OPINION | HRW's condemnation of Israel: Apartheid appropriation, racism in name of 'human rights'?

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Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel premier van Israel, during a weekly cabinet meeting. Photo: Reuters
Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel premier van Israel, during a weekly cabinet meeting. Photo: Reuters

Dan Diker and Olga Meshoe Washington argue that Human Rights Watch's report 'A threshold crossed' where it designates Israel's policies as apartheid, contains several conceptual black holes.


The 27 April 2021 Human Rights Watch Report, "A Threshold Crossed", accusing Israel of "apartheid", may rank as one of the most cynical and politically motivated weaponisations of human rights in recent memory.

Its misapplication of apartheid is stunning.

In an act of Orwellian doublespeak, it recasts a decade's old war by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Hamas against the existence of sovereign Jews anywhere in the Middle East into an accusation of Israeli racial supremacy and persecution of Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The falsehoods, negligence, intellectual dishonesty, misleading assumptions, and missing historical, legal and social contexts require a thesis chapter to address properly.   

In this brief riposte, we shall focus on several of the conceptual black holes that engulf this regretful, disabled account.

Among its fundamental errors, the HRW report erroneously designates legally contested areas between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as "OPT" - Occupied Palestinian Territories, assigns the Palestinian Authority statehood status it lacks, ignores all PLO and Hamas acts of Jihad and deadly terror attacks against Jews, Arabs, and others, and ignores the Palestinian refusal of Israel's six consecutive offers for Palestinian statehood, peace and normalisation since 2000.   

Misappropriation of apartheid term

The report's underlying erroneous and refutable legal and historical assumptions demand immediate redress. The recently published Kohelet Policy Forum's International legal refutation, "HRW Crosses the Threshold into Falsehoods and Anti-Semitic Propaganda", provides factual and legal correction. HRW stunningly conflates Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza - more than 95% of whom live under Palestinian government control with some 2 000 000 Israeli Arab citizens of Israel living with equal democratic rights alongside fellow Jewish and Druze, and Circassian citizens.   

Equally problematic, HRW's misappropriation of the historically specific term of apartheid has desecrated the memory and trivialised the genuine historical suffering of millions of South Africans under the former apartheid regime. In short, HRW's singling out of the world's only democratic state with a Jewish majority character-known as the "Holy Land" to hundreds of millions of people of faith across the globe for apartheid "crucifixion" points to a racist indictment of all Israelis- sovereign Jews and other Christian, Druze, and Israeli Arabs.    

The HRW report attempts to legitimise the application of apartheid by claiming, "The international community has over the years detached the term apartheid from its original South African context".

READ | Opinion: Designating Israeli policies as apartheid: It wasnt a conclusion we reached lightly

To be sure, the accusation of apartheid is by definition a historically and racially specific phenomenon that cannot facilely be reapplied. It is defined as, "Inhumane acts committed in the context of an institutionalised 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".

The apartheid regime was regulated and institutionalised by a system of over 150 codified laws that separated whites from blacks in all aspects of political, economic and social life.

The black majority of South Africa were dispossessed of their land, homes, and livelihoods; they were only allowed to use transportation, health and education systems that were of an inferior quality than those available to the white minority. By law, black citizens were denied the right to vote and could not move freely within their own country. A simple examination of life and politics in Israel, a democratic, brown majority country, will reveal that no such segregation exists in Israel.  

Apartheid and Nazism's atrocities stand as two of the most heinous crimes against humanity in the modern era. Apartheid ranks second only to the Nazi regime's massacre of millions of European Jews and other minorities in the middle of the last century. 

Broader context 

And despite the HRW's insistence that apartheid's application has broader context, the term has never been applied by HRW or other groups - ever - to any other country other than Israel - even to the world's leading human rights violators and persecutors of its minorities. For example, China, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Syria, the former Iraqi regime, and Myanmar have collectively persecuted and murdered millions of their minority citizens while escaping the HRW's charge of apartheid.

HRW even avoided labelling as "apartheid" 10 countries today trafficking and maintaining slavery led by the Iranian regime, Afghanistan, North Korea, Central African Republic, and Pakistan. Even widespread accusations of "systemic racism" in the United States, Great Britain and other European countries have failed to earn HRW's apartheid "brand of distinction". In what can only be characterised as anti-Semitic, HRW has reserved this exceptional international crime against humanity only for Israel. 

Uniquely, apartheid leaves no room for reform. In the former apartheid regime, this meant its dismantlement and replacement with an entirely new governmental structure and legal system.

READ | Human Rights Watch accuses Israel of apartheid crimes against Palestinians

In Israel's case, HRW's indictment is a clarion call for Israel's dissolution as a nation-state as the only possible "solution".

Readers may not be surprised to learn that HRW's report was directed by Omar Shakir, a US-based Palestinian political activist who was deported from Israel in 2019 by Israel's Supreme Court for alleged BDS support.   

Paradoxically, HRW's selective and prejudicial use of apartheid against Israel redefines it as a political organisation that fits neatly in the ideological and strategic orbit of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and its arch nemesis, the Jihadi Hamas organisation, a daughter movement of the International Muslim Brotherhood. 

For its part, PLO groups have trafficked in Israeli apartheid rhetoric since the 1960s.  

South Africans may remember former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and his nephew Nasser Al Qidwa former PA UN Ambassador, advancing the Israel-apartheid libel at the 2001 anti-racism conference in Durban. 

Even more far-reaching, PLO founder Ahmed Shukeiri exploited the Israeli apartheid libel well before Israel was forced to enter the West Bank and Gaza in the defensive 1967 war. Readers will remember that before 1967, Jordan had illegally occupied and annexed the West Bank while Egypt had dominated Gaza. Simultaneously, Shukeiri's successor, Yasser Arafat had internationalised Israel-Apartheid as Soviet inspired political warfare propaganda as part of his infamous 1974 political performance at the United Nations General Assembly which he delivered in military garb with his pistol tucked into his holster. This is the historical political warfare context that the HRW Report ignores.  

Shared values 

In contradistinction to HRW's prosecution, it should be noted that South Africa and Israel share values and vision that anchor both South Africa's post-1994 Constitution and Israel's Declaration of Independence together with its "basic laws". Israel and South Africa are rainbow nations with brown and black majorities, respectively.

Israel is a nation of some nine million citizens - two million Arab citizens, and seven million Jews. The majority of Israeli Jews originate from Arab Lands and North Africa. Israel's declaration of independence of 1948, signed three years after six million European Jews were incinerated by the Nazi regime, guarantees, "freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the holy places of all religions". 

Similarly, the South African Constitution declares that the new republic will, "heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights; lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law". 

The historic Abraham Accord's peace and normalisation agreements between four Arab states with Saudi sanction and Israel and the recent electoral victory of the United Arab List party in Israel and its readiness to join a Jewish Zionist government undermine HRW's delegitimisation of Israel. The Patriarch Abraham's 5 000 year old legacy as spiritual "father" of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, has ushered in a new era of peace and normalised neighbourly relations between millions of Arabs and Jews across the Middle East. The same Abraham "effect" has also influenced Israeli Arabs, who polls show have more commonly identified as "Israelis" or "Israeli Arabs" in 2020.  

Shift in Israeli Arab society

Regretfully, HRW's researchers missed or ignored the dramatic shift in Israeli Arab society as analysed by Khaled Abu Toameh and Dan Diker.  The electoral victory of the Israeli Arab Ra'am party, a conservative Islamist faction, reflects a new Arab integration, cooperation and normalisation within Israeli society. Recent polls indicate that most Jewish Israelis share Arab readiness for outreach and cooperation. This reality on the ground uproots the HRW working assumption, narrative and conclusions.  

Both HRW Director Ken Roth and analyst/activist Omar Shakir know well that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East with independent courts, a free and unhindered media, and the freest, most protective environment for minorities, including the LGTBQ community which Roth and Shakir should deeply appreciate.

This collision between the HRW report and the mountain of evidence refuting it raises the uncomfortable conclusion that the HRW's prejudicial approach to Israel is itself awash in racism.

This, in turn, points to more troubling implications over HRW's credibility as a professional human rights organisation that has failed in its character assassination of the world's only democratic, Jewish majority state to apply the same objective metrics it claims to do in assessing the topic of human rights among the international community of nations.  

- Olga Meshoe Washington is a South African Attorney, Executive Director of Daisy International, and member of the board of directors of "IBSI", The Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel. 

- Dan Diker is a Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and heads its programme on Counter Political Warfare. He is a former Secretary-General of the World Jewish Congress.  


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