Populations in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory endure recurring war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the crime of apartheid.
Palestinian territory – encompassing the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem – has been illegally occupied by Israel since 1967. The Israeli government has institutionalized systematic racial oppression through a two-tiered legal and political system that provides comprehensive rights for Jewish Israeli settlers while imposing military rule and control on Palestinians without any basic protections or rights under international law. The Israeli government has also engaged in a regular practice of inhumane acts, as well as extrajudicial killings, torture, denial of fundamental human rights, arbitrary detention and collective punishment.
According to a March 2022 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), Israel’s political system of entrenched rule in the OPT satisfies the prevailing evidentiary standard for the existence of the crime of apartheid. The Special Rapporteur previously determined in July 2021 that Israel’s 55-year occupation has been characterized by settlement expansion that aims to permanently alter the ethnic demographics of East Jerusalem and amounts to a war crime. The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on the OPT, including East Jerusalem, and Israel reached similar conclusions in September 2022, reporting that the Israeli government’s policies and actions have led to the permanent occupation and de facto annexation of Palestinian territory, likely constituting crimes under international law, including war crimes. Both the CoI and Special Rapporteur have reported that this ongoing coercive environment has prevented Palestinians from fulfilling their right to self-determination and other fundamental human rights.
The CoI concluded in June 2022 that continued occupation, as well as discrimination against Palestinians, are the key causes of recurrent instability and protraction of conflict in the region. There are close to 300 illegal settlements in Occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank with approximately 700,000 Israeli settlers. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 952 Palestinian-owned structures were demolished or seized by Israeli government authorities in 2022, forcibly displacing over 1,031 Palestinians. The UN Security Council (UNSC) previously adopted a resolution in December 2016 reaffirming that Israeli settlements in the OPT violate international law.
Palestinians are also regularly subjected to deadly violence by Israeli settlers, including physical attacks, shooting with live ammunition, torching of fields and livestock, theft and vandalization of property. Israeli security forces also perpetrate widespread attacks against Palestinians, particularly in occupied territory and often leading to deadly escalations, including regular disproportionate aerial bombardments of the blockaded Gaza Strip. During May 2021, following weeks of escalating tensions and protests, Israeli security forces carried out violent raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, injuring over 1,000 Palestinians. Subsequent indiscriminate rocket fire by Hamas and airstrikes by Israel killed and injured over 2,170 Palestinians in Gaza and killed at least 12 Israelis from 10-21 May.
Meanwhile, Israel’s air, sea and land blockade of Gaza has been in place for over 15 years and has inflicted collective punishment on 2 million Palestinians, facilitating a humanitarian crisis. Israeli authorities periodically shut down the crossings into Gaza, preventing the flow of people, medical cases and essential commodities, including food. Closures in early August 2022 resulted in severe shortages of fuel, forcing the Gaza Power Plant to shut down. Hamas’ security forces have also committed grave abuses against Palestinian civilians in Gaza, including arbitrary arrests, summary executions and torture.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also continues to document assaults, gender-based violence, harassment, excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests and censorship of Palestinian journalists and human rights defenders by Israeli security forces throughout Occupied Palestine. These incidents have resulted in the injury or killing of several Palestinian journalists.
Over 170 Palestinians were injured and at least 300 detained during large-scale raids by Israeli police from 15-22 April 2022 at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem. Israeli police used disproportionate force, tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets to forcefully remove Palestinians. In early August the Israeli government launched indiscriminate airstrikes in Gaza, killing and injuring nearly 400 Palestinians, including dozens of children.
According to OCHA, 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians residing in the Occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, since 2006, with over 156 Palestinians, including 26 children, killed by Israeli security forces. These often follow attacks or incursions by settlers into Palestinian villages and include search-and-arrest operations and violent confrontations with Palestinians. In January 2023 Israeli security forces carried out the deadliest single raid in the Occupied West Bank in decades, killing at least nine Palestinians during an operation at the Jenin refugee camp. The raid prompted a Palestinian gunman to open fire outside a Jerusalem synagogue, killing seven and injuring three Israelis, the deadliest incident against Israelis in 15 years. Following this, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a series of punitive steps against Palestinians, including measures to “strengthen settlements” and sanctions against families of alleged Palestinian attackers. Since then, deadly raids by Israeli security forces have resulted in numerous civilian casualties, including one in Nablus on 22 February during which 11 Palestinians were killed and approximately 100 injured.
In December 2022 the UN General Assembly requested the International Court of Justice to give an advisory opinion on the legal consequences of Israel’s ongoing occupation.
The systematic nature of human rights violations and inhumane acts in the OPT likely amounts to crimes against humanity while the collective punishment of Palestinians as a coercive measure of population control may amount to a war crime. Under the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), apartheid is a crime against humanity.
Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from transferring parts of its civilian population into occupied territory, also known as “settler implantation.” Seizures and demolitions of Palestinian and Bedouin land and property leave communities at heightened risk of forced evictions, arbitrary displacement and forcible transfer. Israel’s permanent and illegal occupation endangers the cultural existence of the Palestinian people and violates their right to self-determination.
Impunity for cycles of violence has entrenched a system of structural oppression against Palestinians in Gaza and the Occupied West Bank. There has been no effective accountability for past crimes by Israeli forces, Hamas or Palestinian armed groups, including potential war crimes.
Israel must lift the blockade on Gaza and cease illegal settlement-related activity and apartheid policies. It should also end the occupation of Palestinian territory and collective punishment of Palestinians. Israeli authorities must cooperate with all UN-mandated investigative mechanisms. All parties should condemn anti-Semitic and anti-Arab hate speech and cooperate fully with the investigations of the ICC and CoI.
All parties must work toward a sustainable political solution consistent with international law and various UNSC resolutions. States with strong political and economic ties to Israel, the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, should push for a lasting political solution to the conflict, accountability for potential war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the protection of human rights for all civilians, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
The international community should impose accountability measures for violations of international law in Israel and the OPT. The ICC should investigate all potential war crimes or crimes against humanity perpetrated in the OPT, including the crime of apartheid.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA