A United Nations agency today labeled Israel an “apartheid regime,” in a report that found the country guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” of the “grave charge” of operating systematic discrimination and oppression against the Palestinian people. 

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) published the document, “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian, People and the Question of Apartheid,”[PDF]. ESCWA is mandated to review Israeli aggressions.  

The findings of the report are non-binding and reflect contributions from professor of political science at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale Virginia Tilley and former UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk. It concluded UN organs should sanction Israel and coordinate with civil society groups in boycott campaigns. Apartheid, the report described, is “a crime against humanity” and defined as:

Apartheid, the report described, is “a crime against humanity” and defined as:

“[I]nhuman acts…committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial groups or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

While neither Jews or Palestinians are racial groups, the report stated, the apartheid standard was met because ESCWA found a “racial character” to the policies of the Israeli government enacted toward both Jews and Palestinians. This is expressed inside of Israel through separate categories for a citizen’s “nationality” (Jewish or Arab) and in the occupied territories by the absence of citizenship for Palestinians. 

Israel was said to have divided Palestinians into different spheres of governance, each with fewer rights than Jewish-Israelis. Sub-sections of the report outline Palestinians citizens of Israel, West Bank and Gaza residents, Jerusalem residents, and external refugees, all of whom have unequal rights in comparison to Jewish-Israeli citizens. 

“Strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people is the principal method by which Israel imposes an apartheid regime,” ESCWA said. Individual treatment to each group may not meet the apartheid definition, when taken together the report said, it does. 

The UN body regarded Israel as producing “one comprehensive regime developed for the purpose of ensuring the enduring dominion over non-Jews in all land exclusively under Israeli control in whatever category.”

Read more on Mondoweiss.

Apartheid inside of Israel 

Palestinian citizens of Israel total 1.7 million, and while they have voting rights, the report found several quasi-governmental agencies carried out “demographic engineering” in the name of the state to privilege Jewish citizens over Palestinians. Chiefly, the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization were both described as exclusively resettling Jewish immigrants and using state land for Jewish-only housing, while at the same time Israel denied the return of Palestinian refugees, and on a smaller scale, denied citizenships to spouses of Israeli citizens who are of Palestinian heritage.

The report further found Palestinians have no legal tools for dismantling the racialized hierarchies enshrined to those agencies, due to a 1958 law (functionally part of Israel’s constitution) that calls for a “Jewish character” of the country. 

“Palestinian parties can campaign only for minor reforms and better municipal budgets. They are legally prohibited from challenging the racial regime itself,” the report said.

‘Full apartheid’ already in West Bank

While Palestinians citizens of Israel were noted to hold the same political rights as their Jewish-counterparts, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are subject to harsh Israeli military code and hold no political rights in Israel. 

Because some 300,000 Israeli settlers also live inside of the West Bank and are governed by separate rules than Palestinians the UN group said: “the dual legal system, problematic in itself, is indicative of an apartheid regime.”

“The territory is administered in a manner that fully meets the definition of apartheid under the Apartheid Convention: except for the provision on genocide, every illustrative ‘inhuman act’ listed in the Convention is routinely and systematically practiced by Israel in the West Bank.”

The issue of how the areas under the full security and civil control of the Palestinian Authority fit into the picture was also raised. These urban enclaves in the West Bank were likened to “Bantustans” in South Africa during the apartheid-era and regarded as further evidence of the definition of apartheid. 

Bantustans, defined as “separate reserves and ghettoes for the members of the racial groups or groups,” are strictly banned under international law, said the study. Virginia Tilley, the author of this section of the report, added to Mondoweiss that the late Ariel Sharon, who is credited for the idea of Palestinian self-government zones, “closely examined the functioning of the Bantustans in South Africa during his multiple trips there. I think no reasonable doubt can be sustained that this design for a permanently non-sovereign Palestinian ‘state’ was the true aim and so the set-up was intentional and by design and not merely effect.”

Regarding Palestinians who hold Jerusalem resident permits, Israel was charged with “discrimination in access to education, health care, employment, residency and building rights. They also suffer from expulsions and home demolitions, which serve the Israeli policy of ‘demographic balance’ in favour of Jewish residents.” 

The report made a specific reference to a 1996 “center of life” law, which it said was a legal mechanism to expel 11,000 Palestinians from the city between the time the law passed and 2014, because their “center of life” was deemed not to be Jerusalem. 

ESCWA claimed Israel first began implementing apartheid abuses during its early years of statehood when 800,000 Palestinians were made refugees during the 1947-49 war. Israel then prevented their return, while at the same time passing legislation to allow any person of Jewish heritage to become a citizen. 

The report comes just days after the latest warning bell was sounded by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who told the Jerusalem Post Israel would embark on an “apartheid system” if it did not reach a peace deal soon with the Palestinians. Former Secretary of State John Kerry had been arguing a similar point for several years about the waning time before Israel becomes an “apartheid” regime; although his successor Rex Tillerson stated in his Senate confirmation hearing that the Israelis and Palestinians have time to make a deal (“Sometimes you just need to skip a generation to get rid of all the baggage of the past,” he said).

The reigning view in the U.S. and Europe is that if Israel were to annex the occupied Palestinians territory and take full control, unbridled apartheid would flourish. But the UN report jumps the timeline world leaders have used, and says so explicitly at the top of the dossier: ESCWA reviewed the situation between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as a whole, as if it were all, already, a single state.

Israel has fiercely rejected the apartheid charge, in this report and previously, although it seemingly did not take this report as a seriously as others. 

Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Emmanuel Nahshon directed Mondoweiss to his Twitter feed: “#UN #ESCWA has issued today a ” Der Stürmer”like report, NOT endorsed by @UNSG . Friendly advice- dont read it without anti nausea pills….,” he said today, referencing the Nazi propaganda outlet, Der Stürmer.

In 2010 Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs more clearly outlined its position on why it is not an apartheid state:

While the status of Arab-Israelis in Israel is still open to much improvement, a great deal has already been accomplished towards reaching the goal of absolute equality. Unlike under apartheid, Arab Israelis can vote, live where they want, receive excellent medical care and practice whatever profession they choose. One only has to look at the rise of Arab-Israelis in the public sphere to realize the advances Arab Israelis have made: they can be found on the Supreme Court, in the Knesset (parliament), in ambassadorial positions, as senior officers in the police and army, as mayors, as deputy-speakers of the Knesset and even as government ministers and deputy ministers. Prominent Arab Israelis can be found in almost every sphere of Israeli life, including in the medical fields, media and playing on Israel’s national soccer team.One of the ideals on which Israel was founded was that of equality. Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that the State of Israel ‘will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.’”

Some human rights groups have shied away from labeling Israel as practicing “apartheid” when describing mistreatment of Palestinians. Although that is more or less the contention of a 2010 report by Human Rights Watch, “Separate and Unequal: Israel’s Discriminatory Treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” The human rights group only looked at areas Israel occupies and did not address Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

Adalah, the leading human rights group that advocates on behalf of Palestinian citizens of Israel also has yet to use the word “apartheid” to formally describe their situation. But on its website, the group says Palestinians are “unequal” to Jewish-Israelis and lists 50 “Discriminatory Laws in Israel” that codify separate treatment between Jewish and Arab citizens, ranging from regulations about income tax to land-use codes. 

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