Is Israel an Apartheid State?

October 04, 2013 IMEU
Is Israel an Apartheid State?

Palestinian citizens of Israel protest the passage of the Jewish nation-state law. Tel Aviv, August 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

Updated August 30, 2021

Legal definition of apartheid

Ethnic cleansing & apartheid during Israel’s establishment

  • Between 1948-49, Zionist militias and then the Israeli army ethnically cleansed between 750,000 and one million indigenous Palestinians in order to establish Israel as a Jewish majority state, including dozens of massacres of Palestinian civilians. More than 400 Palestinian cities, towns, and villages were systemically destroyed by Israel or repopulated with Jewish Israelis, many of them recent immigrants from Europe. Ever since, millions of Palestinian refugees have been denied their internationally-recognized legal right to return to their homes, as enshrined in UN Resolution 194, because they are not Jewish. At the same time, the Israeli government encourages Jews to immigrate from all over the world to live on stolen Palestinian land.
  • Approximately 150,000 Palestinians survived the ethnic cleansing and remained inside what became Israel in 1948. The new Israeli government expropriated most of their land for the use of Jewish Israelis and while granting them citizenship, governed them by repressive and discriminatory military rule until 1966.

Israeli apartheid today

  • Since 1948, Israel has continued to systematically dispossess and discriminate against Palestinians inside Israel and in the territories Israel militarily occupied in the 1967 War (the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza), including by making it nearly impossible for most Palestinians to get permits to build new homes or apartments and destroying those that are built without permission. In places like the Negev desert in southern Israel, the government has been destroying entire villages as part of a plan to “Judaize” the region, evicting whole communities of Palestinians who are Israeli citizens and replacing them with Jewish Israelis.
  • Inside Israel’s internationally-recognized pre-1967 borders, there are dozens of laws that privilege Jewish citizens and/or discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about 20% of Israel’s population. These laws affect everything from housing and land ownership, to health care, education, and family reunification rights. In 2018, the Israeli government passed the so-called “Jewish nation-state” bill that codifies in Israel’s quasi-constitutional basic laws the privileged position that Jewish citizens enjoy over indigenous Palestinians. Among other things, it declares Jews have a “unique” right to self-determination in the land of Israel (which for most Israelis includes the occupied Palestinian territories) and directs the state to regard “Jewish settlement as a national value” and to “act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation,” thereby making racially segregated housing official state policy.
  • In the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza, Palestinians have lived under repressive, discriminatory Israeli military rule since the 1967 War, systemically denied their basic human rights because they are not Jewish. Israel has also systematically destroyed tens of thousands of Palestinian homes and expropriated massive amounts of Palestinian land for the construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in violation of international law. Meanwhile, Jewish settlers living illegally on Palestinian land in the West Bank are subject to Israeli civilian law when accused of a crime, while Palestinians (including children) living in the same territory are tried in Israeli military courts that have been condemned as unjust by human rights groups. According to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report entitled “Separate and Unequal: Israel's Discriminatory Treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories":

“Palestinians face systematic discrimination merely because of their race, ethnicity, and national origin, depriving them of electricity, water, schools, and access to roads, while nearby Jewish settlers enjoy all of these state-provided benefits… While Israeli settlements flourish, Palestinians under Israeli control live in a time warp - not just separate, not just unequal, but sometimes even pushed off their lands and out of their homes.”

Human rights organizations & notable individuals who have used the term “apartheid” to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians

“Israel has established and maintained an institutionalized regime of oppression and domination of the Palestinian population for the benefit of Jewish Israelis – a system of apartheid – wherever it has exercised control over Palestinians’ lives since 1948. Amnesty International concludes that the State of Israel considers and treats Palestinians as an inferior non-Jewish racial group. The segregation is conducted in a systematic and highly institutionalized manner through laws, policies and practices, all of which are intended to prevent Palestinians from claiming and enjoying equal rights to Jewish Israelis within the territory of Israel and within the OPT, and thus are intended to oppress and dominate the Palestinian people. This has been complemented by a legal regime that controls (by negating) the rights of Palestinian refugees residing outside Israel and the OPT to return to their homes.”

“The pursuit by Israeli authorities of the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control vis-a-vis Palestinians over demographics and land in Israel and the [Occupied Palestinian Territorires] amounts to a ‘purpose’ or purposes ‘of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons,’ as set out in the Apartheid Convention. It also rises to an ‘intention’ or intentions ‘of maintaining that regime [or regimes of systematic oppression and domination],’ as set out in the Rome Statute definition of apartheid, and a discriminatory intent or intents, as part of the customary international law definition of persecution. These policies, practices, and statements collectively establish a discriminatory intent by Israeli authorities to maintain systematic domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians.”

“The Israeli regime, which controls all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, seeks to advance and cement Jewish supremacy throughout the entire area. To that end, it has divided the area into several units, each with a different set of rights for Palestinians – always inferior to the rights of Jews. As part of this policy, Palestinians are denied many rights, including the right to self-determination.”

“A regime that uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another is an apartheid regime... These accumulated measures, their pervasiveness in legislation and political practice, and the public and judicial support they receive – all form the basis for our conclusion that the bar for labeling the Israeli regime as apartheid has been met.”

Israeli leaders

  • One of the first people to use the word “apartheid” in relation to Israel was Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, who warned following the 1967 War of Israel becoming an “apartheid state” if it retained control of the occupied territories.
  • In a 1976 interview, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin warned of Israel becoming an apartheid state, noting: "Because of the [Arab] population. I don't think it will be possible to [build settlements] over time, unless we want to get to apartheid, with a million-and-a-half Arabs inside the state of Israel.
  • In 1999, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak stated: "Every attempt to keep hold of [Israel and the occupied territories] as one political entity leads, necessarily, to either a nondemocratic or a non-Jewish state. Because if the Palestinians vote, then it is a binational state, and if they don’t vote it is an apartheid state.” In 2010, Barak said: "As long as in this territory west of the Jordan river there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic… If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state."
  • In 2007, then- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that Israel would face a civil rights struggle similar to the one mounted against apartheid in South Africa if it did not relinquish the occupied territories.
  • In 2015, Meir Dagan, the head of Israel's spy agency, the Mossad from 2002 to 2011, declared: "In the Palestinian arena, [Netanyahu’s] policy will lead … to apartheid."


  • In 2006, former US President Jimmy Carter published a book entitled, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” comparing Israel’s regime in the occupied territories to South African apartheid.
  • In May 2021, during Israel’s assault on Gaza that killed 256 Palestinians, including 66 children, several Democratic members of Congress, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY) and Rep. Cori Bush (MO), described Israel as an apartheid state.
  • In July 2013, then-recently retired Marine Corps general and head of the US military's central command (CENTCOM), and future Secretary of Defense under President Trump, James Mattis warned that Israel's construction of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land were turning Israel into an apartheid state, telling an audience:

“If I'm Jerusalem and I put 500 Jewish settlers out here to the east and there's 10,000 [Arab Palestinians] in here, if we draw the border to include them, either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don't get to vote - apartheid. That didn't work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country.” 

  • In 2014, then-Secretary of State John Kerry warned in a private meeting that Israel risked becoming an “apartheid state” if negotiations that the Obama administration was trying to revive at the time failed. 
  • Many veterans of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa also consider Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to be apartheid. One of the most outspoken voices has been that of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, one of the heroes of the struggle against South African apartheid, who has repeatedly made the comparison. In 2012, Archbishop Tutu wrote that Israel’s version of apartheid is actually worse than South Africa’s, stating: “Not only is this group of people [Palestinians] being oppressed more than the apartheid ideologues could ever dream about in South Africa, their very identity and history are being denied and obfuscated.”

For further reference, see here for a fact sheet on Israel’s close alliance with apartheid South Africa.