In an unprecedented development, Amnesty International has pledged to consider whether the Israeli government is committing the crime of apartheid in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt).
This marks the first time that the global rights NGO has said it will investigate Israeli practices specifically with regards to whether they meet the international definition of apartheid.
The statement came as Amnesty today published a new report in which the group charges Myanmar with practicing apartheid in Rakhine State, describing "an institutionalised system of segregation and discrimination of Muslim communities".
For the Rohingya, Amnesty concluded, this system "is so severe and extensive that it amounts to a widespread and systemic attack on a civilian population…clearly linked to their ethnic (or racial) identity." It thus "legally constitutes apartheid, a crime against humanity under international law."
The report details a number of ways in which the Myanmar authorities have imposed state-sponsored segregation and discrimination on the Rohingya, including violence, denial of citizenship, travel restrictions and other forms of social, political and economic exclusion.
''Caged Without a Roof: Apartheid in Myanmar's Rakhine State" unpacks the international law basis for its headline claim of apartheid, beginning with reference to the definition of crimes against humanity in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – which includes apartheid.
Noting how the term apartheid originated with "a political system imposed by South Africa's nationalist leaders between 1945 and 1994", the Amnesty report describes how, as a result of condemnation of this system, "apartheid is expressly prohibited in international law".
"Practices of apartheid" are listed as grave breaches of international humanitarian law and war crimes in Article 85(4)(c) of Geneva Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, adopted 1977.
In addition, "three international treaties prohibit or explicitly criminalize apartheid, making it clear that the international community intended not only to condemn and criminalize apartheid as practised in southern Africa but wherever it might be replicated" (my emphasis).
The report's legal case vis-à-vis apartheid is strikingly similar to the argument that Israel too is committing such a crime, as defined in the Apartheid Convention and Rome Statute. Going forward, therefore, might Amnesty describe Israeli policies towards the Palestinians in such terms?
An Amnesty International spokesperson stressed that the organisation has "long highlighted Israel's discriminatory laws, policies and practices, which violate the country's obligations towards Palestinians under international humanitarian law and international human rights law."
In particular, the statement continued, Amnesty has "been highlighting Israel's discriminatory policy of settling Jewish civilians in Palestinian territory – itself a violation of international humanitarian law – and system of control over Palestinian land and other resources, which has resulted in widespread violations of human rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living, rights to water, to adequate food and housing, and the right to work and to health."
Amnesty also cited "the institutional discrimination against Palestinian people with regards to access to justice and legal safeguards", noting that "Israelis, including settlers in the occupied West Bank, enjoy the protections of Israeli civilian law, while Palestinians are prosecuted by the military court system in the absence of basic fair trial guarantees."
But in the most significant part of the remarks, the spokesperson affirmed that "looking ahead – in any further research into institutional racial discrimination, we'll consider whether the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories meets the international definition of apartheid", a process that "will require thorough research and a rigorous legal review of the evidence".
There is a growing body of resources for Amnesty to draw on in such an endeavour, including existing United Nations (UN) reports and documentation. As much as a decade ago, the then-UN special rapporteur, South African jurist John Dugard, declared that "elements" of Israel's military occupation "constitute forms of colonialism and of apartheid".
In 2012, meanwhile, the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) urged Israel to end policies or practices violating the prohibition of "racial segregation and apartheid", a report described at the time by one expert as the "most cutting recognition and condemnation of a legal system of segregation since apartheid South Africa".
Earlier this year, a report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) accused Israel of having established "an apartheid regime that oppresses and dominates the Palestinian people as a whole". Under immense political pressure by Israel and the US, the report was removed from ESCWA's website, but its content, and conclusions, were never repudiated.
Palestinian activists and analysts have long described Israeli policies as a form of apartheid, and Israeli human rights NGO B'Tselem has compared Israel's "regime of separation" in the oPt to "the Apartheid regime in South Africa". Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu and former US President Jimmy Carter are two of the more prominent figures to have accused Israel of apartheid.
Amnesty's report on Myanmar is, of course, significant in and of itself, describing a horrific system of discrimination faced by the Rohingya population. For Israel, however – which has refused to stop selling arms to the Myanmar military – the report has disturbing implications.
The detailed, carefully-laid out case against the Myanmar authorities is, in effect, a precedent; while this new report is the first time since South Africa that Amnesty has levelled a detailed accusation of apartheid against a state, it may well not be the last.
The relevance of such a conclusion with respect to Israel and the Palestinians is only confirmed by the Amnesty International spokesperson's remarks.
To understand the dangers faced by the Israeli government, consider Amnesty's conclusions with respect to ending, and getting accountability for, Myanmar's apartheid system.
Urging the international community to "use every diplomatic tool available" to pressure Myanmar to end its systemic discrimination, Amnesty proposes a Security Council "comprehensive arms embargo" and "targeted sanctions against individuals responsible for crimes and violations".
Should Israel become the target of similarly focused and tough accountability demands, condemned for the crime of apartheid by the world's largest member-based human rights group, it will mark an important development on the road to the Palestinians realising rights they have long been denied.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.