Israel Dismisses Allegations of Palestinian Persecution from Human Rights Watch, Says Group Has 'Anti-Israel Agenda'

New York-based human rights group Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that Israel is guilty of international crimes of apartheid and prosecutions because of its policies toward Palestinians within its own borders and in the occupied territories, the Associated Press reported.

Israel rejected the report, saying its Arab minority enjoys full civil rights.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the report "fiction" and said the claims were "preposterous and false."

"Human Rights Watch is known to have a long-standing anti-Israeli agenda, actively seeking for years to promote boycotts against Israel," the Ministry said in a statement. "This report is yet another part of the organization's ongoing campaign...with no connection to facts or reality on the ground."

The 231-page report from Human Rights Watch argues that the Israeli government has "demonstrated an intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians across Israel and the occupied Palestinians territory" and couples that intent with "systematic oppression of Palestinians and inhumane acts committed against them."

"When these three elements occur together, they amount to the crime of apartheid," it said.

Human Rights Watch also cites "grave abuses" in the occupied territories, including land confiscation, the systematic denial of building permits, home demolitions and "sweeping, decades-long restrictions on freedom of movement and basic human rights."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Israel Palenstine
Candidates of various Palestinian electoral lists demonstrate outside the Palestinian Central Elections Commission headquarters in Gaza City on April 27, 2021, during a protest against the possibility of canceling the Palestinian elections and against a ban imposed by Israel on the residents of Jerusalem from voting in the polls. One of the worlds best-known human rights organizations has called Israel's policies an "apartheid" against Palestinians. MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel views Gaza, from which it withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005, as a hostile entity ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, and it considers the West Bank to be disputed territory subject to peace negotiations—which collapsed more than a decade ago.

Human Rights Watch focused its report on the definitions of apartheid and persecution used by the International Criminal Court, which launched a probe into possible Israeli war crimes last month. Israel rejected the court as biased.

The report cites a range of policies it said are aimed at ensuring a Jewish majority in Israel and lands it intends to keep, while largely confining Palestinians to scattered enclaves under overarching Israeli control, with policies that encourage Palestinians to leave.

While such policies are far more severe in the occupied territories, Human Rights Watch said they can also be found in Israel itself, where Palestinian citizens, who make up roughly 20% of the population, face widespread discrimination when it comes to housing, land access and basic services.

Omar Shakir, the author of the report, said that from the early days of the peace process in the 1990s up until the Obama years, "there was enough there to question whether there was an intent for permanent domination."

But with the demise of the peace process; Israel's plans to annex up to one-third of the West Bank, which were put on hold but never abandoned; its massive expansion of settlements and infrastructure linking them to Israel; and the passing of a controversial nation-state law favoring Jews—many say it's no longer possible to view the current situation as temporary.

"Prominent voices have for years warned that Israeli conduct risked turning into apartheid," Shakir said. "This 213-page report finds that the threshold has been crossed."

Israel's supporters reject allegations of apartheid, pointing to the existence of the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, which administers scattered West Bank enclaves under agreements signed in the 1990s.

Israel and the Palestinians have held several rounds of peace talks since then that included discussions of Palestinian independence but were unable to reach a final agreement.

Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative Israeli think tank, said the Palestinians were responsible for their fate. "They have chosen it by rejecting alternatives," he said.

Human Rights Watch and other rights groups said that despite the existence of the Palestinian Authority, Israel maintains overarching control over nearly every aspect of Palestinian lives in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel has exclusive control over 60% of the West Bank, its borders and airspace, and imposes restrictions on movement and residency. The nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank have full Israeli citizenship, while the territory's 2.5 million Palestinians live under military rule.

The disparity could be seen in Israel's successful coronavirus vaccination campaign, with shots freely offered to settlers but largely denied to their Palestinian neighbors.

In Gaza, an Israeli blockade imposed after Hamas seized power has largely confined 2 million Palestinians to the coastal strip and decimated the economy. Israel imposes heavy restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, as does neighboring Egypt.

The agreements reached in the 1990s were intended to be temporary, pending an historic peace accord that would establish a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 war. But that kind of agreement appears further out of reach than at any point in the last three decades.

Israel is dominated by right-wing parties opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. Neither of the rival Palestinian governments in the West Bank or Gaza commands a national movement that could make major concessions, even if Israel were willing to do the same.

Many have concluded that a negotiated two-state solution—still widely seen internationally as the only way of resolving the conflict—will never happen.

Instead of focusing on maps and borders, they call for equal rights for Jews and Palestinians in one binational state, a confederation or some other arrangement.

Kontorovich, voicing a common Israeli criticism, accused Human Rights Watch of unfairly singling out Israel and trying to delegitimize it.

"Why say it's apartheid? Why not just say Israel has some discriminatory policies that we don't like?" he said. "Because for discriminatory policies, what do you do? You change the policies....What do you do with an apartheid regime? You have to replace it."

Human Rights Watch does not adopt a position on what a final agreement should look like but said any attempt to resolve the conflict must recognize the reality on the ground.

"The underlying issue is structural repression and discrimination," Shakir said. "You need to address rights abuse and then create a context in which there can be a political solution that all parties reach."