Amnesty International on Tuesday labeled Israel an “apartheid” state that treats Palestinians as “an inferior racial group,” joining the assessment of other rights groups which the Jewish state vehemently rejects.
“Israel’s cruel policies of segregation, dispossession and exclusion across all territories under its control clearly amount to apartheid,” said Amnesty’s secretary general Agnes Callamard.
“Whether they live in Gaza, east Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, or Israel itself, Palestinians are treated as an inferior racial group and systematically deprived of their rights.”
Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid strongly rejected the claims as “divorced from reality” and charged that “Amnesty quotes lies spread by terrorist organizations”.
A year ago, Israeli-based rights group B’Tselem drew fire when it asserted that Israeli policies had been designed to enforce “Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea” and met the definition of “apartheid”.
New York-based Human Rights Watch in April last year became the first major international rights group to publicly level the allegation.
Tuesday’s report by London-based Amnesty builds on those previous calls in asserting that Israeli-enforced apartheid exists in occupied Palestinians territories and within Israel itself, where Arab citizens make up more than 20 percent of the population.
Amnesty stressed it was not comparing the situation to apartheid-era South Africa but said Israeli conduct met the criteria for the crime of apartheid under international law.
Israel’s foreign ministry has called on Amnesty to “withdraw” the report.
‘Open to scrutiny’
“Israel is not perfect, but it is a democracy committed to international law and open to scrutiny,” said Lapid, who is also Israel’s alternate prime minister.
He also charged that Amnesty had an anti-Semitic agenda.
“I hate to use the argument that if Israel were not a Jewish state, nobody in Amnesty would dare argue against it, but in this case, there is no other possibility,” he said.
The government of Israel’s close ally the United States rejected the apartheid label.
“We reject the view that Israel’s actions constitute apartheid,” said State Department Spokesperson Ned Price.
But he added that the United States takes “all allegations of human rights abuses seriously”.
“We support the efforts of the Israeli government, of the Palestinian Authority, alongside human rights activists, to ensure accountability for human rights violations and abuses.”
The president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, said Amnesty’s report “does absolutely nothing to offer a constructive way forward and has no real interest in promoting the human rights of Palestinians”.
“It will only serve, like previous similar prejudiced reports, to fuel the fires of anti-Semites under the guise of political correctness.”
Amnesty’s Callamard countered that “a critique of the practice of the State of Israel is absolutely not a form of anti-Semitism.
“Amnesty International stands very strongly against anti-Semitism, against any form of racism,” she said.
Briefing reporters on Tuesday, Callamard also dismissed charges that Amnesty “was singling out” Israel, highlighting the group’s work on Israel’s arch foe Iran and on China, among other places.
Fatigue ‘not an option’
Israel has controlled the West Bank and east Jerusalem since 1967. Some 700,000 Jews now live alongside Palestinians in both areas, in settlements regarded as illegal under international law.
The Palestinian Authority, which has civilian control over parts of the West Bank, praised Amnesty for its “courageous and fair” work on behalf of the Palestinian people.
Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007 and is considered a terrorist organization by much of the West, also welcomed the report and applauded Amnesty’s “professionalism”.
Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but has maintained a blockade of the coastal territory since the Hamas takeover.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has opened an investigation into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, expected to focus in part on possible war crimes committed during the 2014 conflict in Gaza.
Amnesty called on the ICC “to consider the crime of apartheid in its current investigation”.
It also urged the United Nations Security Council to “impose targeted sanctions” against certain Israeli officials.
Callamard also told AFP that international “fatigue” to address the plight of Palestinians was “not an option”.