Landmark HRW report challenges Biden to end Israeli apartheid

Landmark HRW report challenges Biden to end Israeli apartheid
Comment: While the Biden administration is unlikely to adopt many of HRW's recommendations, this report charts a new course and establishes the goalposts for holding Israel accountable, writes Josh Ruebner.
6 min read
27 Apr, 2021
Israel 'should dismantle all forms of systematic domination and oppression' says the report [Getty]
Human Rights Watch (HRW) released today a seminal report concluding that the policies and practices of Israel toward the Palestinian people constitute apartheid and persecution, both of which are defined as crimes against humanity by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The 217-page report is entitled 'A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution'.

"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," the report states.

"In pursuit of this goal, authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity."

HRW concludes that in some cases "deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution".

This report is not just another list of flimsy recommendations. Beyond the significance of HRW charging Israel with crimes against humanity for the first time, it is notable as well for the recommendations it makes both to Israel and other states.

Israel "should dismantle all forms of systematic domination and oppression that privilege Jewish Israelis and systematically repress Palestinians, and end the persecution of Palestinians," the report states.

HRW's report will either force Biden to reconsider, or demonstrate the hollowness of his administration's global commitment to human rights

In nothing short of a full-scale repudiation of the discriminatory ethos of Zionism that underlies Israeli governmental policies, the report recommends, in particular, that Israel ends its "discriminatory policies and practices with regards to citizenship and residency rights, civil rights, freedom of movement, allocation of land and resources, access to water, electricity, and other services, and granting of building permits." 

Not only will this comprehensive account from one of the most reputable human rights organisations in the world contribute greatly to the discursive delegitimisation of Israel's separate-and-unequal regime; it will also pose a dilemma for Israel's main benefactor - the United States - in general, and for the Biden administration in particular.

Last month, the Biden administration released an Interim National Security Strategic Guidance paper, which evinces the duality between its approach towards respect for global human rights, and traditional policy that makes the United States complicit in Israel's separate-and-unequal regime of rule over the Palestinian people. 

In the paper, the Biden administration pledges to "defend and protect human rights and address discrimination, inequity, and marginalisation in all its forms." However, this universal commitment is adulterated in its vow to "maintain our ironclad commitment to Israel's security." The United States does so by providing Israel with $3.8 billion in weapons each year, making US taxpayers indirectly culpable for Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people.

Read more: Israel approves 'escalated use of force' against besieged Gaza, reinforces troops on border

When asked on the campaign trail if this massive US funding of Israel should be leveraged to achieve policy goals, Biden dismissed the idea out of hand. "The idea that we would draw [down] military assistance from Israel on the condition that they change a specific policy I find to be absolutely outrageous," he said.

However, HRW's report will either force Biden to reconsider, or demonstrate the hollowness of his administration's global commitment to human rights.

It calls on all states to "vet agreements, cooperation schemes, and all forms of trade and dealing with Israel to screen for those directly contributing to the commission of the crimes of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians, mitigate the human rights impacts, and, where not possible, end the activities and funding found to facilitate these serious crimes."

If implemented, this recommendation would have far-ranging repercussions for US-Israel relations. First and foremost, the current memorandum of understanding, which provides Israel with $38 billion in weapons between 2019 and 2028 would need to be scrutinised and reevaluated. 

The whole edifice of US diplomatic support for Israel's crimes against the Palestinian people would need to be torn down

In addition, the US-Israel free trade agreement, which provides duty free entry to the United States of products from Israel's illegal West Bank colonies - falsely labeled as being made in Israel - would, at the minimum, need to be revised. And Trump administration accords with Israel, allowing for US government investment in science, education, and agricultural projects in these colonies would also need to be scrapped.

Indeed, the whole edifice of US diplomatic support for Israel's crimes against the Palestinian people, which often shields Israel in international forums and provides it with impunity for its actions, would need to be torn down.

The report also call on states to "impose individual sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against officials and individuals responsible for the continued commission of these serious crimes and condition arms sales and military and security assistance to Israel on Israeli authorities taking concrete and verifiable steps towards ending their commission of the crimes of apartheid and persecution."

Fortunately, existing US laws such as the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act would enable the imposition of these types of sanctions even if Biden is highly unlikely to take advantage of them. 

While the mechanisms for sanctioning Israel exist, until recently, the political will to even restrict US weapons to Israel was sadly lacking on Capitol Hill. Fortunately, momentum is building among progressive Democrats to try to ensure that these weapons are not being used by Israel to commit some of the more egregious acts of apartheid and persecution documented by HRW.

Fortunately, momentum is building among progressive Democrats

Earlier this month, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) introduced H.R.2590, the Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act, cosponsored by 15 Representatives. The bill would prohibit Israel from using US weapons to detain and ill-treat Palestinian children in its military judicial system, demolish Palestinian homes, and annex Palestinian land.

In the unlikely event this this landmark legislation passes, however, it would still fall short of HRW's important recommendation of conditioning the provision of weapons to Israel on demonstrable progress toward ending apartheid and persecution. Nevertheless, it is an extremely important stepping stone to that eventual goal. 

As the Biden administration noted in its national security paper, "we will not give our partners in the Middle East a blank check to pursue policies at odds with American interests and values." While HRW's recommendations might seem idealistic in the current political landscape, they chart a course to finally ending the US blank cheque for Israel and dismantling its regime of apartheid and persecution.

Josh Ruebner is Senior Principal at Progress Up Consulting and is the author of Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State? and Shattered Hopes: Obama's Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace.

Follow him on Twitter: @joshruebner

Have questions or comments? Email us at:

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.