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Israeli Human Rights Group B’Tselem Blasts Two-Tiered Apartheid Israel, Says Violence Is “Inevitable”

Web ExclusiveMay 17, 2021
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As the Palestinian death toll in Gaza nears 200, the leading Israeli human rights group B’Tselem is accusing Israel of committing war crimes by killing blockaded civilians and destroying infrastructure on a massive scale. We are joined in Jerusalem by Hagai El-Ad, executive director of B’Tselem, which is the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. His new piece in The Washington Post is titled “Israel has chosen a two-tiered society. Violence is the inevitable result.” Earlier this year, B’Tselem released a landmark report denouncing Israel as an “apartheid regime.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As the Palestinian death toll in Gaza nears 200, the leading Israeli human rights group B’Tselem is accusing Israel of committing war crimes by killing blockaded civilians and destroying infrastructure on a massive scale.

We go now to Jerusalem, where we’re joined by Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the human rights group B’Tselem, his new piece in The Washington Post headlined “Israel has chosen a two-tiered society. Violence is the inevitable result.” Earlier this year, B’Tselem released a landmark report denouncing Israel as a, quote, “apartheid regime.”

Hagai, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you respond to what’s taking place now in Israel and the Occupied Territories?

HAGAI EL-AD: Thank you for having me on the show. And allow me first, after watching and listening to some of the interviews and your reporting from Gaza, to express my sense of humility to be talking about the situation after listening to people that are on the ground in the Gaza Strip in these circumstances, especially listening to the courage and eloquence of Palestinian colleagues reporting and continuing to work in the Gaza Strip these days, and to wish them not only safety for them and their families, but also freedom and justice. It’s very important for me to share that.

We are witnessing — it’s becoming difficult to count the number of military assaults by Israel on the Gaza Strip, so 2008, 2009, and then 2012, and then 2014, and now 2021. We’re at the beginning of week two of this assault. And I think we should all be reminded that back in 2014, seven years ago, the military operation lasted some seven weeks, with more than 2,000 fatalities in Gaza, more than 500 of them children. So, this is already horrific, but we should also bear in mind that it has gotten much worse in the past, and God forbidden that this will be allowed to continue in the way that it has been allowed to continue in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where is Israeli society on this, the Israeli Jewish community, at this point?

HAGAI EL-AD: Israeli society, first, is receiving on domestic media a very different view than what people are experiencing in Gaza and what people are seeing around the world. Israeli media, not because of military censorship, but because of self-censorship, is reporting on Hamas rockets attacking Israeli civilians inside Israel, as indeed they should report on that, but they are barely reporting about the situation in Gaza. So, from the perspective — and this also is not new. This has been that one-sided reporting domestically by Israeli media, almost all of it, certainly Israeli TV, also in the previous Israeli assaults on the Gaza Strip. It’s a story of Israel under attack. And it’s almost never a story about the situation in the Gaza Strip.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about why you’re saying Israel is guilty of war crimes right now.

HAGAI EL-AD: We’re saying that because that is the way it is. And I feel almost embarrassed to try and quote the relevant aspects of international law that are meant to protect civilians at times of war. To talk about distinction and proportionality, the two key principles of international law, they seem to crumble in the face of Israeli strategies of the way the Israeli army is using military force in the Gaza Strip again and again and again and again and again. This is not new. We’ve seen this before, with horrific consequences. We’ve seen war crimes in previous military assaults on Gaza. And, in fact, the impunity of the previous times in which war crimes were committed is what has paved the way for the continuation of more such crimes being committed.

So, for instance, if one thinks for a second about attacks on wiping out residential towers, apartment buildings, in apartment towers in the Gaza Strip, where, in a second, dozens of families lose their homes, how can that be a military target? How is that consistent with the principle of distinction? And the Israeli army then explains that there’s been — there’s a Hamas office in that building. Well, if that is the case — and not always, if ever, they provide convincing evidence that that is indeed the case, but let’s assume for a second that it is — how is that attack proportional, right?

And the numbers add up — numbers in terms of fatalities, some 200 already, many of them children; numbers in terms of injuries; numbers in terms of destruction; numbers in terms of people that have to flee from one part of the Gaza Strip to another part of the Gaza Strip — we’re talking about tens of thousands of people. But what we’ve seen in previous assaults is that sometimes people that have fled from one part of the Strip to another have been killed by an Israeli strike at the place that they fled to, because nowhere in the Gaza Strip is really safe from Israeli shelling, right? So, like, that is the context of what we’re seeing, what has unfolded in the past, and what is continuing to unfold in front of our eyes.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Prime Minister Netanyahu. After speaking to President Biden on Saturday, he vowed Israel would continue to strike Gaza as long as necessary.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] We will continue to act with full force. We are hitting the terrorist organization with crushing blows. Whoever lit the fire will receive fire. … But unlike Hamas, which deliberately intends to harm civilians while hiding behind civilians, we are doing everything but everything to avoid, or limit as much as possible, harming civilians and to directly strike terrorists instead. … [in English] Israel has responded forcefully to these attacks, and we will continue to respond forcefully.

AMY GOODMAN: That is the indicted, now on trial for corruption, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu. Hagai El-Ad, your response?

HAGAI EL-AD: It’s outrageous propaganda, as was used, again, in the past, to try and whitewash war crimes against a defenseless civilian population in the blockaded Gaza Strip. And again, it’s painful to speak from this experience, but we can already project the way the Israeli army and legal system will in the future, if they have to, try and explain away what has happened.

Think about some of the most horrific incidents of the current assault on Gaza, the bombing of a number of homes in Rimal, with more than 40 fatalities, and they’re still digging in the rubble, and perhaps that horrific number will continue to rise. What the Israeli army eventually is going to say, if they will have to, is that this has been a legal assault because they thought it was a military target, and they didn’t know some of the aspects of the expected collateral damage. So they would say it followed both distinction and proportionality, because they didn’t know.

And you have to ask yourself: Is that acceptable? And I want to answer: That’s not acceptable, because we’ve seen that dozens of times before. So, on the one hand, they like to talk about, you know, surgical strikes based on meticulous intelligence gathering with the utmost effort to protect civilians. And then they would say, “Regretfully, we didn’t know. We didn’t know that families were sheltering in the building. We didn’t know that the building will collapse. We didn’t know that there was a coffee shop next door. We didn’t know. We didn’t know. Regretfully, as a result of that, while it was legal, an entire family was wiped out, or three families were wiped out, and 10 children are dead, as a result of that.” And it’s unacceptable that they will just continue, like on copy-paste format, making these statements that are trying to explain away these war crimes.

This is not unprecedented. This could have been, should have been anticipated. You use the same military strategy that you’ve used before, dropping these kind of bombs in the heart of populated neighborhoods, then these are the outcomes, and these outcomes should have been anticipated. And because of that, these excuses by Israel are simply unacceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the role you see of the United States now at the U.N. Security Council, the latest yesterday, stopping any resolutions from passing demanding a ceasefire?

HAGAI EL-AD: The U.S. has been underwriting Israel’s ability to not only go on with its treatment of Palestinians everywhere between the river and the sea, and now also specifically in the Gaza Strip, but also shielding Israel from any form of meaningful consequences. If the U.S. wanted to stop this, then this would have already stopped. And any additional moments or day or, God forbid, week that this continues, it is continuing because there is a green light from Washington to allow Israel to go on. It’s a political decision by the U.S. administration to allow this to continue, in exactly the same way that it has been such a decision in the previous times that Israel assaulted the Gaza Strip.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see a difference between President Trump and President Biden when it comes to Israel?

HAGAI EL-AD: I see a difference in the rhetoric. President Trump was very blunt in his open support for perpetual Israeli control and domination of the entire territory between the river and the sea without giving Palestinians political rights — namely, apartheid. The Trump administration closed much of the gap between the stated policy, that paid lip service to two-state solution and so on, and the genuine policy that the U.S. is backing. There was a lot of sincerity in that morally bankrupt policy. But it was sincere in that sense.

The Biden administration is talking a very different talk. They’re talking very broadly about aligning U.S. foreign policy with human rights globally. And they’re talking a different talk also with regard to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. But did that talk — and we’re already months into the Biden administration. There’s been ample time to wake up to reality. Did the Biden administration stop the demolition of the Palestinian community of Hamsa in the northern Jordan Valley? No. Are they stopping the cleansing of the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah from its Palestinian families? No. Are they stopping the Israeli assault on Gaza? No. So, the rhetoric has somewhat changed. But judging on what Israel is doing, what Jerusalem is seeing is a continuation of the green light from Washington to continue oppressing and killing Palestinians with impunity.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s clearly a rift in the Democratic Party, where you have progressive Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeting an apartheid state is not a democracy, which brings us to the report that your organization, the leading Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, put out in January denouncing Israel’s control of Palestinian territories as a single apartheid regime that violently perpetuates the supremacy of Israelis over Palestinians. Can you talk more about your findings?

HAGAI EL-AD: B’Tselem was founded back in 1989. We’ve been analyzing human rights violations in the Occupied Territories since then, for more than three decades by now. And throughout this period, we’ve only looked at human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and in the Gaza Strip.

We came to the conclusion that to continue to analyze the situation separately, as if there are two distinct regimes — a democracy inside the Green Line and a temporary occupation attached to it but somehow separate from it in the Occupied Territories on the other side of the Green Line — that that worldview of democracy plus occupation has become untethered from reality. And it’s incumbent on us to be factual and to wake up to reality.

If one desires to continue to hold on to that big lie, then you need to ignore a lot of things. You need to ignore the passage of time, that Israeli control over the entire territory has been going on for more than 50 years. You need to ignore the fact that there are more than 600,000 Israeli Jewish settlers living on the other side of the Green Line in the occupied West Bank, as if they’re living inside Israel proper. You need to ignore the fact that part of the occupied territory has been formally annexed — I’m talking about East Jerusalem — with the rest of it being de facto annexed. You need to set aside a lot of facts in order to continue to hold on to that bankrupt worldview.

But the key thing is that to hold on to that, you need to ignore the key aspect, which is there is one organizing principle that is applied by the Israeli regime between the river and the sea, and that principle is the supremacy and domination of one group of people — Jews — over another group of people — Palestinians — with all this happening in a situation of demographic parity. There are 14 million people that live between the river and the sea. About half of them are Jews. About half of them are Palestinians. But the system, the regime is structured so that that demographic parity will not translate into parity in political power or in access to the resources of this land or to protection or rights.

Now, one of the most important aspects of this reality has been Israel’s ability to fragment this space for Palestinians, while keeping it intact for Jews. Right? So, if you’re a Jewish individual, like myself, no matter where you live between the river and the sea, whether it’s inside Israel proper or in the Occupied Territories, the state will — within one of the more than 200 illegal settlements that Israel has reestablished in the last half-century-plus, then the state will do everything in its power to provide you with the same set of rights, privileges and protections. Right? So, that’s the treatment for Jewish Israelis. But, for Palestinians, it makes a very big difference if you live as a second-class citizen inside the Green Line or as a permanent resident in occupied and illegally annexed East Jerusalem or in the rest of the West Bank as a Palestinian subject or one of the 2 million Palestinians that are living in that large open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip. So, there are different categories of Palestinians, from Israel’s perspective, and in each and every one of those, there is a different subset of rights, always less rights, always a degree of oppression. But nowhere between the river and the sea, there is a single square inch in which a Jewish person and a Palestinian are equal. It is always structured in this way that’s domination and supremacy for the Jewish half of the population.

And it’s incumbent on us to connect the dots. So let me try and do that. Look at Israel’s bombings of Gaza. Do these strike you as proportional? Look at Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Does it strike you as temporary? Look at Israel’s drive to cleanse East Jerusalem neighborhoods from Palestinians. Does that strike you as legal? Look at Israel’s oppression of Palestinian citizens as second-class. Does that strike you as equal treatment under the law? It’s not proportional. It’s not temporary. It’s not legal. It’s not equal. And it’s not complicated. Believe your eyes. Follow your conscience. The reason that it looks like apartheid is simply because it is apartheid.

AMY GOODMAN: Hagai El-Ad, what is the response within the Israeli Jewish population to your critique, now calling what’s happening in Gaza war crimes, and to your apartheid report from January?

HAGAI EL-AD: Yeah, the response is definitely not — not welcoming or popular in any shape or form, which also is not new. But fighting for human rights is not a popularity contest. And I am encouraged by the way in which, first internationally, the understanding of the situation here as apartheid is becoming more and more mainstreamed. This is the result of efforts by Palestinian colleagues. Palestinian scholars and NGOs and activists have been making this point already for many years, right? And then, much more recently, the B’Tselem report in January and the Human Rights Watch very broad legal determination that Israeli officials are guilty of the crimes of apartheid and persecution, in April. And I think, thanks to that, and thanks to reality being what it is, it’s becoming less and less possible to obscure it and to hide it and to continue to lie about it. We’re hearing key figures in U.S. politics and media saying the truth out loud. And with that, I think it will also eventually resonate back here. And Jewish Israelis will need to come to terms with the fact that the world is waking up to what is going on.

And that’s really the the central aspect, because what is happening now in Gaza, it has to stop. This kind of bombings, it just has to stop. That’s the most essential aspect to save human lives. But that’s not sufficient. The people responsible need to be held accountable, because, otherwise, it’s just going to be allowed to continue the same way that this has been allowed to continue, which has brought us to this assault on the Gaza Strip. But also, it’s essential that we do not go back to the status quo. The status quo is a false term. It’s never static. And the status quo is not justice. The status quo is apartheid. So, yes, the bloodshed that is happening now has to stop. But the bloodshed is related to the underlying reality, to the overarching reality, to the condition of apartheid that has to end.

AMY GOODMAN: Is this also serving Netanyahu’s interests himself? He could not form a coalition government. He’s on trial for corruption. This increases his popularity within Israeli Jewish society?

HAGAI EL-AD: So, I don’t want to speculate about Netanyahu’s thoughts on the connection between these aspects. But I think it’s really important to point out that this is not just about Netanyahu. Netanyahu did not begin the occupation. Netanyahu, you know, has been a very effective caretaker of this situation over the last decade-plus that he has been prime minister. But, you know, settlements began under Labor. The legislation that allows the cleansing of Sheikh Jarrah from Palestinians, that’s not Netanyahu’s legislation. That’s legislation from 1950 and 1970, when, again, Labor, centrist, left-leaning, if you will, Israeli governments were in place. This is not about Netanyahu. This is Israeli policy by governments left, right and center, that have been following this direction already for many decades. And we need to realize that.

And also, when looking at the current political image, the snapshot of reality in parliament these days, then it might be obscured by the fact that, yes, Netanyahu is facing difficulties forming a new government, but we shouldn’t miss the key fact. There is a solid, right-wing majority in the Israeli parliament, well above half of the parliamentarians, totally right-wing, that are absolutely supportive of endless Israeli control over the entire territory without giving Palestinians rights. A very broad support for the continuation of apartheid did not begin with Netanyahu, and it’s not likely to end with the departure of Netanyahu, if and when that happens, in the absence of international action.

As long as the international community allows this situation to go on with impunity, it means that the international community — well, first, that is morally bankrupt, because that is accepting racist policies against Palestinians. It continues to dehumanize Palestinians. That is totally unacceptable. But at the same time, it is also telling Jewish Israelis, the ones that have political power between the river and the sea, that the world is fine with endless subjugation, oppression and apartheid against Palestinians. And that is what has to change. People need to demand from their governments to stop this kind of complicity, to stop supporting the continuation of this reality.

AMY GOODMAN: We talked about Netanyahu. In a video message addressed to Palestinians, Defense Minister Benny Gantz blamed Hamas for the violence and threatened that, quote, “Gaza will burn.” This is what he said.

BENNY GANTZ: [translated] Hamas leaders bear responsibility for you being hunkered down in your homes instead of preparing for the holiday. Unfortunately, they operate out of civilian areas, and therefore the damage will be extensive and intense. They are sacrificing you for their personal interests. If citizens of Israel have to sleep in shelters, then Gaza will burn. There is no other equation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Benny Gantz. And then there’s the IDF spokesperson that B’Tselem quotes, Hidai Zilberman, who’s admitted Israel’s actions in Gaza are “as far from pinpoint accuracy as you can get. They’re making Gaza City shake.” What do you think would be the most effective response of the international community right now?

HAGAI EL-AD: First, I just want to remind us that Mr. Gantz, now defense minister, was chief of staff during 2014, during the previous assault on Gaza. And not only that, but later, when he became a politician, then one of the ways that he tried to market himself to gain votes in, you know, elections was by celebrating destruction of Palestinian neighborhoods in Gaza, and with an ad with a counter of the number of dead Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. So, that’s the chief of staff of 2014, who’s now defense minister. And I think it’s very telling, with regard to the dehumanization of Palestinians in Gaza, the statements that are saying that everyone in Gaza is Hamas, that this is somehow — even though the bombs are dropped by Israel, that it’s all Hamas’s fault. Everything that Israel does would be legitimate, because none of it is Israel’s responsibility in any shape or form. These are the kind of statements that are repeated again and again.

And I think that also the comment by the the IDF spokesperson is very telling, because for international consumption, he made that comment in Hebrew. But for international consumption, Israel will typically insist on the opposite, that everything is surgical and careful and so cautious, and all of the other aspects of Israeli propaganda. That’s for international consumption. For domestic consumption, the government wants to demonstrate to the public that it is hitting Gazans as hard as possible. So, exactly the kind of — the opposite kind of statement. But we need to see through the propaganda, whether it’s marketed domestically or internationally.

And seeing through the propaganda is pretty easy. Just look at the images from the Gaza Strip. How can you argue with these images, with the destruction, with the killings, and with the impunity? And that’s what the international community needs to do, with or without the U.S. I mean, U.S., domestically, I think the pressure on the Biden administration needs to be stepped up so that they actually do what they can do, what they should do, to stop the killings — and again, not to stop there, because going back to the false sense of status quo is simply unacceptable. We need U.S. foreign policy that will not only stop what is happening now in the Gaza Strip, but we need U.S. foreign policy that will stop underwriting Israeli apartheid against Palestinians. But the U.S. is not the only stakeholder. There are others. And everyone has a responsibility, and everyone has the ability, to use leverage to save human life. It’s a political choice not to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Hagai El-Ad, we want to thank you for being with us, executive director of the human rights group B’Tselem. We will link to your piece in The Washington Post headlined “Israel has chosen a two-tiered society. Violence is the inevitable result.” This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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