Israeli authorities have been accused of persecuting Palestinians with oppressive policies that amount to apartheid, in a major new report that is already stirring up international controversy.
The Human Rights Watch report, released on Tuesday, says Israeli authorities “methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians” in most aspects of life.
They have “dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity,” the report says.
“In certain areas … these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”
Other human rights groups - including Jerusalem-based B'Tselem - have accused Israel of apartheid in the past. Israel has rejected such accusations as "propaganda".
Israeli politicians and other pro-Israel organisations have been quick to rubbish the Human Rights Watch report this time around - and strenuously dispute its findings.
"The distorted reality presented by Human Rights Watch is part of its ongoing political and obsessive campaign against Israel in recent years," Strategic Affairs Minister Michael Biton told the Jewish News Syndicate ahead of the report's release.
‘Deprived of their basic rights’
The HRW said the elements of two crimes against humanity came together in Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
“Prominent voices have warned for years that apartheid lurks just around the corner if the trajectory of Israel’s rule over Palestinians does not change,” HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said in a statement.
“This detailed study shows that Israeli authorities have already turned that corner and today are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”
Israeli authorities had “deprived millions of people of their basic rights” by virtue of them being Palestinian, the report said, using policies and practices that “box in, dispossess, forcibly separate, marginalise and otherwise inflict suffering”.
In the Palestinian Territories, Palestinians were “severely” deprived of fundamental human rights, including rights to residency and private property, and access to land, services and resources, on a "widespread and systematic" basis.
The report said their rights were also violated inside Israel, though the level of repression was not as severe.
Further, the report said citizens and residents were effectively barred from obtaining long-term legal status to live permanently in Israel with spouses from the West Bank and Gaza.
“These abuses continue and there is no indication that authorities have investigated, much less held accountable, anyone involved in their commission," it said.
‘Treat this report with contempt'
HRW in a statement said it wrote to the Israeli government for its perspective in July 2020, but received no response.
Jamie Hyams from the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council was scathing in his assessment of the report, saying Human Rights Watch had cherry-picked evidence to support a pre-formed conclusion.
"This is a textbook example of an organisation coming to a conclusion and then writing a report to support that conclusion," he told SBS News.
"It says a lot more about Human Rights Watch than it does about Israel."
Mr Hyams said every Israeli citizen was treated equally, "regardless of ethnicity or religion".
"Palestinians in the West Bank are separated purely for security reasons... despite the fact they've been offered a state of their own many times," he said.
He said the report appeared to be a calculated attempt by Human Rights Watch to undermine Israel's reputation.
"There's no doubt this report will do some damage to Israel, and that's certainly the intention," he said.
"My hope is that the Australian government will treat this report with the contempt it deserves and pretty much ignore it."
International community 'has turned a blind eye'
HRW in its report made recommendations to several entities including Israel, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the United Nations, US President Joe Biden and the European Union.
It called for Israel to dismantle all forms of “systemic oppression and discrimination” that privilege Jewish Israelis, and “end the persecution” of Palestinians by scrapping a number of policies and practices.
It recommended the International Criminal Court Office of the Prosecutor investigate and prosecute individuals credibly implicated in apartheid or persecution.
Further, the HRW said an international commission of inquiry should be established through the United Nations to investigate systemic discrimination and repression in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
It called for all states to impose targeted sanctions against officials and entities responsible for the commission of serious international crimes, and to condition arms sales and military assistance to Israel on authorities taking concrete steps towards “ending their commission of the crimes of apartheid and persecution”.
“The international community has for too long explained away and turned a blind eye to the increasingly transparent reality on the ground,” the report said.
“Every day a person is born in Gaza into an open-air prison, in the West Bank without civil rights, in Israel with an inferior status by law, and in neighbouring countries effectively condemned to lifelong refugee status.
“A future rooted in the freedom, equality, and dignity of all people living in Israel and the [Palestinian Territories] will remain elusive so long as Israel’s abusive practices against Palestinians persist.”