Israel is no longer a democracy but an "apartheid regime" devoted to cementing the supremacy of Jews over Palestinians, the country's best-known human rights group said in a report published Tuesday.
B'Tselem, which until now has confined its work to scrutiny of human rights issues in the Palestinian territories, has now also decided to look at what it calls Israel's "regime" between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.
"More than 14 million people, roughly half of them Jews and the other half Palestinians, live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea under a single rule," B'Tselem said in a new analysis titled: "A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid."
The human rights group says that the traditional view of Israel as a democracy operating side-by-side with a temporary Israeli occupation in the territories "imposed on some five million Palestinian subjects … has grown divorced from reality."
"Most importantly, the distinction obfuscates the fact that the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is organized under a single principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group — Jews — over another — Palestinians," B'Tselem said in its controversial analysis.
Years of injustice against Palestinians, culminating in laws that have entrenched discrimination, mean that "the bar for labeling the Israeli regime as apartheid has been met," B'Tselem said.
The allegation that Israel is an "apartheid state" has often been dismissed by rightwing Israelis and their support groups as anti-Semitic. But this argument will be harder to make now that Israel has been labelled this way by such a well-respected Israeli institution, albeit one that enjoys only minority support in its home country.
Israel's embassy in London dismissed the report as "not based on reality but on a distorted ideological view."
"The fact that B'Tselem chose not to present the report to the Israeli government for comment testifies to the fact that this is nothing more than a propaganda tool. Israel rejects the false claims in the so-called report … Israel is a strong and vibrant democracy that gives full rights to all of its citizens regardless of religion, race or gender. The Arab citizens of Israel are represented in all branches of government — in the Israeli parliament, in the courts (including the Supreme Court), in the public service, and even in the diplomatic corps where they represent the State of Israel around the world."
Over the last decade there have been increasing concerns among Israel's traditional allies, especially in Europe, that the relentless loss of Palestinian territory to Jewish settlements on the West Bank, which are illegal under international law, was not only undermining a long-term peace process but Israel's moral standing.
Those concerns were brought into sharp focus with the 2018 passing of the "Basic Law: Israel — the Nation State of the Jewish People" — which permanently enshrined Israel as a Jewish state into its constitution — and reinforced by promises from Israel's politicians, notably Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to unilaterally annex large areas of the West Bank.
Israel captured and occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. The Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the first of which was signed in 1993, were supposed to lead to a "two-state solution" establishing an independent Palestinian state living alongside Israel.
Twenty-eight years later there are no signs of that outcome.
B'Tselem argues that Israel has, rather, entrenched discrimination against non-Jews in the areas under its control.
These include fewer rights for Palestinians living in Israel with Israeli citizenship (17% of the population). The most obvious example, B'Tselem says, is the fact that non-Jews cannot emigrate to Israel. Palestinians marrying an Israeli need Israeli official permission to move to Israel.
On the West Bank, Jewish settlements are under continuous construction, while building permission for Palestinians in areas officially under Israeli security control is almost impossible to get and "illegal" structures are frequently bulldozed.
Freedom of assembly and expression are also severely curtailed for Palestinians on the West Bank, the human rights group argues, whereas it's largely unrestricted for Jews.
B'Tselem Executive Director Hagai El-Ad: "Israel is not a democracy that has a temporary occupation attached to it: it is one regime between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and we must look at the full picture and see it for what it is: apartheid. This sobering look at reality need not lead to despair, but quite the opposite. It is a call for change. After all, people created this regime, and people can change it."
Between 1948 and 1994 South Africa's apartheid system of racial segregation and "separate development" was designed to confine non-Whites to "self-governing Bantustans," stripping them of their citizenship and placing them under the administration of puppet regimes which resembled discontinuous ink blots on a map.
The Palestinian Authority, established under Oslo, administers the majority of Palestinians on the West Bank but they're largely confined to urban areas separated by territory under Israeli control and mostly prevented from travelling on roads predominantly set aside for Jewish settlers and other Israelis.
B'Tselem officials said that they want the international community to "take action" over Israel's policies towards Palestinians.
But they refused to be drawn on whether "action" included calls for international economic and cultural sanctions of the kind that were imposed on apartheid South Africa before it gained freedom with a series of steps that led to the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994.