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13 APR 2024

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  • Uri Pilichowski

Does Israel's Treatment of Palestinians Equate to Apartheid?

Is the difference in treatment between Palestinians and Jews in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank a form of discrimination? Does it rise to the level of apartheid? 

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  • Human rights organizations and Israeli critics claim that Israel mistreats Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many allege this treatment equates to apartheid.  Israel denies the charges. 

  • Apartheid is a serious accusation that should meet legal standards. Thus, while Israel’s policies haven’t changed, the charge of apartheid is something new. 

  • Though Israel isn’t an apartheid regime, there have been lengthy, ongoing debates among some in the global community about whether Israel’s policies are discriminatory. 

  • Currently, over two million Arabs are Israeli citizens who enjoy equal rights and privileges.


Basic Arab History And Their Rights in Israel 

Under the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, the land of Israel, then called the region of Palestine, was divided between the local Jewish and Arab populations. 55% of the land was set aside for the Jewish population and 45% for the Arab population. After the Jewish people declared independence and the founding of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, local Arabs along with five regional Arab armies–from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and a contingent from Saudi Arabia that fought under Egyptian command–attacked the new Jewish state and lost. At the conclusion of the war, armistice lines were drawn, leaving Israel with control of  72% of the land. 

Arabs who found themselves inside the borders of Israel were eventually granted citizenship. Those Arab Israelis and their descendants, totaling over two million people today, enjoy equal rights with Jewish Israelis, including representation in Israel’s Knesset (Parliament). 

However, at the time of the 1948 conflict, many Arabs fled their homes in what would become Israel, escaping to land that would ultimately be occupied by Jordan. These Arabs would be characterized as refugees and live in the Jordanian-occupied West Bank which sat on land formerly called Judea and Samaria. 

In June 1967 the war later called the “Six Day War,” broke out between Israel and a coalition of Arab countries made up primarily of Egyptian, Syrian a Jordanian troops. At the end of the war, Israel would control the Gaza Strip – formerly occupied by Egypt – and the West Bank – formerly occupied by Jordan. 

The Arabs that lived in these two areas found themselves under Israeli jurisdiction. But, since Israel never formally annexed the Gaza Strip or West Bank into Israel, offering them instead as leverage in return for peace, Israel never extended citizenship to the Arab residents of those areas. 

Jews, however, began to settle in those areas, and Israel considered them citizens. Israel has explained this granting of citizenship and rights to one population and not the other by clarifying that Jews, irrespective of where they live, are natural citizens of the Jewish State, whereas Arabs who live in land ruled by Israel, but not in Israel proper, have no claim of citizenship. 

In 2005, Israel unilaterally pulled its citizens and military out of the Gaza Strip, relinquishing all control over the land and its inhabitants. Shortly thereafter, Hamas, a terrorist organization, took control of the Gaza Strip and began firing rockets into Israel. Israel blockaded the Gaza Strip to ensure Hamas could not import weapons into the Strip. Egypt also closed off its border with the Gaza Strip. Although the people of Gaza were independent and under their own sovereignty, they were effectively closed off from the world because of the Israeli and Egyptian blockades. 

Currently, Israel provides full citizenship rights to over two million Arab residents of its state. It controls over a million Palestinian residents in the West Bank who are not citizens. Israel has no day-to-day control over the Arabs living in Gaza, but does determine many aspects of their daily life. 

Apartheid Charges Levied Against Israel 

In November 2006, former American President Jimmy Carter released a book titled, “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid.” Carter explained that apartheid “is a word that's a very accurate description of the forced separation within the West Bank of Israelis from Palestinians and the total domination and oppression of Palestinians by the dominant Israeli military.” The former U.S. President’s ’s accusation of apartheid was the first time such a charge was given credibility by a significant global personality. Critics claimed that Carter’s charge was inaccurate, racist, and antisemitic. 

In April 2021, Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization that advertises itself as an institution advocating for the human rights of underprivileged people, published a report titled “A Threshold Crossed” which concluded the Israeli authorities committed crimes against humanity of apartheid. They claimed their determination was reached based on the overarching Israeli policy to maintain Jewish-Israeli dominance over Palestinians. 

Israel has denied the charges of apartheid made by Human Rights Watch and other such organizations. In a statement responding to Human Rights Watch’s charge of apartheid, Israel’s foreign ministry said, "We know that this organization has an anti-Israel agenda, which for years has sought to promote a boycott against Israel. Their decision not to seek any comment from any Israeli authority is a clear indication that this is an unreliable propaganda pamphlet.”

South Africa and the Standard for Apartheid in Relation to Israel 

In a report charging Israel with conducting an apartheid regime, Amnesty International defined apartheid as an “Institutionalized regime of oppression and domination by one racial group over another. It is a serious human rights violation which is prohibited in public international law.” 

Amnesty International's definition of apartheid isn’t comprehensive, however. This lack of detail allows its definition to become applicable to almost any nation that doesn’t have a perfect record on race relations. 

What is Apartheid? 

In an attempt to isolate South Africa and its apartheid regime, the UN’s International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, adopted in 1973, defined apartheid in detail. It states that the following acts constitute the crime of apartheid:

  • Denying a race the right to life and liberty of person 

  • Murdering members of a racial group or inflicting serious bodily or mental harm

  • Subjecting them to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

  • Arbitrary arrest and illegal imprisonment of the members of a racial group 

  • Deliberate imposition on a racial group or groups of living conditions calculated to cause its or their physical destruction in whole or in part

  • Legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group from participating in the political, social, economic, and cultural life of the country 

  • Denying a racial group basic human rights and freedoms, including the right to work, education, the right to leave and to return to their country, freedom of movement and residence, right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association

  • Any measures including legislative measures, designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of ghettos

  • Prohibiting mixed marriages among members of various racial groups

  • The expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group 

  • Exploitation by submitting a racial group to forced labor

Do Israeli Policies Meet the Criteria For Apartheid? 

The UN Convention’s definition of apartheid lends details for what qualifies as apartheid. Like any international crime, there are specific acts that must occur in order to be considered in breach of the international law against apartheid. 

Recognizing that Israel’s policies don’t constitute the crime of apartheid, in July 2023 The United States House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution (412-9) saying, “The State of Israel is not a racist or apartheid state, Congress rejects all forms of antisemitism and xenophobia, and the United States will always be a staunch partner and supporter of Israel."

Does Israel Discriminate Against Arabs?  

Well before charging Israel with apartheid, Israel’s critics for years accused Israel of policies towards Palestinians in the West Bank that are discriminatory in nature. Among those policies: Israel’s refusal to allow those Palestinians to vote in Israeli elections; demolition of homes of Palestinians accused of terrorism; allowing communities to screen and reject applicants deemed unsuitable to the social and cultural makeup of the specific area; laws relating to Palestinian family unification; laws around the right to boycott; and laws around the right to commemorate Palestinian history. All have been characterized by Israel’s critics as discriminatory. 

Conversely, defenders of Israel say that claims of racial discrimination are absurd because Arab citizens of Israel enjoy the same rights as Jewish Israelis, including the right to form political parties and stand for election, opportunities to serve as members of the Knesset, the judiciary, the diplomatic corps, and the police. These rights and privileges are totally foreign and anathema to an apartheid state. They answer claims of discrimination against Palestinian Arabs by explaining that Arabs residing in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are not Israeli citizens and cannot claim rights due to Israeli citizens. All countries favor their own citizens vis-à-vis non-citizens, and doing so is not an indication of discrimination simply because the two groups are treated differently.

Bottom Line: Israel Is Not an Apartheid State 

While it’s understandable that Palestinians and their advocates are upset by laws that differentiate between Jewish and Arab Israelis and West Bank or Gaza Palestinian Arabs, this alone does not make Israel an apartheid state. The charges of apartheid or even discrimination, are charges of violations of international law and aren’t defined merely by one demographic being upset by their treatment. 

Apartheid states do not offer full rights to their minority groups as Israel does to its over two million Arabs who are full citizens of the state. 

Apartheid states do not let members of their minority groups into their legislative bodies, let alone into their government coalition in order to form a majority (as was the case when the Arab-Israeli Ra’am party joined the majority Knesset coalition in 2021). 

Israel even has an Arab currently serving on its Supreme Court–apartheid states simply would not do anything like this. 

So no matter how many human rights organizations levy the charge of apartheid against Israel, in reality, there’s absolutely no merit to the argument. 



Britannica, “United Nations Resolution 181” February 2, 2024

Wilson Center, The 1967 Six Day War

Human Rights Watch, Israeli Apartheid: “A Threshold Crossed” July 19, 2021

Amnesty International, Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians. February 1, 2022

July 19, 2023


Uri Pilichowski

Uri Pilichowski

Uri Pilichowski is an author, speaker, and senior educator at institutions around the world


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