Human Rights Watch Called Israel an Apartheid. It Should Be a Wake-up Call | Opinion

Human Rights Watch, the internationally renowned human rights organization, called Israel an apartheid this week. In a major, 213-pages report released on Tuesday, the group accused Israel of actions "so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution" in certain areas. But while some have accused the group of using such bold language to delegitimize Israel—even to suggest it has no right to exist—the report should be read in a different way entirely: as a wake-up call, and one perhaps most pressing for those most invested in Israel's future.

Far from seeking blanket delegitimization of Israel, the new HRW report is more legalistic than moral. It by and large avoids nomenclature like "settler colonialism" or "Jewish supremacy" which are common in academic and left-wing circles, and instead meticulously outlines the ways in which Israel's actions can be deemed crimes of apartheid under the terms well-defined by international law.

It is a report focused not on what Israel is in other words, but on what it does.

The report argues that the crime of apartheid under the Apartheid Convention and Rome Statute is constituted by three main components: the intent to maintain a system of domination by one racial group over another; systematic oppression; and inhumane acts carried out on a systematic basis. The report then goes on to show these components in action in how Israel treats the Palestinians in the territories, suspending civil rights, enacting sweeping restrictions of movement, confiscating land and denying residency rights.

It's a situation I sadly know all too well. Born in Gaza, I grew up acutely aware of the fact that I was viewed as unwanted and suspect by Israel, and of the ways in which my destiny was different from that of my Israeli neighbors and my rights curtailed due to an accident of my birth. And it is the indignities, humiliations, and deprivations of life as a Gazan that I see reflected back at me in HRW's report.

But the report doesn't only draw its credibility from its understated rhetoric and its focus on the facts. HRW draws credibility as well from the fact that it has been willing to criticize Palestinian leadership, too, when found in violation of international law and human rights principles. In 2012, for instance, Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, called out Hamas' indiscriminate rocket attacks. "Palestinian armed groups made clear in their statements that harming civilians was their aim," Whitson said, for which there is "simply no legal justification." More recently, in 2018, HRW's Omar Shakir oversaw an extensive report on the practice of torture in Hamas and Palestinian Authority prisons. Shakir also called out Hamas' violent dispersal of protests and arrest of nonviolent activists.

An Israeli policeman argues with a Palestinian
An Israeli border policeman argues with a Palestinian man during a demonstration organized by young Palestinians. HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

Sadly, this perhaps uniquely even-handed approach has not earned HRW any respect in the pro-Israel community, which responded to the report with a barrage of ad hominem attacks against Shakir, who co-authored it. Despite the fact that former Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert both warned of the slippery slope to apartheid that Israel was on, HRW's report was deemed incitement to violence and accused of endorsing Palestinian terrorism and even smeared as anti-Semitic.

None of these attacks address the content of the report. Indeed, incriminating as the report is, many of its fact are not disputed by Israel's supporters, which is no doubt why the criticism has resorted to accusations of delegitimization, or to demands for more context.

The report actually does supply context, making note of what HRW calls Israel's "legitimate security challenges." But the report also chronicles the ways in which Israel's actions far exceed what would count as reasonable security measures—often by Israel's own admission. As former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon put it, "There's no need to hide behind security arguments. There's a need for the existence of a Jewish state."

But these absolute terms are what will ultimately prove the greatest threat to the Jewish state. And as the report concludes aptly, "While Israel has legitimate security concerns in regulating entry to its territory, those concerns cannot justify the massive violation of rights that the near-total travel ban inflicts on the over two million Palestinians living in a sliver of territory."

Many in the pro-Israel camp fear the designation of apartheid because it seems to deny Israel's right to exist. No one defends an apartheid, after all. But recognizing the ways in which in the Palestinian Territories, Israel is committing crimes considered consistent with apartheid, actually does the opposite. The HRW report only brings into question the systemic discrimination against Palestinians; it doesn't indict Israeli society or in any way delegitimize or even question Israel's existence.

The report is an alarm bell, a wake-up call that the injustice being done is a terrible thing—not just for Palestinians but for Israel as well. Its message is that occupation and discrimination corrupt the soul of the oppressor as much as they ruin the lives of the oppressed. And in a way, that's a pro-Israel message.

It's certainly a pro-peace one. Calling out Israel's systematic discrimination against Palestinians is a crucial step towards a just peace. To find a common way out of the oppressive, unsustainable, and inherently destabilizing present, we should put prejudices and biases aside and read this report carefully. As it points out, we have already crossed multiple dangerous thresholds, and as time passes, we face a threat of entrenching this injustice and conflict irrevocably.

That would be the real end of the Jewish state.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of development studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.

The views in this article are the writer's own.