In a position paper released January 12, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem broke with its own tradition and stated unambiguously that the area comprising Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip is an apartheid regime of Jewish supremacy.
The significance of this paper cannot be overstated. B’Tselem’s status as a leading human rights organization is unassailable (disclosure: I opened B’Tselem’s office in Washington in 2008 and worked for the organization for over two years). B’Tselem’s research is used by other human rights organizations and governments, including the United States, in developing reports on the human rights situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
B’Tselem has, since its inception in 1989, focused exclusively on the West Bank and Gaza, allowing other groups to address issues of discrimination within Israel’s internationally recognized borders, or to comment on Israel’s actions in other countries, such as Lebanon or Syria. One of the effects of that laser focus was to reinforce the view of a democratic Israel that was engaged in a military occupation, with attendant violations of international law and human rights norms.
This new paper marks a sharp break with that long-held stance. B’Tselem makes it clear, stating, “The Israeli regime, which controls all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, seeks to advance and cement Jewish supremacy throughout the entire area. To that end, it has divided the area into several units, each with a different set of rights for Palestinians—always inferior to the rights of Jews. As part of this policy, Palestinians are denied many rights, including the right to self-determination.”
As B’Tselem’s statement stresses, the definition of apartheid is not limited to the actions of the South African regime from which the term derives. According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, “The crime of apartheid means inhumane acts…committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”
Although it has been tendentiously argued by some defenders of Israel that neither Palestinians nor Israelis constitute a “racial group,” the United Nations has defined racial discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”
Within the narrow confines of the West Bank, conditions clearly fit the definition of apartheid under international law, and they have since Israel began transferring its citizens there, setting up two separate and unequal legal systems for Israelis and Palestinians. But B’Tselem goes further, and takes the view, long espoused by many Palestinian and pro-Palestinian activists, that functionally there are degrees of discrimination, but discrimination happens throughout the area under Israeli control.
B’Tselem makes a strong case, one that will be a difficult for the Biden administration to ignore. The organization’s reputation, and its identity as an Israeli rights group, will make it more difficult for American leaders to dismiss the group’s characterization.
Nonetheless, it is likely that Biden’s first inclination will be to ignore this change. There will certainly be attacks on both B’Tselem’s position and the organization itself, both within Israel and in the United States. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in the past publicly attacked B’Tselem, and his ambassador to the United Nations called B’Tselem’s Executive Director Hagai El Ad a “collaborator” in response to El Ad’s testimony before that body in 2018. Such attacks are sure to be harsher now, and they will likely be echoed by Israel’s supporters in the United States, supporters who are very much a bipartisan group.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris both have personal attachments to Israel, as they have often pointed out. But their support is based, at least in part, on the image of Israel as a liberal democracy, a country of laws, and one that they see as comparable to their view of the United States, a flawed but liberal country struggling toward a more inclusive, less racist society.
But many supporters of Palestinian rights see a very different Israel, especially today. Many of those who welcome B’Tselem’s new position are also saying, with some frustration, that they have been waiting for many years for such an obvious truth to be spoken by Israeli human rights activists. These groups include Palestinian human rights groups such as al-Haq, the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, Badil and others, as well as Israeli groups such as Adalah and Yesh Din.
B’Tselem explained why it decided to take this step now: “Recent years have seen a rise in the motivation and willingness of Israeli officials and institutions to enshrine Jewish supremacy in law and openly state their intentions. The enactment of Basic Law: Israel—the Nation State of the Jewish People and the declared plan to formally annex parts of the West Bank have shattered the façade Israel worked for years to maintain.”
That shattered facade is something Biden and Harris are going to have to come to terms with, regardless of the pressure they will feel to continue defending Israeli policies, both from Israel advocacy groups and from within their own hearts. Thanks to B’Tselem, they will have to reckon with the reality that the country they and many of their supporters have admired for a long time has been labeled an apartheid state by the human rights community of its own citizenry.
Biden could try to dismiss B’Tselem as a “fringe group” or as a bunch of radicals who aren’t representative of the Israeli people. Certainly, most of the Jewish population of Israel would not agree with B’Tselem’s characterization of their country. But he will have to explain why the US State Department relied for so many years on B’Tselem reports for its annual human rights evaluation of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He’ll have to explain why B’Tselem is seen the world over as a fair arbiter of human rights, and is respected by the United Nations and many other world bodies, and why it has long been seen as a credible source in the United States despite years of attacks by right-wing forces.
Advocates for Palestinian rights should keep this statement front and center in the eyes of Biden, Harris, and incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Republicans and many Democrats will try to dismiss B’Tselem’s position paper simply by saying that Israel is a democracy and cannot be called an apartheid state. But if US progressives defend the apartheid label placed on Israel by Israel’s own leading human rights organization, US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians can begin to move toward one based on equal rights for all the people in that conflicted area.
Biden need not support B’Tselem’s conclusion, but he will have to accept that the group has the facts on its side. Whether he faces Netanyahu or a new, likely even more nationalistic prime minister, he must use B’Tselem’s declaration to make Israel’s government recognize that the apartheid label is going to stick as long as Israel continues to control millions of Palestinians and deny them their basic civil and human rights. Biden must make it clear to Netanyahu that if it wants to assure continued American support, Israel must not merely protest the use of the term apartheid, but must change its policies so the term is no longer applicable.