America’s Middle East Embarrassment: Underwriting Apartheid in the Palestinian Territories

The Mideast is aflame as usual. Even Israel is suffering through a seemingly unending election crisis, with a continuing electoral majority for the right but against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a normal world Washington wouldn’t worry about the result, but the U.S. government has offered a near-blank check for the Israeli state for years, driven by religion rather than security – though, oddly, evangelical Christianity much more than any form of Judaism. The ascendancy of an Israeli government comfortable with a permanent subject Palestinian population, ala Sparta’s infamous Helots, creates a dangerous source of instability for and hostility to America.

The ongoing attempt to form a government illustrates how even Arab citizens are second class, kept at the margins of Israeli society. Palestinians are treated much worse.

The Israeli government has long targeted East Jerusalem to drive Arabs out of the holy site. The city is currently roiled by Palestinians protests of the seizure of homes by Israeli settlers. The controversy is being fought in the courts, but the backdrop is a legal, political, social, and military order systematically biased against Palestinians.

In the Palestinian territories, both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Arabs are explicitly treated as second-class human beings. The Israel Defense Forces control the West Bank, parts of which are administered rather than governed by the Palestinian Authority, which has not held an election for 15 years. The PA focuses on enriching its leaders while keeping order for Israel. The Palestinian people suffer. Worse is Gaza, essentially an open air prison ruled by extremist Hamas, isolated from the world and a humanitarian tragedy intensified by Israeli policy.

Americans know little of Israel’s dark side. Christian pilgrims regularly travel to Israel, straying into the West Bank only to visit storied tourist spots, such as Bethlehem. Little seems amiss during such brief forays, but those who take longer and more extensive trips see the hardship of living under occupation as the Israeli government engages in a process of coercive colonization with heavily subsidized settlers. They constitute one of Netanyahu’s strongest political constituencies. The Trump administration’s misnamed "Deal of the Century" was written to enhance his reelection prospects by unashamedly locking Palestinians into unsustainable Bantustan-style enclaves with little hope for the future.

No doubt, Palestinians have suffered under poor leadership. Hatred and violence corroded Palestinian institutions and malformed Palestinian society. Terrorism unleashed horror on Israel and the world beyond, destroyed innocent lives, triggered retaliation against Palestinians, and undermined their pleas for justice. Yet such terrible violence should not surprise after more than six decades of occupation and second-class existence. Especially since, as many have noted, the Israeli occupation operates like apartheid, though with Israeli characteristics.

The policy pervades the Israeli policy and politics. Argued Mouin Rabbani, co-editor of the Arab Studies Institute’s Jadaliyya: "Apartheid is not a murder committed by a soldier who can theoretically be placed on trial, or a war crime commissioned by a commanding officer or government minister who can theoretically be held to account. It is, rather, the intentional, consciously designed character of a state, and as such implicates not only the state itself but every participating leader, official, and bureaucrat."

Former President Jimmy Carter made the point in 2006, and he was not the first. Many analysts share his opinion. In February the Washington Post polled Mideast scholars. The result: "Perhaps the starkest finding of the survey is the collective assessment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A strong majority, 59 percent, describes the current reality for Israel and the Palestinians as ‘a one-state reality akin to apartheid’."

Now Human Rights Watch has added its considerable authority to the controversy, affirming the accuracy of the charge in its new report, "A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution." However, the evidence long has been there for those with open eyes.

For instance, H.A. Hellyer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently observed: "Some may think Human Rights Watch is going too far, but actually it is behind the curve. Late last year, I convened a panel with veterans of the South African anti-apartheid struggle who certainly know what apartheid looks like, including the former South African ambassador to the United States. They were in no doubt that what is happening in the occupied territories at Israel’s hands is indeed apartheid. Other human rights organizations, including Israeli ones such as B’tselem, have also reached the same conclusion."

Earlier this year the latter group detailed how "Israel accords Palestinians a different package of rights in [Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza] – all of which are inferior compared to the rights afforded to Jewish citizens. The goal of Jewish supremacy is advanced differently in every unit, and the resulting forms of injustice differ: the lived experience of Palestinians in blockaded Gaza is unlike that of Palestinian subjects in the West Bank, permanent residents in East Jerusalem or Palestinian citizens within sovereign Israeli territory. Yet these are variations on the fact that all Palestinians living under Israeli rule are treated as inferior in rights and status to Jews who live in the very same area."

The 213-page HRW analysis is even more detailed. Roughly 6.8 million Palestinians and 6.8 million Israelis live between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. However, the latter are in control. Explained the organization: "Across these areas and in most aspects of life, Israeli authorities methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians. Laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy. In pursuit of this goal, authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity. In certain areas, as described in this report, these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution."

As Israeli politics has radicalized, this system has become a conclusion rather than a transition. HRW observed: "A number of Israeli officials have stated clearly their intent to maintain this control in perpetuity and backed it up through their actions, including continued settlement expansion over the course of the decades-long ‘peace process.’ Unilateral annexation of additional parts of the West Bank, which the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to carry out, would formalize the reality of systematic Israeli domination and oppression that has long prevailed without changing the reality that the entire West Bank is occupied territory under the international law of occupation, including East Jerusalem, which Israel unilaterally annexed in 1967."

The abuses and injustices committed daily against civilians with no political and little legal power to resist – which are playing out in East Jerusalem today – are amply detailed by the report. Yet some Palestinians argue that even the practice of apartheid is insufficient to describe the impact on their lives. Muhammad Shehada, a contributing columnist to the Forward, wrote: "A reality where our civil liberties and rights are suspended, where our everyday distress and indignity on one side of the – physical or metaphorical – fence do not matter, as long as never-ending ‘security concerns’ are assuaged on the other. A reality where at birth, one’s fate is sealed to either experience the degradation of standing for hours at an overcrowded checkpoint between Palestinian cities in the West Bank, or to pass by welcomed and unconstrained."

Israelis comfortably ensconced in authority dismiss the HRW report. Mark Regev, an adviser to Netanyahu, long time leader of an increasingly radical right-wing coalition, opined: "The mendacious apartheid slur is indicative of an organization that has been plagued for years by systemic anti-Israel bias." Israel’s US ambassador, Gilad Erdan, complained: "When the authors of the report cynically and falsely use the term apartheid, they nullify the legal and social status of millions of Israeli citizens, including Arab citizens, who are an integral part of the state of Israel." Yet Israel’s ongoing political crisis, in which Arab-Israelis are dismissed as coalition partners, demonstrates the falsity of Erdan’s claim.

Moreover, other Israelis, those not so determined to create a greater ethno-religious state irrespective of the dire humanitarian consequences, reject any whitewash. Israeli journalist Gideon Levy of Haaretz wrote: "There’s no longer any way to challenge the diagnosis of apartheid. Only lying propagandists can claim that Israel is a democracy when millions of people have been living in it for decades under one of the most tyrannical military regimes in the world. Neither is there any way to avoid the fact that all three elements of apartheid under the The Hague’s Rome Statute, which are described in the HRW report, exist in Israel: maintaining the domination of one racial group over another, systematic oppression of the marginalized group, and inhumane acts."

Unsurprisingly, the Biden State Department refused to acknowledge the politically sensitive charge: "It is not the view of this administration that Israel’s actions constitute apartheid." Congressional leaders, too, routinely accept whatever Israel claims is necessary for its security.

However, Washington cannot so easily wash its hands of Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. The US is intimately involved in policy toward those whose lands Israel occupies. Washington subsidizes Israeli actions, arms the Israeli military, provides political cover for Israeli activities, and pressures Arab nations to advance Israeli interests. Some US states even punish American citizens who criticize Israel. Consequently, Washington’s policy toward Israel has become an explicit election issue in America. Moreover, blowback is an enormous problem, resulting in terrorist attacks against the US Being seen as underwriting and guaranteeing an apartheid-like occupation of the West Bank increases Americans’ vulnerability abroad.

Washington should change policy. President Joe Biden has experienced firsthand Netanyahu’s malign efforts to influence American elections, providing another reason to act. Argued Fawaz A. Gerges of the London School of Economics: "Biden’s current prestige gives him leverage. But the time to use it is now. The US must pressure Israel to end its apartheid policies and its occupation of Palestinian lands. A change in US policy is a crucial first step toward creating a Palestinian state that can live in peace alongside its Israeli neighbor."

At the very least Washington should halt subsidies for injustice, stop making excuses for mistreatment of Palestinians, and allow Israel to bear the political consequences of its actions. The uniqueness of its founding and early threats to its existence cannot excuse its occupation policy today. Israel is nuclear-armed regional superpower, well able to defend itself. Its expanding relationship with the Gulf States and other Muslim nations offers another layer of security. Rather than treating Palestinians as a captive source of cheap labor, Israel should enable them to become cooperative, peaceful neighbors.

Peace, not domination, should be Israel’s ultimate objective. Peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. Americans should be pro-Israel and pro-Palestine and encourage a durable settlement that empowers Israelis and Palestinians alike. But such an outcome requires ending the current system of what HRW rightly recognizes amounts to apartheid. If Joe Biden wants to transform the Middle East, this could be his legacy.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.