There’s so much in A Threshold Crossed, the 217-page Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, to abhor. The most vile and appalling accusation is that Israeli authorities are responsible for crimes of apartheid. This charge has been laid before in the hope that if it is repeated enough times it will stick.
It is a misuse of the dictionary definition. Nor does Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens and those in the ‘occupied’ territories meet the legal definition of ‘inhumanity’.
By lumping together Israel’s substantial Arab minority within the 1967 borders, those living under Israeli military control, those ruled by a Palestinian Authority government and the Hamas-controlled residents of Gaza as if they were all one, HRW effectively demolishes the moral and intellectual credibility of the case.
The report, which was my Shabbat afternoon reading, is jarring and dated, but what really undermines its credibility is the blurring of narratives. It spins between the situation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and those in East Jerusalem, the Galilee and the Negev as if there is no distinction.
Israeli Arabs, who constitute 20 percent of the population, are battling to achieve the equality of treatment enshrined in Israel’s declaration of independence. Nevertheless, they enjoy civil rights and a degree of political representation absent for citizens of the Palestinian Authority where no national elections have been held in 15 years.
In a blog on The Forward , Eric Goldstein, HRW acting executive director for the Middle East, argues that the organisation needed to draw attention to an “oppressive and discriminatory system” that shows no sign of going away and meets the legal definition of apartheid. But by invoking the ‘A’ word, HRW has scored an own goal: it unites right and left in the Anglo-Jewish community against the content.
The positive route for change is to embrace the work of groups in the UK such as The Abraham Initiatives (TAI) and the New Israel Fund, working in practical ways to bring about change. Much in HRW’s report needs addressing: the problems of residents of the ‘unrecognised’ Bedouin communities in the Negev, cut off from sanitation; Israeli-Jewish gentrification in Jaffa and tensions in mixed cities over housing and resources; restricted land rights in Arab towns and municipalities; policing and security in Israeli-Palestinian villages; language barriers and cultural difficulties that arise from two distinct education systems; security protocols for Arabs students in higher education and access to high-tech jobs.
Israeli politics is swinging further to the right. Even if the United Arab List or Ra’am movement were to gain power in the next coalition, every advance towards a shared society for Israeli-Arabs will need to be fought for. It will require a ‘Marshall Plan’ of resources, commitment and understanding to lift the legacy of inequality.
During the pandemic Arab doctors and carers worked side by side with their Jewish counterparts to save lives, but such collaboration is fragile and difficult to maintain without sustained political impetus. The shameful recent scenes of violence in the Old City between Orthodox Jewish youths and Palestinian residents show how much healing needs to be done. Historic wrongs must be righted, the Declaration of Independence respected and the divisive Nation State law dismantled.
The catastrophe at Mount Meron is a scar on Israel’s reputation after the brilliant Covid vaccine roll-out. Jews and Palestinian Arabs had equal access to the vaccines. This, along with a reinvigorated Arab presence in the Knesset, should be something on which to build. The best way to beat back the apartheid canard is to change society so it can never again be levelled.