Israeli NGO: Israel Is an Apartheid Regime

B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, has taken an extraordinary step — following many Palestinian and human rights groups around the world — in calling the state of Israel what it is: an apartheid regime and thus anything but a democracy.

Israeli border guards push over a Palestinian flag as they take a position during clashes near an Israeli checkpoint in Ramallah, West Bank, 2017. (Chris McGrath / Getty Images)

The Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem recently published a remarkable report: “A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This Is Apartheid.” B’Tselem has published hundreds of previous reports criticizing Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights in the Occupied Territories. It has offered testimony to the United Nations on potential Israeli war crimes in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. But this is different.

“This Is Apartheid” was not content itself with documenting the usual violent attacks by settlers on Palestinian farmers or hit-and-run accidents in which settlers kill Palestinian pedestrians. For the first time, an Israeli human rights NGO refused to make a distinction between crimes committed against Palestinians outside Israel (the Green Line) and those inside it.

In fact, it declares the Occupation is not separate from Israel, but an integral part of it:

…the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is organized under a single principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians. All this leads to the conclusion that these are not two parallel regimes … [rather] there is one regime governing the entire area and the people living in it, based on a single organizing principle.

…what happens in the Occupied Territories can no longer be treated as separate from the reality in the entire area under Israel’s control.

The significance of this change may not be as evident to an outsider, but to Palestinians living under Occupation and those who are Israeli citizens, it makes a world of difference.

Until now, B’Tselem and similar groups like New Israel Fund, Breaking the Silence, and Yesh Din called Israel’s Occupation illegal, and some even labeled it apartheid. But they never took the next logical step, calling all of Israel, from the river to the sea, an apartheid regime. B’Tselem took that step.

The report roundly rejects an argument favored by bastions of liberal Zionism like Haaretz, the Zionist Left Meretz, and J Street: that Israel within the Green Line is a democracy, while everything beyond it is an unjust usurpation of Palestinian rights to statehood. This conception views Israel and the Occupied Territories as two separate entities — Israel good, occupation bad.

B’Tselem now rejects this duality. It also rejects the claim that Israel is a democracy: because equal rights are denied to Palestinian citizens based on religion or ethnicity.

Take, for example, the Nation State Law, inscribed last year into the state’s Basic Law (a quasi-constitutional set of guiding principles). It declares that Israel is a state specifically for the Jewish people. It renders non-Jews an afterthought. For example, Arabic, which had been one of the country’s two national languages, lost its protected status. Even groups like the Druze, an offshoot of Islam, whose members served loyally in the IDF since the founding of the state, were “magnanimously” offered the status of a tolerated minority.

For many decades, Israel had adopted de facto rules and regulations which discriminated against Palestinian citizens in housing, health, jobs, education, and more. Sometimes the rules were written down, sometimes they were enforced tacitly.

For example, though Palestinians serve in the Knesset, none had ever been prime minister, president, or Knesset speaker, and no Palestinian party has ever sat in a coalition government. There’s no law against this. But no Jewish Party would dare invite a Palestinian Party into a ruling coalition. Why? Because of Israeli Jewish racism. They fear Jewish voters would erupt in protest.

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics for the first time issued a report comparing the quality of life of Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens. Jews fared better on fifty of the sixty-two indicators. All this indicates a system of Jewish supremacy and Palestinian subordination.

Israel has always seen Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as separate from Israeli Palestinians. The latter enjoyed, or so the story goes, full citizen rights while the former were treated as a conquered people, only entitled to the few rights the Israeli Occupation bestowed on them. For example, West Bank and Gaza Palestinians did not have the right to live inside Israel, and certainly not to become Israeli citizens (though many are direct descendants of Palestinians expelled from Israel during the 1948 Nakba).

Israeli Jews fear, more than anything, Palestinian nationalism which would integrate both those who live inside Israel with those under Occupation into a single people. The intelligence apparatus views Palestinians who advocate such views as threats to the state. It treats them harshly: arrest, trial, and long prison sentences are common.

Though Israel’s rulers have shown no inclination to support a two-state solution, it’s worth noting that such Palestinian solidarity would negate a two-state solution, which features a nation state for Jews and a separate one for Palestinians.

In fact, Israel itself has sabotaged the prospect for two states by de facto annexing much of the land in the West Bank that would have constituted the Palestinian state. On this confiscated land, it has built scores of settlements, in which eight hundred thousand Israeli Jews live (in East Jerusalem and the West Bank). Though these settlers constitute only 10 percent of Israel’s overall population, they are no afterthought. They are at the heart of the state itself, enjoying extraordinary support in the Knesset.

Unlike occupied Palestinians, who can only vote in elections conducted (rarely) by the Palestinian National Authority, settlers living right next door vote in Israeli elections. The latter are governed by Israeli civil law. Their settlements are state-funded. The settler economy and businesses are tied to the state financial system. Roads and public transportation are aligned with the Israeli highway grid to serve Jews in the settlements, bringing them to and from jobs inside the Green Line. Such infrastructure serves Jews and deliberately bypasses Palestinian communities. Thus, the settlements and Israel proper are a single integrated whole.

This is the very definition of apartheid. To activists for Palestinian rights, it comes as no shock. They’ve been using the “a-word” for years. You may remember the Sturm und Drang that greeted Jimmy Carter’s 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, which had the temerity to suggest that Israel’s occupation constituted apartheid. The former president was denounced and called an antisemite for his audacity. Turns out he was right all along.

B’Tselem’s report represents an authoritative Israeli voice respected in the world human rights community, which affirms what Palestinian groups and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement have been saying all along: Israel is apartheid. With its endorsement, this will eventually become a consensus view in the global community. Instead of being smeared as antisemites for saying it, activists will be able to point to a respected Israeli group that has affirmed it.

“This Is Apartheid” will not directly change minds inside Israel. They have been made up long ago. Human rights are viewed as a luxury Israel cannot afford, except in rare instances, and B’Tselem is viewed as a traitorous organization willing to harm Israel’s interests by testifying to war crimes before world bodies like the United Nations.

If the report has any impact inside Israel, it may persuade liberal Zionists, who represent an increasingly small sector of the Israeli populace, but who have important influence within cultural, artistic, and intellectual circles, that their defense of Israel has met a dead end.

As Nathan Thrall writes in his new essay in the London Review of Books, liberal Zionists, though marginal in political strength, offer a fig leaf to the Israeli regime. As it goes about pursuing ethnic cleansing, land theft, and other antidemocratic policies, its leaders point to the trappings of Western democracy: we have a free press, freedom of religion, Palestinian citizens vote, and Palestinian MKs sit in the Knesset. We even have “left-wing” newspaper columnists who regularly denounce us — just the same as what you have in your Western democracies.

But the truth is that all of these so-called rights are either denied Palestinians or severely restricted. Dissent is barely tolerated. Israeli Palestinians are even imprisoned for writing poems and posting them on Facebook. Jews, too, who speak out receive death threats or face physical assault. We should also not forget the murderous far-right hatred that led to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which eventually led to Benjamin Netanyahu’s ascendancy and his subsequent status as the longest-serving leader in the country’s history.

If Israel is a single, integrated apartheid regime, then it becomes impossible to separate the territory within the Green Line from that outside it. Thus, the only means of resolving this injustice is via establishing a single unitary state incorporating both Israel and the Occupied Territories. B’Tselem has led us down the road toward this eventual inevitability.

For decades, US presidents, foreign leaders, and liberal Zionists have clung to the two-state shibboleth, long after it faded as a viable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This report hammers yet another nail in the coffin and strengthens those who call for a single democratic state for Israel-Palestine.