A new report from Human Rights Watch, which labels Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians as apartheid, comes at a significant inflection point. As its title suggests, a threshold of permanency has been crossed in Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
For the Palestinians, that requires a change of strategy in the quest to secure their basic rights..
The A-word has long been a mainstay of Palestinian narratives. Over the past two decades, it became more commonly used by the Western and Israeli left. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter alluded in the title of his 2006 book to an Israeli choice between “peace” and “apartheid.” Several Israeli prime ministers, from David Ben-Gurion to Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, warned that if Israel didn’t end its occupation of Palestinian territories, it risked being transformed into an apartheid state.
But all these figures agreed that Israel wasn’t quite there yet. They saw occupation as a temporary situation, to be resolved by peace talks. Since it wasn’t meant to be permanent, they reckoned, it didn’t meet the standard for apartheid in international law.
Now that the Israeli government is formally committed to eventual annexation of much of the West Bank, leaving what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called a “state-minus” for Palestinians, it is hard to continue to view an occupation that began in 1967 as temporary. In recent years, Israel has been treating the West Bank as its own, except when it comes to the well-being of Palestinians — as we’ve seen with the COVID-19 vaccination drive.
This reality was also acknowledged in two devastating reports by the Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem and Yesh Din, which argued that Israel maintains an apartheid regime based on “Jewish supremacy,” not just in the occupied territories but also on its own soil.
The new HRW report relies on international legal definitions of apartheid — not analogies to pre-independence South Africa — and draws a direct connection between Israeli policies towards Palestinians in the West Bank and inside Israel.
But these organizations may have skipped a stage by describing the occupation as apartheid and, simultaneously, asserting that a single system of ethnic domination is in place. It’s easy to make the connection, but also to challenge it, since Palestinian citizens of Israel, also termed “Arab Israelis,” enjoy many civil and political rights those living under occupation don’t.
The reports are also informed by changing attitudes toward the two-state solution. That objective now appears chimerical, given Israel’s policies and the entrenchment of the occupation. The logical corrective to occupation is the creation of a Palestinian state, as implied by the 1993 Oslo agreements. But Israel has long since abandoned any such notion; under President Donald Trump, so did Washington.
The Biden administration may be trying to restore Washington’s rhetorical support for two states. But it is clearly not interested in a major effort to pursue the goal, which amounts to tacit acknowledgement that it is no longer achievable.
This means the Palestinian strategy has to evolve beyond a straightforward quest for a separate state. The reports by local and international human rights organizations show Israel’s position to be indefensible — and Washington’s, incoherent. By mainstreaming the A-word, they allow Palestinians to pose a different question: “If we can’t have a country, can’t we at least have normal lives?”
In the lexicon of the Middle East, “normalization” has traditionally implied diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab states: witness the flurry of “normalizations” last fall. But just as the states around them value normal relations, Palestinians aspire to live normal lives, with human rights and equality.
Until now they have pinned their hopes for normalcy on a separate state, but the ideal of a normal life can also be pursued in an integrated and equal state or in an equitable confederation. The modality is less important than the outcome.
A Palestinian demand for normalcy would rapidly secure broad global endorsement. It would also be a particularly effective counter to plans by the Israeli right to annex large chunks of the West Bank without providing Palestinians either independence or citizenship.
It might even get significant American support. For instance, the fledgling efforts in Congress to make aid for Israel conditional on better treatment of Palestinians would have a far better chance of success.
By showing that Palestinians live under apartheid conditions, the human rights reports bring new attention to their plight and give them an opportunity to recalibrate their collective strategy and vision. They should waste no time in seizing it.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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