Discrimination against Palestinians constitutes apartheid

Human Rights Watch report concludes that, from an international law perspective, Israel has indeed crossed the line

In 1961, Hendrik Verwoerd declared that ‘Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state’. As an architect of apartheid, and South African Prime Minister at the time, he spoke from a position of some authority.

In the sixty years since, the suggestion of Israeli apartheid has never gone away. In 1965, Fayez Sayegh wrote about the ‘practitioners of apartheid in Palestine’. In the 1970s, Edward Said characterised the Israeli-Palestinian relationship as ‘a specific, continuing process of dispossession, displacement, and colonial de facto apartheid’. Since the 1980s, Palestinian and Israeli scholars like Elia Zureik, Uri Davis, Leila Farsakh, Raef Zreik, Ilan Pappé and many others have produced ever-deeper analysis of Israeli apartheid. Prominent South Africans from Desmond Tutu to Ronnie Kasrils say the conditions they witnessed in Palestine remind them so viscerally of their own experiences of apartheid.

A 220-page report published by Human Rights Watch is titled A Threshold Crossed, and concludes that, from an international law perspective, Israel has indeed crossed the line into apartheid.

This follows a stream of similar findings by Palestinian and Israel human rights organisations, international lawyers, and UN bodies. It is clear that another threshold has also been crossed in recent years: the allegation of Israeli apartheid itself has decisively crossed into the mainstream.


Human Rights Watch is one of the largest human rights organisations in the world, and is as moderate and mainstream as they come. It has been criticised as much from the left (for condemning Latin American socialist governments, and acquiescence with neoliberalism) as it has from the right (for impugning Western states and Gulf regimes). It has always maintained a cautious approach on Israel-Palestine. When Palestinian rights activists were denounced over the years for naming Israeli apartheid, and likewise even a UN commission as recently as 2017, Human Rights Watch kept quiet.

It has now determined itself that Israel has ‘demonstrated an intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis … with systematic oppression of Palestinians and inhumane acts committed against them’. This is, Human Rights Watch makes clear, the crime of apartheid, and it is being perpetrated across Israel-Palestine in its entirety. (The organisation similarly found previously that Myanmar has imposed apartheid on the Rohingya people).

According to the report, a systemic array of ‘laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish-Israeli control over demographics, political power and land has long guided government policy’. A chapter on systematic oppression and institutional discrimination totals almost 100 pages and painstakingly details the extent of this discrimination between the two groups across virtually every aspect of life: legal status, land, housing, planning, mobility, roads, tax, education, healthcare, water, sewage.

Israel’s primary defence against long-standing allegations of apartheid is that Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship can vote. But only 1.6 million of the 6.8 million Palestinians living under Israeli jurisdiction have that status, in contrast to all 6.8 million Jewish Israelis under the same regime. The imposition of a military rather than civil regime over the majority of Palestinians is coupled with what Human Rights Watch calls a ‘two tiered-citizenship structure and bifurcation of nationality and citizenship’ under Israeli law.

Israel’s Nation-State Law reiterates this as a constitutional reality in elevating the Jewish character of the state above its democratic character. Prime Minster Netanyahu has made clear that ‘Israel is not a state of all its citizens’ but rather ‘the nation-state of the Jewish people and only them’. Many people might support this as a political project, but cannot at the same time deny that it is an apartheid reality that subjugates Palestinians. Human Rights Watch also makes clear that Israel has used ‘security as a pretext to advance demographic objectives’, and that legitimate security concerns do not permit or mitigate the crime of apartheid.

The report comes at a time when efforts to delegitimise criticism of Israel as antisemitic are continuing. Its findings of institutionalised discrimination highlight the incongruity of conflating evidence-based critique of a state’s institutional structures with bigotry against an individual or social group.

The report is based primarily on the international crime of apartheid for which individual officials can be prosecuted. Palestinians have indeed submitted evidence of apartheid crimes to the International Criminal Court, where an investigation is ongoing. International law also defines apartheid as an illegal situation for which the state itself must be sanctioned. All UN members have a duty not to recognise or assist the illegal situation. This includes banning illegal settlement produce, but also implicates diplomatic, economic and institutional relations more broadly. Human Rights Watch concluded that the EU’s ‘close ties’ with Israel have ‘allowed apartheid to metastasize and consolidate’. It is calling for targeted sanctions to be imposed (as has been done on Russia and others).

Ireland prides itself on having been a leading actor in the international anti-apartheid movement for South Africa, from the Dunnes Stores strikes to becoming the first western state to ban South African imports. If Ireland is serious about international justice and its responsibility as a Security Council member, it can now take on a similar role towards ending apartheid and pushing support for equality and decolonisation in Palestine.

John Reynolds is Associate Professor of International Law at Maynooth University.