Equal Rights and Apartheid


More than 5 million Palestinians are denied equal rights by the state of Israel under a system of apartheid, a deliberate policy of racial or ethnic segregation.

Under Israeli military occupation, millions of Palestinians live in conditions which closely resemble the apartheid system that existed in South Africa:

  • No right of free speech, assembly or movement
  • Arrest and imprisonment without charge or trial
  • Torture
  • House searches without warrant
  • Assassination, extra-judicial murder
  • No right to vote for the Israeli government (even though it controls their lives)

Israel controls all Palestinian borders, all imports and exports, and all movement between towns and cities.  

THE GAZA STRIP, still surrounded, besieged and controlled by Israel, has been sealed off and effectively turned into the world’s largest open-air prison.


        Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter was the first prominent figure in this country to apply the term apartheid to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories—East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Israel’s apartheid system, however, also affects Palestinian Arabs who make up 20 percent of the population within Israel itself. Apartheid is a central feature of the Zionist state that proclaims it is exclusively for Jews.

        The word “apartheid” originated to describe the rigid system of legal segregation imposed by the white supremacist South African government against people of color in that country from 1948 to 1990. The word itself is from the Afrikaner language and means “separateness” or “apart.” Afrikaners were Dutch settlers who denied basic democratic and human rights to that nation’s black majority and other people of color. In 1948 they formalized racial segregation by making it the law of the land, a policy they called apartheid.

        Israeli apartheid is both like and unlike the system of segregation that existed in South Africa. It is also similar and dissimilar to the system of legal segregation that existed in the American South for many decades. The word apartheid could easily be used to describe the system of legal segregation that existed in nine U.S. Southern states from the end of the Reconstruction Period to the mid-1960s when the civil rights movement achieved some of its greatest victories. It could also describe the de facto segregation that existed outside the U.S. South and resulted in the creation of black ghettoes in nearly all U.S. cities. 

Three key features characterize Israeli apartheid:

  • Four million Palestinians in the Occupied Territories lack the right to vote for the government that controls their lives through a military occupation. In addition to controlling the borders, air space, water, tax revenues, and other vital matters pertaining to the Occupied Territories, Israel alone issues the identity cards that determine the ability of Palestinians to work and their freedom of movement.
  • About 1.2 million Palestinian Israelis, who make up 20 percent, or one-fifth, of Israel’s population, have second-class citizenship within Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish state rather than a state for all its citizens. More than 20 provisions of Israel’s principal laws discriminate, either directly or indirectly, against non-Jews, according to Adalah: The Legal Center for Minority Rights in Israel.
  • Millions of Palestinians remain refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere, unable to return to their former homes and land in present-day Israel, even though the right of return for refugees is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

        In 2008, the South African government commissioned a study by leading legal scholars and human rights experts to determine if Israel was practicing apartheid in the Occupied Palestinian Territories according to the parameters of international law. After a 15-month investigation, the study concluded that “Israel, since 1967, is the belligerent Occupying Power in occupied Palestinian territory, and that its occupation of these territories has become a colonial enterprise which implements a system of apartheid.” 

        Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end apartheid in South Africa, said of Israeli government policies, “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.” 

        Israeli apartheid is a two-tiered system of favoritism and privilege for Jews compared with deprivation and discrimination against Palestinian Arabs. It covers many facets of political, social, and economic life, including standard of living, education, housing and development, access to water and roads, an unequal system of justice, land ownership, and freedom of movement. In addition, it has many special features, such as the absolute control that the Israeli military ultimately exercises over all Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and the recent construction of a Separation Barrier or Apartheid Wall. This wall is meant not only to confiscate land from Palestinians to expand illegal settlements but also to make it impossible for Palestinians to have a contiguous and viable state of their own.


        In the Occupied Territories, 66 percent of Palestinians live in absolute poverty, defined as income of $2 or less per day. By contrast, Israelis enjoy an average per capita income of nearly $60 per day. Worse yet, 80 percent of Palestinians in Gaza are dependent on international food aid for day-to-day survival, and 33 percent of all Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are dependent on international food aid for survival. 

        The unemployment rate in the West Bank hovers around 19 percent while the unemployment rate in Gaza is about 40 percent. Private-sector unemployment in Gaza is an incredible 85 percent.

       Within Israel, 48 percent of Palestinian Israelis live in poverty, compared with a poverty rate of 15 percent for Jewish Israelis. Of the 32 towns within Israel that have unemployment rates higher than 10 percent, 25 of those are Palestinian towns.

       Palestinian Israelis face discrimination in employment, wages, and working conditions. Although they make up 20 percent of the population, Palestinian Israelis represent only 6 percent of public employees in civil service jobs.


       Within Israel, Palestinian and Jewish children attend separate and unequal school systems from kindergarten through high school. The Israeli government invests more than 3 times as much in a Jewish student than it does a Palestinian student, according to government statistics released in 2004. Also within Israel the government designates certain communities for “high-priority status” for improving the local educational system. In recent years Israel has designated 553 Jewish communities for high-priority status, compared with 4 Palestinian communities. In East Jerusalem, Palestinian territory illegally annexed by Israel after the 1967 war, the Israeli government spends an average of 2,300 New Israeli Shekels (about U.S. $600) per Jewish student, compared with an average of 577 shekels (U.S. $150) per Palestinian student, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

       The discrepancies are especially apparent in higher education. Forty-five percent of Palestinian applicants are turned down for admission to Israeli universities, compared with 16 percent of Jewish applicants. Among Israeli undergraduates, only 10 percent are Palestinian, even though Palestinians make up 20 percent of the population. Palestinians make up only 3 percent of Israeli doctoral students and only 1 percent of university lecturers.

       Within the Occupied Territories, Palestinian schools are under funded compared with the generous subsidies given to Jewish schools in the illegal settlements. Israeli military authorities frequently close Palestinian schools or subject them to curfews. Many Palestinian students must pass through Israeli military checkpoints just to get to school, and the military uses these checkpoints to harass and delay students.

       In response to Palestinian uprisings, the Israeli military often takes reprisals against Palestinian schools and students in the Occupied Territories. From 2003 to 2005, there were more than 180 assaults on Palestinian schools, resulting in the deaths of 180 students and teachers. During that period more than 1,500 school days were lost due to Israeli closures. A study by the United Nations agency, UNESCO, found that the Israeli military caused $5 million in damages to Palestinian schools.


        In the Occupied Territories, from 2000 to 2006 Israel’s Ministry of Construction and Housing “funded 53 percent of housing starts and 42 percent of all residential construction costs” in Israel’s illegal settlements, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. The report, titled “Separate and Unequal,” noted that Israel provided absolutely no funding for Palestinian housing in the occupied West Bank.

       In occupied East Jerusalem, only 13 percent of zoned land is available for Palestinian construction. Planning and building laws there prevent Palestinian residents from constructing new housing because 65 percent of the residents are impoverished and cannot pay for the infrastructure improvements required for a building permit. In 2009 the Israeli municipal government in Jerusalem outlined as “a main policy goal. . . maintaining a solid Jewish majority” in the city by explicitly discriminating in favor of Jews for services and affordable housing.

       Not only does Israel interfere with Palestinian housing and building construction, it also plays an active role in demolishing existing buildings and homes in Palestinian areas. From 2000 to 2007 Israel demolished more than 1,500 Palestinian homes and buildings in the West Bank, compared with about 15 demolition orders carried out against buildings in Israel’s illegal settlements during the period from 1997 to 2009. In Gaza, Israel demolished more than 2,500 homes from 2000 to 2004.

       According to the Israeli organization, Peace Now, government statistics showed that from 1996 to 2001, 82 percent of building violations in Jerusalem were in Jewish neighborhoods while 18 percent were in Palestinian areas. However, the Israeli government took enforcement actions against only 20 percent of violations in Jewish neighborhoods, compared with 80 percent in Palestinian areas. According to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), Israeli officials are 10 times more likely to demolish Palestinian homes due to building violations than they are to demolish Jewish homes with building violations.

       Within Israel, Palestinians are legally barred from many communities by racially restrictive covenants in housing, much like those that formerly barred Jews, blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities in the United States from living in certain neighborhoods. Palestinians are legally barred from living in “Jewish community settlements” and “Jewish rural settlements.” Within Israel, 89 percent of its towns are classified as Jewish, and of those non-Jews are excluded from residing in 78 percent. The Israeli government has not allowed the building of a single new Arab town since 1948.

       The government also refuses to recognize hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages that existed prior to Israel’s formation in 1948. Because they are not officially recognized, almost all of the housing in these towns is subject to demolition, and none receive services from the state, such as schools, roads, or sewer systems. More than 100,000 Palestinians or about 10 percent of Palestinian Israelis live “off the grid” as a result.



       Water is a scarce resource in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Israel has controlled water resources in the West Bank and Gaza since its occupation began in 1967. The World Bank estimates that Palestinians have lost more than 100,000 agricultural jobs because Israel has denied Palestinians access to water resources that were diverted to illegal Jewish settlements. The World Health Organization (WHO) found that Israelis consume 4 times more water than Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. In one area alone, the Jordan Valley, 9,000 Jewish settlers consume 25 percent of the water used by the entire Palestinian population in the West Bank, which totals 2.5 million people. According to the United Nations, 60,000 West Bank Palestinians lack access to running water and must pay one-sixth of their income to have water trucked into their communities.

       The WHO recommends a minimum of 100 liters of water consumption per day per person for adequate sanitation, food preparation, personal consumption, and other uses. The average Palestinian in the West Bank receives 50 liters of water per day, compared with 200 liters per day for the average Israeli, including settlers. 

       The water situation in Gaza is especially critical. About 95 percent of the water pumped into the Gaza Strip is polluted and unfit for drinking, according to the United Nations. Israel’s Operation Cast Lead military offensive that worsened groundwater pollution in Gaza’s lone aquifer, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Furthermore, Israel’s blockade of Gaza prevents repair to wastewater treatment facilities.

       Within Israel, more than 170 Palestinian communities, mostly in small villages, are not recognized by the state. As a result, none are provided with running water, and the state does not subsidize the cost of water in those communities.


       Of all the blatant features of Israeli apartheid, perhaps none is more apparent than the fact that roads have been built exclusively for Israelis and settlers in the Occupied West Bank. Palestinians living in the West Bank are denied the right to travel on these roads. The separate Palestinian road system is often unpaved and in some cases is little more than a trail, rather than an actual road. Vehicles with Palestinian licenses are completely prohibited from traveling on approximately 105 kilometers of West Bank roads, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Palestinians can travel on the remaining 180 kilometers of Israeli-built roads in the West Bank only if they obtain a special permit or travel in an ambulance. The Israeli road system crisscrosses the West Bank in a way that would prevent the formation of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state.


       Israel is the only country in the world that distinguishes between nationality and citizenship. Israeli nationality is guaranteed only to those determined to be of the Jewish religion. Only Jews have full rights in the state of Israel, which is defined as a Jewish state under the Basic Laws that substitute for a written constitution. 

       Under the Basic Laws, more than 90 percent of the land is state-owned. Israel’s Basic Laws prohibit access or the lease of state land to non-Jews. 

       The Law of Return of 1950, another of Israel’s Basic Laws, guarantees Israeli nationality to Jews everywhere and grants them automatic citizenship if they seek it in Israel. Palestinians, however, have Arab nationality and are denied the right of return. Palestinian Israelis who marry Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories cannot reside with their spouses in Israel, although Jewish Israelis can legally reside with their spouses in a settlement in the Occupied Territories. 

       An amendment to one of Israel’s Basic Laws, passed in 1985, states: “A candidates’ list shall not participate in elections to the Knesset if its objects or actions, expressly or by implication, include one of the following: (1) negation of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. . . .” This provision effectively rules out the participation of Palestinian Israeli political parties that believe Israel should be a state of all its citizens, including the 20 percent who are Palestinian. Any political party with this belief or program is not allowed to run candidates for election to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. 

       Altogether, according to Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, more than 20 of Israel’s principal laws discriminate directly or indirectly against Palestinians. 

       Crimes of violence committed by Israeli Jews against Palestinians are rarely punished. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem examined 119 cases in which Israeli civilians killed Palestinians. The organization found that in only 13 cases were Israelis sentenced to prison. Only six were convicted of murder, and of those, only one received life imprisonment. The seven others were convicted of manslaughter, but most drew light sentences. Israeli soldiers convicted of killing Palestinian civilians are even more likely to receive either mild punishment or no prison time at all. In one notorious case an Israeli soldier convicted by a military court of killing a 95-year-old Palestinian woman received a 65-day prison sentence.

       On the other hand, Palestinian crimes of violence against Jews are harshly punished, including by means of extrajudicial assassinations. In addition, the Israeli military often demolishes the house where a Palestinian accused of violence against Israelis resides, depriving an entire family of shelter. At the same time the Israeli military routinely “looks the other way” when Jewish settlers carry out acts of violence, harassment, and property damage against Palestinians and Palestinian-owned property. The Israeli organization, Yesh Din, found that from 2005 to 2009 Israeli police failed to indict a single settler for the destruction of Palestinian olive trees in nearly 70 separate incidents.

       Even acts of nonviolent civil disobedience earn Palestinians long prison terms, compared with similar actions by Israeli activists opposed to the Occupation. In one recent case a Palestinian who led nonviolent protests against the Separation Wall in the village of Bilin received a 1.5 year prison sentence, compared with an Israeli Jewish activist with Anarchists Against the Wall who received a 3-month prison sentence. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories can be punished for what they read, what they write, and what organizations they belong to.

       During much of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians lived under Israeli military law and faced military tribunals, having no recourse to a civilian court system. Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories are considered Israeli citizens and are brought before civilian courts if they are charged with a crime. Even after the 1993 Oslo peace accords granted the Palestinian Authority (PA) limited self-rule in the Occupied Territories, the Israeli military maintained police and judicial authority in much of the Occupied Territories. The Israeli military also reserves for itself the right to intervene even in areas where the PA was supposed to have full authority over police matters.

       In Israeli military courts:

  • There is no presumption of innocence, and the military courts do not adhere to international standards of due process.
  • Palestinian defendants are not informed of the charges against them until their first court hearing and their attorneys are not given time to study the indictment.
  • Court decisions can be based on “secret evidence” not provided to the defendant or his attorney.
  • Military judges are not required to have a legal background or education.
  • Palestinian children can be prosecuted as adults at age 12, whereas children of Jewish settlers cannot be prosecuted as adults until age 18.
  • Palestinians are heavily pressured to plea bargain and can face more severe penalties if they do not. As a result more than 95% of convictions are the result of plea bargains.
  • In 2006 the acquittal rate for Palestinian defendants in military courts was 0.29 %.

       As a result of harsh sentences, more than 650,000 Palestinians have served time in prison since 1967 when the Occupation began. This figure represents about 40 percent of today’s male population.  A large percentage of Palestinian prisoners have been tortured, according to several human rights organizations. 


       Israel has granted illegal settlements control of 43 percent of occupied West Bank land. It has designated 18 to 20 percent of the West Bank as closed military zones and another 10 percent as park land. The total amount of private and public land thus removed from Palestinian control amounts to about 73 percent of the occupied West Bank, according to Human Rights Watch. 

       Under international law, property can be confiscated only in cases of urgent military necessity. Furthermore, Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from transferring its civilian population to an occupied area. It reads in part, “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” The settlements are thus illegal under the Geneva Conventions, and the confiscation of land to build the settlements is illegal. Under international humanitarian law it is also illegal to confiscate private property without compensation and in a way that discriminates. The Israeli organization Peace Now found that 40 percent of the West Bank settlements were built on privately-owned Palestinian land. Because the settlements are Jewish only and no compensation was paid to the Palestinian owners, the confiscation of Palestinian land for settlement construction is also illegal under international human rights law. Even under Israeli law the construction of settlements on privately-owned land is illegal. 

       In East Jerusalem, Palestinians are confined to just 13 percent of the land area even though they make up 35 percent of Jerusalem’s population. Illegal settlements in East Jerusalem have access to 25 percent of the land area of East Jerusalem that is zoned for settlement construction. A Jewish settler has access to 3 times more land than a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem. Israel also illegally annexed land from more than 28 Palestinian towns and villages to make it part of Jerusalem’s municipal borders. In many cases, it confiscated only the farmland belonging to Palestinian farmers living in those villages, but excluded the Palestinian population.

       Within Israel, more than 500 Palestinian towns and villages were either destroyed or depopulated of Palestinians in 1948 when the state of Israel was founded. Israel has never paid compensation to the 700,000 Palestinian refugees who were forced to abandon their land and homes under threat of massacre or due to military force. From 1948 to 1953, the Israeli government created 370 new Jewish towns. Of those, 350 were built on land taken from “absentee” Palestinian owners.

       These owners were “absentees” because Israel refused to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes even though the right of return is established in one of the founding documents of the United Nations known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instead, the Israeli government enacted the Law of Return as one of its Basic Laws, which guarantees the right of “return” only to Jews. Before 1948 Jews legally owned only about 7 percent of the land in what was then Palestine. After the founding of Israel in May 1948, the government claimed 93 percent of the land as state land. 


       Following the 2nd intifada, or uprising, against Israeli oppression, the Israeli government announced that it would build a “security fence” or barrier between Israel and the Occupied Territories. The announced reason was to prevent suicide bombings within Israel. As construction of the “fence” began, however, it quickly became apparent that the Separation Wall had little to do with security. Instead, it had much to do with confiscating more land from the Palestinians, controlling their movements within the Occupied Territories, and making the creation of a viable Palestinian state impossible.

       The route of the wall did not follow the so-called Green Line, the armistice line that delineated the border of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza prior to the 1967 war. Instead, in numerous places, the wall sharply veered into the West Bank, cutting off Palestinian villages from adjacent farmland, land that Palestinian farmers had cultivated for generations. Israeli authorities proclaimed that farmers would be able to access their land only if they could prove land ownership. Otherwise, they would not receive a permit to cross the Separation barrier. But in many cases, traditional farming practices meant that land was owned by families rather than individuals and documented “proof of ownership” was not required as land was passed from one generation to the next. Israel has granted permits to only 18 percent of farmers who have been cut off from their land by the Separation Wall.

       In addition to separating Palestinians from their farmland, the Separation Wall also intersected Palestinian towns and cities. Instead of separating Palestinians from Israelis, it separated Palestinians from Palestinians. Merely to go to work, to school or to a hospital, Palestinians must pass through military checkpoints, where Israeli soldiers routinely harass and intimidate them or simply delay their passage, including people seeking emergency medical treatment. What was formerly a routine commute to work or school became an onerous trip requiring several hours of delays. The World Bank estimated that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a measure of goods and services produced, in the Occupied Territories declined 60 percent on a per capita basis from 1999 to 2008 due to restrictions imposed on Palestinians’ freedom of movement.

       In 2004 the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion ruling that Israel was obligated to halt construction of the wall, to dismantle it where it interfered with Palestinians’ freedom of movement, and to compensate Palestinians for lost income. The Court found that the Separation wall interfered with Palestinian’s “right to work, to health, to education, and to an adequate standard of living as proclaimed by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and in the United  Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.”  

       The impact of the Wall on many Palestinian communities has been devastating. According to United Nations reports, about 15,000 Palestinians were forced to move elsewhere due to the Wall’s impact on their ability to work and live. A UN report on the West Bank village of Jubara found that the Wall’s impact on a once-thriving economy that featured 10 poultry plants had led to 90 percent unemployment and the impoverishment of 1,800 farming families cut off from their land.

       Even without the Separation Wall, Palestinians must still pass through myriad military checkpoints. According to a World Bank report, “on any given day the ability to reach work, school, shopping, healthcare facilities and agricultural land is highly uncertain and subject to arbitrary restriction and delay.”

       Gaza also is enclosed by fences on both the Israeli and Egyptian borders. Israel maintains complete control of Gaza’s borders, making it the largest open-air prison in the world. Palestinians cannot travel outside Gaza without special permits from Israel. Israel restricts the movement of Gaza’s students to and from the West Bank. In 2000, about 350 Gaza students attended Birzeit University in the West Bank. After Israel imposed its blockade, fewer than 15 Gaza students were able to attend Birzeit.


       These are just some of the many aspects of Palestinian life affected by the Israeli government’s apartheid policies. Fortunately, an international solidarity movement has formed around the world and is heeding the call of Palestinian civil society to boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) Israel for its flagrant violations of human rights. Just as in South Africa and the American South where whites joined with blacks to fight segregation and white supremacy, many Israeli Jews are also repudiating their government’s policies. They have actively joined with Palestinians to fight apartheid. In weekly protests in villages like Budrus and Bilin and in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, Palestinians, Israeli Jews, and international solidarity activists demonstrate nonviolently against home demolitions and the Separation Wall. Their actions speak louder than words and prove that Arabs and Jews can live together peacefully and in harmony on the basis of equal rights for all. 

       Many Americans, including American Jews, also oppose Israel’s policies and the way the U.S. government helps prop up the apartheid system by giving Israel $3 billion in annual military aid. The U.S. Foreign Assistance Act prohibits U.S. aid to countries that deny human and democratic rights. The Arms Export Control Aid prohibits military aid to countries that habitually violate human rights. Write to your members of Congress and demand that the U.S. government cease providing aid to apartheid Israel.



“Separate and Unequal” 

       a report by Human Rights Watch.

Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation 

      by Saree Makdisi.

Israel’s Occupation 

      by Neve Gordon.

“Institutionalized Arab Inequality in Israel,” 

      by Stephen Lendman.

“Inequality Report: The Palestinian Arab Minority in Israel,” 

      by the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights.

“Education Under Attack 2010,” 

      a report by UNESCO.