JERUSALEM — A United Nations special rapporteur has accused Israel of committing the crime of apartheid in the occupied territories, joining a growing group of international, Israeli and Palestinian rights watchdogs that have sought to recast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a struggle for equal rights instead of a territorial dispute.
Strongly denied by Israel and its supporters, who accuse the U.N. investigator of bias, the claim is the first time that a U.N.-appointed investigator has accused Israel of apartheid in such an unequivocal way.
The rapporteur, Michael Lynk, a Canadian law professor appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate rights abuses in the occupied territories, did not directly compare the situation there to that of apartheid-era South Africa, where a white minority ruled over a Black majority. However, he said that it met the legal definition of apartheid set out by international law.
The two-tier legal system enforced by Israel in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, he said, enshrined a system of domination by Israelis over Palestinians that could no longer be explained as the unintended consequence of a temporary occupation.
“In the Palestinian territory that Israel has occupied since 1967, there are now five million stateless Palestinians living without rights, in an acute state of subjugation, and with no path to self-determination or a viable independent state which the international community has repeatedly promised is their right,” he wrote in an advance copy of his report.
“The differences in living conditions and citizenship rights and benefits are stark, deeply discriminatory and maintained through systematic and institutionalized oppression,” the report said.
The Israeli government said that Prof. Lynk’s claims were baseless, devoid of context and the latest iteration of a smear campaign aimed at undermining Israel’s right to exist. Israel and its supporters have long argued that Prof. Lynk is biased against Israel, a charge he has denied.
The Israeli government said that it was unfair to blame Israel given the threats posed by armed Palestinian groups in the occupied territories.
“No report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be taken seriously if the security challenges and threats faced daily by all Israelis — including the 20 percent non-Jewish minority — is not considered; if the terrorist organization Hamas, which rules Gaza with an iron fist, is not mentioned nor condemned; if the role and legal obligations of the Palestinian Authority towards its own population is not addressed; and if the extreme complexity of the situation is not comprehended,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Other supporters of Israel criticized Prof. Lynk’s report for downplaying several earlier attempts by Israel to withdraw from the West Bank through negotiated settlements, the failure of which they attribute to the Palestinians. Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in 1967, and the most recent negotiations to end the occupation petered out in 2014.
Several Israeli and foreign groups have produced similar reports recently, including the international rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as B’Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group.
Many Palestinians have welcomed the discourse and the international focus on rights in the occupied territories. Others argue that the rights watchdogs — by largely limiting their analysis to the West Bank, or by refusing to place the discussion of apartheid within a wider discourse about colonialism — do not scrutinize Israel enough.
The Amnesty report in February was an outlier, accusing Israel of practicing apartheid within its borders.