25. Israel: An Apartheid State?

Human Rights Watch has just issued a report labeling Israel as a practitioner of apartheid, the system of racial separation employed in South Africa before its transformation. Is this a fair assessment of current Israeli policies toward Palestinians?

No. But there are aspects of Israeli occupation of the West Bank that have elements of apartheid, in particular the development of separate infrastructures and the superior legal status of Jewish settlers.

We'll return to this in a minute. But first, HRW commits two gross oversimplifications in its analysis. To begin with, it defines apartheid very broadly as a system of domination by one group over another. By such a definition most nations in the world are vulnerable to accusations of "apartheid" toward minorities. Is HRW unaware of white domination over blacks in the United States?

A common-sense definition of the term would look at the South African context. Apartheid -- "apartness" -- applied to integral areas of the state, was racially based, dictated forced separation, and enshrined inequality in law.

The second oversimplification is to blur together three distinctly different realities. Within Israel proper, there are no racially-based laws, no official segregation, and no distinction between Jews and Arabs in legal rights. The recent Nation-State Law does define Israel as a Jewish state, but this puts Israel in the same category of other nation-states with a dominant majority.

The Israel Supreme Court has defined the meaning of "Jewish state" as maintenance of a Jewish majority, the right of Jews to immigrate, and ties with Jews outside Israel. Nothing more. It has consistently defended equal rights of Arabs as citizens.

Arab citizens of Israel do, of course, have serious valid grievances. There is de facto inequality and discrimination. But it is not an apartheid system. Arabs vote and have representation in the Israeli Knesset that is close to their proportionate share of the voting-age population.

The second reality that HRW blurs is the Gaza strip, from which Israel evacuated its settlers and forces in 2005. There are also valid grievances here, since Israel continues to control Gaza's access to the world and much else. But governance within Gaza has been in the hands of Hamas, which has ruled or misruled the population by its own lights, since 2007.

This leaves the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority controls 40 percent of the area but almost all of the Arab population. Israel controls the other 60 percent of the land, legally not as sovereign territory but under the international law of wartime occupation. At least that is the framework Israeli representatives use when they defend Israel in international forums.

The issues of occupation are in theory different from the issues raised by apartheid, since the territory occupied is not subject to the occupier's laws. Occupation raises issues regarding methods of control and treatment of the conquered population. Israel can be and has been criticized on these issues, for example in the wide use of administrative detention, methods of interrogation, collective punishments, and demolition of homes.

But Israeli policy also opened up a legitimate comparison to apartheid by allowing its own civilian population to settle in occupied territory, in violation of the Geneva Convention. This has established two classes of residents, one with full citizenship rights and one with none. It has also led to the building of a separate infrastructure, of roads and utilities, for the benefit of one group only.

If this is not racially based, it is surely ethnically-based. It is also enforced segregation and inequality. The only mitigating factor is that much of the evidence gathered by HRW comes from Israeli watchdog groups opposed to the occupation.

But the broad strokes used by Human Rights Watch to smear Israel across the board will only serve to undercut those within Israel who are fighting to right the wrongs that are being committed, and fortify those on the right who denounce any criticism of Israel as antisemitism.