Israel’s Apartheid Doesn’t Make a Difference

A new report about the Israel-Palestine conflict is morally damning—and politically irrelevant.

By , the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
A protester carries a sign in the West Bank.
A protester carries a sign during a demonstration by Palestinian, Israeli, and foreign protesters against the newly opened Route 4370, in the West Bank, on Jan. 23, 2019. ABBAS MOMANI/AFP via Getty Images

In April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report called “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” arguing that Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Israel have met the definitions of apartheid and persecution—and thus, of crimes against humanity.

The report is damning. But it seems unlikely to have much influence on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians or on the Western powers that express an interest in ending it.

The thoroughly researched and documented report does not make the claim that Israel is an “apartheid state.” Rather, Human Rights Watch evaluated Israeli conduct against international law, specifically the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (aka the Apartheid Convention) and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The organization found that based on both, Israel “[intends] to maintain a system of domination by one racial group over another; systematic oppression by one racial group over another; and one or more inhumane acts, as defined, carried out on a widespread or systematic basis pursuant to these policies.”

Let’s stipulate it is difficult for people who are not experts in international law to determine whether HRW applies the Apartheid Convention and Rome Statute to Israel properly. The report’s footnotes are thick with peer reviewed articles, international legal statutes, treaties, nongovernmental organization reports, and news reporting, which are all marshaled effectively to make the argument. Yet, as HRW admits, “no court has to date heard a case involving the crime of apartheid and therefore interpreted the meaning of the following terms as set out in the Apartheid Convention and Rome Statute definitions.” If this is an analytic problem, HRW seems untroubled by it.

At the same time, one need not be an expert in international law to understand Israel’s goals of ensuring it retains control over the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea at the expense of the non-Jewish population in the same area. One of the more powerful graphics in the 224 pages shows how a Jewish person born and raised in, for example, the United States who can trace their lineage to Europe and thus has little or, at best, a tenuous connection to Israel enjoys many more rights there than Palestinians, whose connections to the same land span generations. In addition, as the report notes, the idea that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is temporary is a fiction that only serves to reinforce the permanency of the Israeli presence in the Palestinian territories and its control over the Palestinian population.

This is not to say there aren’t problems with the report. Although it acknowledges Israel’s security concerns, it does so in a way that minimizes them. It is hard to disagree with the report’s assertion that security concerns do not justify apartheid and persecution; however, one is left to wonder whether there is any way Israelis could choose to protect themselves that would be acceptable to Human Rights Watch. In addition, the report makes the argument that Israeli concerns about demographics drive apartheid and persecution, citing various leaders expressing alarm about population growth among Palestinians, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Yet it curiously leaves out Olmert’s proposal for a conflict-ending deal in 2008 that the Palestinian leadership rejected. Finally, treating Israel’s control over its own territory the same as its control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip strengthens the apartheid and persecution case for HRW but, in an unintended way, supports the argument among Israel’s annexationists—who don’t particularly care about apartheid—that Israel’s uniformity of governance over Tel Aviv and Ariel is entirely legitimate. This is a victory for people who want to erase the Green Line, the 1949 armistice border.

Generally, HRW makes a strong case. Still, even if one takes the report at face value, the question remains: Now what? Palestinians and their supporters no doubt regard HRW’s report as vindication after years of activism working to shed light on Israel’s abuses. The report also seems to have generated hope that with the “threshold crossed,” change may well be in the offing; that once an organization with worldwide reach and respect like HRW uses “apartheid,” the world will respond accordingly and apply political, diplomatic, and economic pressure commensurate with the crimes against humanity the report outlines. That seems unlikely.

Over the years, supporters of Palestinians have compared Israel to South Africa—an analogy HRW does not use but others will continue to use, especially after publication of “A Threshold Crossed.” But it’s important to note how this analogy falters—namely, geopolitically. Israel is arguably more important than South Africa ever was, especially to the United States, which makes punishing the Israelis very difficult. It is true that efforts to hold Israel accountable for its policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have gained more traction among Democrats in the House of Representatives recently, but Israel remains broadly popular in the United States for historical and moral reasons, which means it is important for domestic politics. At the same time, for Washington, Israel is a valued security partner. For both these reasons, it is likely the Biden administration, which has evinced little appetite for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will take note of the report and not do much else. More broadly, Israel is integrated in the global economy in ways that make it hard to imagine governments or multinational corporations sustaining a boycott against it without harming themselves.

For Israel’s supporters, Human Rights Watch is beyond the pale. It has become just another in a constellation of anti-Zionist or antisemitic organizations intent on delegitimizing Israel, and thus, the whole enterprise should be ignored. Their concerns about HRW are not unfounded. For example, a fair-minded description of the Gaza Strip’s status as an open-air jail would note that its deprivation would not be so acute if not for its cross-border rocket fire into Israel. Yet there are limits to what criticism of the report can accomplish. The facts it compiles, detailing how Israel has leveraged geography, technology, its legal framework, and theology to establish control of Palestinians and dehumanize them, will not simply dissolve by highlighting the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, advising people to ignore the report, or attacking it on ideological grounds.

And thus, the practical effect of HRW’s report, for all the support and criticism it has accrued from both sides, is likely to be nil. The status quo on the ground will remain; the coarsening of politics and discourse on the conflict in world capitals, city councils, and college campuses will continue apace; and governments will continue to mouth support for a two-state solution—a foreign-policy unicorn. The researchers and writers at HRW likely know this and, as a result, have something else in mind. A longer game in which “A Threshold Crossed” and other reports that follow slowly but surely undermine long-held beliefs and fiercely defended truths until, at some undetermined point in the future, it becomes possible to imagine how international pressure can be brought to bear on Israel.

That is at least the way the long game is supposed to work. Except, by that time, Israel will have annexed all the areas of the West Bank it wants.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook