘big lie’, B’Tselem is not only trying to criticize Israel, but also to delegitimize Israel in principle and to demand its destruction – because you don’t reform an apartheid regime, you end it,” he added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Lawahez Jabari and Paul Goldman contributed.

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