A view of Shuafat refugee camp is seen behind section of Israel's separation barrier in Jerusalem, June 19, 2020.

Why a leading Israeli rights group is calling Israel an 'apartheid' state

Hagai El-Ad, executive director of B'Tselem, joined The World's host Carol Hills to discuss the significance of the term "apartheid."

The World

A view of Shuafat refugee camp is seen behind section of Israel's separation barrier in Jerusalem, June 19, 2020. 

Oded Balilty/AP

A leading Israeli human rights group has begun describing both Israel and its control of the Palestinian territories as a single "apartheid" regime — an explosive word choice that the country's leaders and their supporters vehemently reject.

In a recent report, B’Tselem, one of Israel’s leading human rights organizations, says that while Palestinians live under different forms of Israeli control in the occupied West Bank, blockaded Gaza, annexed east Jerusalem and within Israel itself, they have fewer rights than Jews in the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

“We have decided to use this word because it is the correct term to describe the reality between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and the entire area that is under Israel's control,” said Hagai El-Ad, executive director of B'Tselem.

“There are no two regimes between the river and the sea. The perception that Israel is somehow a democracy on one side of the green line to which a temporary occupation project is attached on the other side of the Green Line, that perception has become completely untethered from reality,” El-Ad added.

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Israel's harshest critics have used the term apartheid for decades, evoking the system of white rule and racial segregation in South Africa that was brought to an end in 1994. The International Criminal Court defines apartheid as an “institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group.”

But until now B’Tselem, which was established in 1989, had only used it in specific contexts.

Israel adamantly rejects the term, saying the restrictions it imposes in Gaza and the West Bank are temporary measures needed for security. Most Palestinians in the West Bank live in areas governed by the Palestinian Authority, but those areas are surrounded by Israeli checkpoints and Israeli soldiers can enter at any time. Israel has full control over 60% of the West Bank.

Itay Milner, a spokesman for Israel’s Consulate General in New York, dismissed the B’Tselem report as “another tool for them to promote their political agenda,” which he said was based on a “distorted ideological view.” He pointed out that Arab citizens of Israel are represented across the government, including the diplomatic corps.

El-Ad joined The World's host Carol Hills to discuss the significance of the label.

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Carol Hills: You've been working on human rights issues in Israel for many years. What brought you to this point where you're using the word apartheid to describe the Israeli government?

Hagai El-Ad: We have decided to use this word because it is the correct term to describe the reality between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and the entire area that is under Israel's control. And within this statement, there are two major points that will be understood. One, there are no two regimes between the river and the sea. The perception that Israel is somehow a democracy on one side of the Green Line to which a temporary occupation project is attached on the other side of the Green Line, that perception has become completely untethered from reality.

And when you say from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, you're referring, of course, to the occupied territories, the West Bank, across the state of Israel, Gaza Strip to the Mediterranean.

And Israel proper, inside the Green Line — in fact, which together make up four different subunits. In each and every one of them, there's a different subset of less rights that Palestinians get from Israel. It's different if you're a citizen inside the Green Line or if you're a permanent resident in the only part of the West Bank that has been formally annexed, east Jerusalem, or if you live in the rest of the West Bank or if you live in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled from the outside by Israel. So if you're a Palestinian in each and every one of these subunits, you have a different situation. While, for Jewish Israelis, it doesn't matter if you live on one side of the Green Line or another, you will receive the full set of rights and protections from the state.

Apartheid is a very specific word associated with South Africa, of course. What does it mean in the Israeli-Palestinian context?

So apartheid is both the historical memory, the historical reference point of the situation in South Africa. But apartheid is also its own independent political analysis of the qualities of a regime. If a regime works to promote and cement the supremacy of one group of people over another, it is apartheid. And that's the second phase of the B'Tselem analysis — not only that there is one regime, but also to look closely and with great nuance, detail and factual accuracy at Israel's policies vis-a-vis Jews on the one hand and vis-a-vis Palestinians on the other hand, and to identify them for what they are.

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A lot of Israelis have heard this accusation before that there's an apartheid regime at work in Israel regarding the Palestinians. And I imagine they roll their eyes when people on the Israeli left, in particular, use the word apartheid. And some of them will say that by naming and calling Israel an apartheid state, you're actually encouraging Israel's worst enemies and maybe even anti-Semitism. What do you say to that?

First, this is not an accusation. This is a description of reality. I appreciate it is unpleasant. But if we do not call things by their proper name, it's so much harder to address the underlying injustice that needs to be addressed. The Israeli government's accusations of equating accurate criticism of its policies with anti-Semitism has everything to do with trying to silence the criticism so that it will be possible to continue with this reality with impunity, which is the way things have been going so far.

What have you heard from Palestinians since you put out this report?

There has been a lot of interest in this position, and I also feel a lot of enthusiasm. I think that at the same time, it comes with a genuine sense of bitterness, which I can identify with, because as I said earlier, this is the first time for us to be saying this. This is absolutely not the first time that Palestinians have been saying this. And even though that has been the situation for quite some time, it hasn't been accepted and it hasn't been addressed the way it should have been addressed.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.