Is Israel’s treatment of Palestinians a form of apartheid?

The era of apartheid in South Africa is one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.

The word itself has become shorthand for systems of oppressive rule around the world — and even before the current war in Gaza unleashed a massive wave of demonstrations, it was an increasingly popular refrain of pro-Palestinian activists.

But does the term apartheid accurately describe how Israel has treated Palestinians?

Here’s a look at the issue, a long-running debate among human rights experts.

What is the origin of the word apartheid?

In 1948, the newly empowered National Party in South Africa instituted a racial hierarchy to ensure dominance of the white descendants of Dutch colonizers. The party named the system apartheid, which in the Afrikaans language means “the state of being separate.”

A litany of laws and regulations enforced rigid divisions among whites, Blacks, Indians and mixed-race “coloreds,” dictating where people could live, work, go to school and even whether they could interact.

At the bottom of the hierarchy was the Black majority, which was relegated to geographically small “townships” away from city centers. Black South Africans were banned from owning property, voting and attending certain schools.

The government did not hesitate to use force to brutally and sometimes lethally repress opposition to the system, which became entrenched as much of the rest of the world was moving away from formal segregation laws and colonialism.

How did the term come to be used outside South Africa?

In 1973, the United Nations established the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.

In doing so, the U.N. broadened the definition of apartheid. No longer just an oppressive system in a single country, it now referred to “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

Separately, another U.N. convention, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, was used to broaden the word “race,” as contained in the original definition of apartheid, to include ethnicity, descent and national origin.

In 1993, the International Criminal Court reaffirmed apartheid as a crime against humanity and established the possibility of individuals being held responsible.

The United States was among a handful of countries that did not ratify the 1973 convention or other efforts to crack down on apartheid. U.S. officials argued the definitions were weak, and the U.S. has been generally reluctant to join international justice missions for fear its own people would be prosecuted.

How did apartheid come to be associated with Israel?

Israel sided with the United States in not ratifying the convention, in part because it began facing accusations that it was becoming an apartheid state.

Most of the criticism came from Palestinians and others in the Arab world, but some originated from Israel’s own leaders. In 1976, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said the then-nascent right-wing movement that pushed Jewish settlers into what was supposed to be Palestinian land was a “cancer” and an “acute danger” to Israel’s democracy.

He warned that it would lead to apartheid, a specter raised in later years by his successors Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert.

In the last several years, as the Israeli government has moved further to the right, the apartheid label has gained currency among activists, including progressive Jews.

“There can be no democracy with occupation,” Sharon Brous, a prominent Los Angeles rabbi, said in her Yom Kippur sermon last September, addressing the question of whether Israel could fairly be called “an apartheid state.”

If the right-wing Israeli government succeeds in its attempts to strip the judiciary of its power, she said, “it will become increasingly difficult if not impossible to defend Israel from that characterization.”

So is Israel an apartheid state?

After more than two years of research and arduous debate on the question, experts at Human Rights Watch released a 200-plus-page report with an answer to that question.

Citing Israeli officials who stated that they were determined to maintain Jewish Israeli control “over demographics, political power and land,” the organization found that “authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity.”

It concluded that in Gaza and the West Bank — which together are home to 5 million Palestinians — “these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

It did not include Israel proper, where 2 million or so Palestinians are Israeli citizens and make up about a quarter of the country’s population.

Why do rights groups make a distinction for Palestinian citizens of Israel?

In Israel proper, Palestinians are a vast underclass, with higher rates of unemployment and a lower overall standard of living than Jewish Israelis. But they have served in the Israeli parliament and on the Supreme Court and officially have the same legal rights as any citizen.

That is a crucial difference from apartheid, which refers to a codified system of subjugation that goes far beyond other forms of discrimination.

How does that compare to the West Bank?

The situation is much different in the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. Troops are deployed throughout the territory, where Palestinian officials have only nominal authority.

The hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers who have constructed and occupied villages — in violation of international law — receive protection from the army, move about freely and are subject to an Israeli civilian legal system.

Palestinians, on the other hand, face restrictions on where they can go, lose their land to settlers and routinely fight what they describe as onerous bureaucracy to secure the building permits granted easily to settlers. There are even separate roads for Israelis traveling through the West Bank.

Moreover, a Jewish settler who breaks the law goes to a civilian court and often receives minimal punishment while a Palestinian is sent to a military court often without due process, international and Israeli human rights groups say.

Supporters of Israel resist the apartheid label, arguing that the system is necessary for security reasons.

“The South African system of apartheid was driven by unambiguous racism where people were separated in every aspect of their daily lives on the basis of their skin color,” said Jonathan Harounoff, communications director for the Jewish Institute for National Security in America, a Washington advocacy group.

“In the West Bank, on the other hand, any restrictive policies there in place toward Palestinians are not race- or religion-based. They are purely driven by security concerns as a result of past acts of terrorism that led to loss of Israeli life.”

What about Gaza?

Defenders of Israel say the case against using the apartheid label is even easier to make in the Gaza Strip, because Israel pulled out of the coastal enclave in 2005.

There were too few Jewish settlers in Gaza to justify Israeli occupation, officials said at the time. The withdrawal, which soon left Gaza under the control of the militant group Hamas, freed up more Israel forces to patrol the West Bank.

Rather than occupy Gaza, Israel imposed a blockade on it. With help from Egypt — which usually blocks its sole border crossing with the enclave — Israel uses its military to control land, air and sea access.

But Human Rights Watch and others argue that the blockade itself is a form of apartheid, because it maintains the domination of one ethnic group over another.

What does all of this have to do with the war?

For some pro-Palestinian activists, the word provides context — if not justification — for the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that started the war and killed about 1,200 Israelis. After all, Black South Africans and their supporters used violence on occasion to fight for their freedom.

Israel, however, maintains that the Hamas violence was so extreme, including the rape or sexual abuse of a number of women, along with its taking of more than 200 hostages, that it does nothing to further the cause of Palestinian statehood.

With no clear end in sight, the war is one of the deadliest chapters in a conflict that began eight decades ago. Israel has vowed to continue its retaliatory invasion of Gaza until it destroys Hamas — a campaign that Gaza health authorities say has killed more than 23,000 Palestinians.

When the fighting eventually subsides, the United States wants Palestinians to take the lead in postwar Gaza administration, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel will continue its renewed occupation of the impoverished territory for the foreseeable future.

That would be likely to strengthen the argument of those who accuse Israel of being an apartheid state.

What are the long-term prospects for an end to the debate over apartheid?

Kenneth Roth, who was executive director of Human Rights Watch from 1993 to 2022 and oversaw production of the report on apartheid, said that Israeli authorities have long insisted that ending discriminatory policies depended on peace negotiations.

But three decades on, with no real peace process in motion, that explanation “lacked credibility,” Roth said.

Israel has continued to support Jewish settlements in the West Bank, constructing “bypass roads” accessible only to the settlers and expanding military checkpoints — moves that Roth and others say all but eliminated the possibility that the West Bank could someday become an independent, contiguous Palestinian state.

“What’s left is Swiss cheese,” he said.

Experts said Israel will be left with only two ways to shed the apartheid label: allowing the creation of a Palestinian state or granting equal rights to all Palestinians under its control.

Originally published in the LA Times.