JERUSALEM – Amnesty International said on Tuesday that Israel has maintained “a system of oppression and domination” over the Palestinians, all the way back to its creation in 1948, a system that meets the international definition of apartheid.
With the publication of a 278-page report prepared over a period of four years, the London-based rights group Human Rights Watch and the Israeli rights group B’Tselem join in accusing Israel of apartheid – both within its borders and within the occupied territories. areas .
Their achievements are part of a growing international movement to redefine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a struggle for equal rights rather than a territorial dispute. These efforts have been strengthened in the decade since the peace process came to a standstill as Israel consolidated its control over the occupied territories and polluted the idea of a Palestinian state.
Israel rejects any claim of apartheid, saying its own Arab citizens enjoy equal rights. It gave limited autonomy to the Palestinian Authority at the height of the peace process in the 1990s and withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005.
But Amnesty and the other groups say the very fragmentation of the territories where the Palestinians live is part of an overall control regime designed to maintain Jewish hegemony from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.
They point to discriminatory policies in Israel and in annexed East Jerusalem, Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has been controlled by Hamas’ militant group since 2007, and its de facto annexation of the West Bank, where it exercises overall control and is actively building and expanding. of Jewish settlements, which the majority of the international community considers illegal.
Palestinians have accused Israel of apartheid for decades, and President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the charge in September last year in a burning UN speech.
Amnesty traces such a policy back to the creation of Israel in 1948. About 700,000 Palestinians fled or were displaced during the Arab-Israeli war surrounding the creation of Israel. They accounted for about 80% of the Palestinian population in present-day Israel. Israel prevented the refugees from returning to preserve its Jewish majority.
The Palestinians left in Israel lived under military rule until shortly before the Middle East War in 1967, when Israel conquered East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, areas the Palestinians wanted for their future state.
Today, Palestinians inside Israel have citizenship, including the right to vote, and some have reached the top echelons of business, law, medicine, and entertainment. But overall, they face widespread discrimination in areas such as the job and housing markets. Palestinians in the West Bank are living under Israeli military rule, and those in Hamas-controlled Gaza are also facing a crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade.
Palestinians make up about 20% of Israel’s 9.4 million population. But the Jewish and Arab populations are roughly equal when you include the West Bank and Gaza.
“Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has pursued a policy of establishing and maintaining Jewish demographic hegemony and maximizing its control over land for the benefit of Jewish Israelis, while restricting Palestinian rights and preventing Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes. , “said Amnesty. “Israel extended this policy to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which it has occupied ever since.”
Israel rejected the previous reports as biased, but has taken a far more contradictory stance towards Amnesty, accusing it of anti-Semitism and of delegitimizing Israel’s existence, even before the report was published.
“Its extremist language and distortion of the historical context were designed to demonize Israel and pour fuel on the fire of anti-Semitism,” the foreign ministry said.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Amnesty was repeating “the same lies that terrorist organizations share.”
“Israel is not perfect, but we are a democracy committed to international law, open to criticism, with a free press and a strong and independent judicial system,” Lapid said in a statement.
None of the reports compared Israel to apartheid South Africa, where a system based on white supremacy and racial segregation was in place from 1948 to 1994. Instead, they evaluated Israel’s policy based on international conventions such as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It defines apartheid as “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination of one racial group over any other racial group.”
The ICC is already investigating potential war crimes committed by Israel and Palestinian militants in recent years. Following last year’s Gaza war, the UN Human Rights Council set up a permanent commission of inquiry to investigate atrocities against Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, including “systematic discrimination and repression based on national, ethnic, racial or religious identity.”
Such a commission is the most intrusive type of investigative body that the council can set up, and for the first time it was given an “ongoing” or permanent mandate.
Israel has accused both the ICC and the UN rights body of being biased towards it and of separating it, while other countries commit far worse violations.
Yuval Shany, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a member of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Faculty of Law, said it was “very unlikely” that the ICC would pursue apartheid allegations given the complexity.
He said the apartheid demand was “extreme and quite unfounded” in Israel, despite discrimination. The situation in the areas “is much more complicated.”
“There you have elements that could qualify as discrimination, segregation and oppression given the length of the occupation,” he said. But “it is difficult to distinguish between issues related to security policy, with competing national demands, and what is a racist agenda.”
Using the apartheid language is “a bridge too far,” he said.
Lapid told reporters last month that he expects intensified efforts this year to brand Israel as an apartheid state that could lead to the country being banned from sporting or cultural events. He said reviving a political process with the Palestinians would help combat these efforts.
The peace process stalled more than a decade ago, and Israel’s current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is opposed to a Palestinian state. He is at the head of an unmanageable coalition that includes more moderate members like Lapid and even a small Arab party.
In part because of its internal divisions, the government has ruled out any major initiatives to resolve the conflict. But several top officials, including Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, have met with Palestinian leaders with the aim of boosting the Palestinian economy and laying the groundwork for future negotiations.
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.