Future historians may single out 2021 as the year the tide turned for the Palestinian struggle—though it was hard to see coming. The final months of 2020 were among the bleakest in decades, as a US administration bent on furthering Israel’s right-wing expansionist vision sought to dismantle, bit by bit, the central concerns that make up the Palestinian cause: the right of refugees to return to homes from which they were expelled in 1948, the status of Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, and the right to self-determination on lands currently occupied by Israel. At the year’s end, the coup de grâce came when several Arab states turned their backs on Palestine, normalizing diplomatic and economic relations with Israel despite its continuing subjugation of Palestinians. The Palestinian people seemed to have been vanquished, while Israel pursued its annexation of occupied territory.
But breakthroughs came unexpectedly. In January 2021, B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights organization, released a report unambiguously titled A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This Is Apartheid. In it, the authors argued that their organization’s mandate from its founding in 1989—to bring to light Israeli human rights violations in the Occupied Territories—was no longer adequate. “The situation has changed,” the report explained. “What happens in the Occupied Territories can no longer be treated as separate from the reality in the entire area under Israel’s control.”
The power of this report was not in the accusation, delivered by an Israeli organization, that Israel was practicing apartheid; Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization committed to protecting Palestinians living under Israel’s military regime in the West Bank, had leveled that charge six months earlier, as had several leading Israeli public figures. Indeed, numerous Israeli and international voices have warned for years that Israeli practices, left unchecked, would amount to a system of apartheid. What was different about B’Tselem’s analysis was its challenge to a pervasive myth, one to which much of the international community subscribes, that Israel’s military rule in the occupied Palestinian territory can be treated as somehow separate from the state of Israel. Instead, the organization characterized Israel as a single “regime that governs the entire area.”
Three months later, Human Rights Watch, the world’s leading international human rights organization, echoed this finding when it issued an exhaustive report, including extensive legal analysis, which concluded damningly that a historic threshold had been crossed: Israeli authorities were committing crimes against humanity, in the form of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people. Beyond the South African origin of the term, apartheid is universally prohibited under the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which also prohibits the crime of persecution.