Human Rights Watch demands action against Israel, accusing it of 'apartheid' crimes

·4 min read

OTTAWA — An international human-rights organization is calling on the Trudeau government to take action against alleged "crimes against humanity" by the Israeli government, which it labels an "apartheid" state.

The demand from Human Rights Watch comes alongside a new report from the group that accuses Israeli authorities of methodically discriminating against Palestinians within both Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Based on interviews, field work and a review of government documents, the 218-page report concludes that Israeli laws and policies have subjugated Palestinians "by virtue of their identity," amounting in some cases to "persecution and apartheid" — both considered crimes against humanity under international law.

“We recognize that the word 'apartheid' stings. But at the same time, apartheid is the reality for many Palestinians," Farida Deif, head of the Canadian chapter of Human Rights Watch, said in an interview.

"It’s high time for the Trudeau government to acknowledge that Israeli authorities are committing crimes against humanity and leverage its close partnership with Israel to end these violations."

The Israeli government accused Human Rights Watch of harbouring an "anti-Israel agenda" and dubbed the New York-based organization an "unreliable propaganda pamphlet."

"Wanted: A Human Rights organization that cares more about helping the Palestinians living under Hamas oppression and less about demonizing Israel," the Israeli foreign ministry said in a Twitter post Tuesday.

The report argues that Israel's treatment of Palestinians aligns with United Nations and International Criminal Court definitions of apartheid as comprising an intent to maintain domination of one group over another and involving inhumane acts and systematic oppression to that end.

Human Rights Watch lays out its case by drawing on a range of statutes and de facto restrictions.

These include a 2018 law passed in the Knesset that declares the right to self-determination in Israel as "unique to the Jewish people." The report points to land confiscation in the West Bank and policies that bar free movement of Palestinians or their goods in the occupied territories.

It also refers to "draconian military law," an effective freeze on family reunification and the routine denial of building permits among measures that often have "no legitimate security justifications."

"No matter where you stand on history, the peace process or borders, we can all see and agree that inhumane treatment of Palestinians shouldn't continue unchecked by the international community, including Canada," Deif said.

She said Canada and other Israeli allies should add conditions to arms sales, deploy targeted sanctions against state officials and support prosecutions in the International Criminal Court.

The ICC's chief prosecutor launched an investigation last month into alleged crimes in the Palestinian territories, with a focus on Israeli military actions and settlement construction in lands captured in the Six-Day War in 1967.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the court "biased" and decried its move as "the essence of anti-Semitism and hypocrisy."

“While much of the world treats Israel’s half-century occupation as a temporary situation that a decades-long ‘peace process’ will soon cure, the oppression of Palestinians there has reached a threshold and a permanence that meets the definitions of the crimes of apartheid and persecution,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

"Those who strive for Israeli-Palestinian peace, whether a one or two-state solution or a confederation, should in the meantime recognize this reality for what it is and bring to bear the sorts of human-rights tools needed to end it.”

Two key Israeli policies of recent years have come under the microscope of the ICC and human-rights groups: its repeated military operations against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, highlighted by a devastating 2014 war, and its expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Experts say that Israel could be especially vulnerable to prosecution for its settlement policies.

Although the Palestinians do not have an independent state, they were granted non-member observer status in the UN General Assembly in 2012, allowing them to join international organizations like the ICC. Since joining the court in 2015, they have pushed for a war crimes probe against Israel.

Israel, which is not a member of the court — Canada is one of 123 member states — has said it does not have jurisdiction because Palestine is not a sovereign state.

Michael Lynk, an associate professor of law at the University of Western Ontario who is the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, said Canada should adopt a more critical stance toward Israel and fund Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups.

He is also calling for an import ban on goods produced in settlements.

"What's new is that a major human-rights group — one of the most influential in the world — has come to the conclusion that what Israeli practices amount to is apartheid," he said.

"I've always thought that apartheid is a harsh word. But then again, on the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Gaza, this is a very harsh reality."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2021.

— With files from The Associated Press

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press