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Palestinian protesters wave the national flag outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on April 26, 2021.

AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians amounts to “apartheid,” a leading international human-rights group has concluded in a new report, which also calls on foreign governments to impose sanctions and reconsider trade deals with the Jewish state.

In addition to alleging apartheid (which is considered a crime against humanity under international law), Human Rights Watch accuses Israel of the separate crime of persecution in the 233-page report – an advance copy of which was provided to The Globe and Mail.

The report follows a formal investigation opened last month by the International Criminal Court into alleged war crimes that occurred in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which have been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. Israel and its allies – including Canada – say the ICC has no authority to investigate, since those countries do not recognize Palestine as a state.

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The Israeli government dismissed the report as a “propaganda pamphlet” and said Human Rights Watch (HRW), a widely respected non-governmental organization headquartered in New York, had an “anti-Israel agenda.”

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In its recommendations, HRW called for Israel to dismantle “all forms of systematic domination and oppression.” The group said Canada and other foreign governments should re-evaluate their relationships with the country and impose sanctions on the officials responsible for the discriminatory policies.

“Successive Canadian governments have long viewed Israel’s 54-year abusive occupation as a temporary situation that a 30-year peace process will soon cure,” said Farida Deif, Canada director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s high time for the Trudeau government to acknowledge that Israeli authorities are committing crimes against humanity and leverage its close partnership with Israel to end these violations.”

Lior Haiat, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said the allegations against Israel were “preposterous and false.”

“Human Rights Watch is known to have a long-standing anti-Israeli agenda, actively seeking for years to promote boycotts against Israel,” Mr. Haiat told The Globe. He said the charge of apartheid had “no connection to facts or reality on the ground.”

The report says Israel – through its policies toward Palestinian Arabs living within its own borders, as well as toward those living in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem – “has sought to engineer and maximize the number of Jews, as well as the land available to them.” At the same time, Israel is accused of seeking to minimize the number of Palestinians and the amount of Palestinian-owned land.

The document states that – while there are 6.8 million Jewish Israelis and 6.8 million Palestinian Arabs living on the territory under Israel’s control – “Israeli authorities methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians.”

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Israeli policemen detain a Palestinian protester near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on April 25, 2021.

AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

The 2.7 million Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank have limited self-rule, but they live under what the report calls “draconian military law,” even as the 400,000 Jews living in illegally built settlements in the West Bank have the full rights of Israeli citizens, the report notes. And while it withdrew its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel, in co-operation with neighbouring Egypt, maintains strict control over Gaza’s borders and airspace, “sharply restricting the movement of people and goods” in the densely populated strip of land, which has 2.1 million Palestinian residents.

Meanwhile, the 1.6 million Arab citizens of Israel, as well as the 400,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem – which Israel has annexed but that most of the world sees as the potential capital of a future Palestinian state – have more rights but still face “institutional discrimination,” the HRW report says.

“The Israeli government has demonstrated an intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians across Israel and the [occupied Palestinian territories],” it reads. “That intent has been coupled with systematic oppression of Palestinians and inhumane acts committed against them. When these three elements occur together, they amount to the crime of apartheid.”

Omar Shakir, HRW’s director for Israel and Palestine and the lead author of the report, said in an interview that the aim was not to compare Israel to South Africa, or to label Israel an “apartheid state.” He said his organization set out only to examine whether the situation in Israel and the areas it occupies meets the ICC’s legal definition of apartheid – which is the “domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

The conclusions, Mr. Shakir said, were based on two years of dedicated research, including 40 interviews, as well as more than 30 years of reports by HRW and other organizations monitoring the situation. Mr. Shakir said that recent events – including the stalled peace process, Israel’s stated intention to annex the West Bank and the 2018 passage of a law defining Israel as a “Jewish nation-state” – had crossed a legal threshold by making clear the status quo was not temporary, and that Israel intends to maintain its control over the Palestinians indefinitely.

French political activist Olivia Zemor holds a placard picturing late South African president Nelson Mandela, which reads, 'Mandela called for a boycott of South Africa, Macron would have had him sentenced,' as she takes part in a demonstration in front of Lyon's courthouse before attending her trial against Israeli pharmaceutical company TEVA on March 16, 2021.

JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images

It’s the second time that HRW has declared an apartheid regime to exist beyond South Africa, which for more than four decades denied its Black population the rights it gave to white citizens. Last year, HRW made a similar finding that Myanmar was guilty of apartheid in its treatment of the country’s Rohingya Muslim population.

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Gerald Steinberg, the president of NGO Watch, a Jerusalem-based lobby group, said the report would feed rising anti-Semitism around the world by raising questions about Israel’s right to exist.

“One can criticize and disagree, but the harshness of this report – this campaign – is what stands out,” Mr. Steinberg said in an interview. “There is an occupation – you can talk about violations of human rights, but that doesn’t justify the term ‘apartheid.’ That’s demonization.”

Prior to the release of the HRW report, two Israeli human-rights groups – Yesh Din and Btselem – separately began in recent months to use the word “apartheid” to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

“We want people to wake up to the reality here,” said Hagai El-Ad, executive director of Btselem. “The Israeli government’s attitude is one in which they don’t address the facts; they only try to smear the messenger.”

Michael Lynk, an associate professor of law at the University of Western Ontario who is the United Nations special rapporteur on the human-rights situation in the Palestinian territories, said that while he personally hadn’t yet used the term “apartheid” in his own work, he found the report “pretty persuasive.”

Prof. Lynk said he also agreed with HRW’s call for Canada to re-evaluate its Middle East policy.

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“Canadian foreign policy towards Israel and Palestine is quite out of step with what international law says and what much of the international community says.”

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