A leading Israeli human rights group has for the first time labelled Israel an “apartheid regime,” sparking a fierce controversy by using a term that Israeli leaders have vehemently rejected.
“It is one regime between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and we must look at the full picture and see it for what it is: apartheid,” the group’s executive director, Hagai El-Ad, said in a statement.
Some of Israel's critics have used the term "apartheid" to describe how Palestinians have fewer rights than Jews in the occupied West Bank, blockaded Gaza, annexed east Jerusalem and Israel itself.
Nevertheless, the term, evoking the system of white rule and racial segregation in South Africa that ended in 1994, has remained taboo for many.
Ohad Zemet, the spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in the U.K., slammed the organization's report saying it was nothing more than a "propaganda tool.”
“Israel rejects the false claims in the so called report as it is not based on reality but on a distorted ideological view,” he said. “Israel is a strong and vibrant democracy that gives full rights to all of its citizens regardless of religion, race or gender.”
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Palestinian citizens make up around 20 percent of Israel's population of 9.2 million, according to The Associated Press. Israel also exercises varying levels of control over Palestinian territories ever since it seized east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza strip from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, land Palestinians want for a future state.
Most of the international community considers the Palestinian territories to be occupied. However, beginning as early as 2017, U.S. officials began dropping public references to the West Bank as “occupied" and in 2019 the U.S. reversed its decadeslong position that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal.
In recent years, rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say Israeli authorities have sought to undermine the work of rights defenders, including by maligning Israeli rights advocates and arresting Palestinian activists.
In 2019, Israel expelled Omar Shakir, the local director of Human Rights Watch, for allegedly supporting an international boycott movement against the country. Human Rights Watch said neither it nor Shakir has called for an outright boycott of Israel.
In its report, B’Tselem said one organizing principle lay behind a whole array of Israeli policies: “Advancing and perpetuating the supremacy of one group — Jews — over another — Palestinians.”
The organization said Israel had used land, among other tools, to implement the principle of "Jewish supremacy," with Jews living in a space where they enjoy full rights and self-determination, while Palestinians live in fragmented territory, each with its own different set of rights given or denied by Israel, but always inferior to the rights accorded to Jews.
Two recent developments showed that Israel was being more explicit with its “Jewish supremacist ideology,” it added.
The first, it said, was a contentious law passed in 2018 that declared among other provisions that only Jews have the right to self-determination. The laws' critics said it would perpetuate the inferior status of the Arabs in Israel.
The second, it said, was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement in 2019 that he planned to annex parts of the West Bank. The group said this attested to Israel’s long-term intentions and debunked claims of “temporary occupation.”
Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative think thank, said B’Tselem’s accusation was “shockingly weak, dishonest and misleading.”
Israel “has no policies of racial or ethnic separation,” he said in a statement.
“By creating a "big lie," B’Tselem seeks to not just criticize Israel, but fundamentally delegitimize Israel and call for its destruction — because one does not reform an Apartheid regime, one ends it," he added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.