JERUSALEM: Palestinian protesters wave the national flag outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City Monday. – AFP

JERUSALEM: Human Rights Watch said yesterday that Israel is committing the crime of “apartheid” by seeking to maintain Jewish “domination” over Palestinians and its own Arab population, an explosive allegation Israel firmly rejected. Currently under investigation by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes, Israel blasted HRW’s accusations as “preposterous and false”, accusing the New York-based group of having “a long-standing anti-Israeli agenda”.

Palestinian Authority prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh welcomed the “remarkable” HRW report and said he hoped it might lead the international community to “bear its responsibilities” and hold Israel “accountable for its crimes.” The 213-page report finds that the Israeli government is the “single authority” with primary control “over the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea”. That area includes the occupied West Bank, the blockaded Gaza Strip, annexed east Jerusalem as well as all the territory within Israel’s 1948 borders.

Within that territory, there is “an overarching Israeli government policy to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians,” HRW said. The rights group pointed to Israeli policies targeting Palestinians that include movement restrictions, land confiscation, forcible population transfer, denial of residency rights and suspension of civil rights.

Human Rights Watch said that while apartheid was initially coined with respect to institutional persecution of black people in South Africa, it is now a universally recognized legal term. An apartheid system is defined by “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them,” according to the Apartheid Convention. Omar Shakir, HRW’s Israel and Palestine director, told AFP there have been warnings for years that “apartheid is around the corner”.

“I think it’s quite clear that that threshold has been crossed,” Shakir said from Jordan. A US citizen, Shakir was the first foreign national deported by Israel for allegedly supporting an international boycott against Israel, an accusation he denied. Israel’s foreign ministry told AFP the HRW report amounted to a “propaganda pamphlet” from an organization that has been “actively seeking for years to promote boycotts against Israel”.

Israel maintains it is a democracy where the 20 percent Arab minority enjoys full rights, including voting, but Arab citizens complain of systemic discrimination. The HRW report argues that inequities faced by Arabs inside Israel reflect state policy that privileges Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinians in all areas under Israeli control.

Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza and annexed east Jerusalem following the 1967 Six Day War. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but severely restricts the flow of goods and people from the enclave. Israeli governments have said they could withdraw from parts of the West Bank depending on the terms of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

But nearly half a million Jewish Israelis live in settlements on West Bank land Palestinians hope will be part of their future state. Settlement expansion has accelerated over the past decade, while the peace process has stalled. HRW called on nations to stop viewing the occupation as temporary, and foster accountability by reconsidering their Israel ties, including military cooperation.

The group also called on the Palestinian Authority to cease some forms of security coordination with Israel to avoid “facilitating… apartheid”. The PA did not comment on the call to withdraw cooperation. The report comes as Israel faces an investigation by the International Criminal Court, primarily expected to focus on alleged war crimes committed during the 2014 war against Hamas Islamists in Gaza. Israel has said it will not cooperate with the investigation. Hamas-considered a terrorist group by most Western states-is also being probed by the ICC.

HRW said the ICC should conduct additional investigations into those “credibly implicated” in committing the crimes of “apartheid and persecution”. It called on nations to “impose individual sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on officials responsible for committing these crimes.” While HRW is the first major international organization to level the controversial apartheid charge against Israel, Palestinian rights groups have used the term for years. Earlier this year, Israeli civil society group B’Tselem made a similar accusation; the latter said yesterday it welcomed the HRW report, calling it “essential reading.” – AFP