May 16th 2021

The Big Question Posed by Human Rights Watch’s Report 

James Zogby

Dr James Zogby serves as the President of the Arab American Institute in Washington, DC. He co-founded the organization in 1985 and for the past two decades has been involved in a full range of Arab American issues. He also co-founded the Palestine Human Rights Campaign in the late 1970s, and later co-founded and served as the Executive Director of the American-Arab-Anti-Discrimination Committee. He serves on the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Committee as well as on the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr Zogby hosts a weekly television show called, “Viewpoint with James Zogby” and writes a weekly newspaper column, “Washington Watch”.

While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question.

I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression.

Defending Palestinian human rights has long been my passion – and my vocation. I founded the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC) almost one-half century ago. In the 1970’s, we issued our own reports on some of the very same policies covered in the HRW study. I, therefore, felt some degree of validation reading their presentation of Israel’s: systematic effort to cleanse the Galilee and the Negev of Arabs; refusal to allow Palestinian refugees and those internally displaced access to their homes and properties; crippling stranglehold on Gaza and impact on the lives of that region’s civilian population; efforts to ensure Jewish demographic dominance in what they call “Greater Jerusalem”; and deliberate policies designed to corral Palestinians in the West Bank into Bantustans, replicating the way they dealt with their Palestinian citizens in the Galilee. I also felt enraged because these inhumane policies​, though known (and reported on) for decades​, have been ignored by policymakers. 

I also felt a deep hurt as I recalled the many Palestinian victims of Israeli abuse whom I’ve known over the years – those who: were tortured; had their homes demolished or lands confiscated; were illegally kidnapped and expelled; detained for years without trial; or were refugees, forced to flee and longing to return to their homes.

And I grieved for those human rights champions I knew who had devoted their lives to the cause of justice and helped guide my early work: the human rights attorney, Felicia Langer; the President and Vice-President of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights, Israel Shahak and Uri Davis; the poet, Mayor of Nazereth and Knesset Member Tawfiq Zayyad; and the courageous West Bank mayors Abdul Jawad Saleh, Fahd Kawasmeh, and Mohamed Milham – who were taken by occupation authorities in the dark of night and expelled from their homes and country. At one point, while reading the report, I wept at the thought that none of these heroes had lived to see the day when the racist system against which they worked so hard was finally being called out by the name it deserved - Apartheid.   

What’s new, of course, in this HRW report, aren’t the details of the charge sheet. It’s that HRW has removed the argument that liberals in the US have used to absolve themselves from criticizing Israel. When confronted with past reports on Israeli abuses, their two most common responses have taken two forms of nervous dismissal: either – “If we focus on these matters, it will make the Israelis less willing to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians;” or “If the Israelis continue on this path, a two-state solution will be impossible and Israel will become an apartheid state.”

As the title of the report makes clear, that threshold has been crossed. By calculated Israeli design, the two-state solution is no longer possible​; apartheid and persecution define the reality that exists in the entire area under Israeli control.

Relying on the accepted definitions of these crimes in international law, “A Threshold Crossed” methodically lays out the case that Israel is guilty of: Apartheid – that is, “inhumane acts committed in the context of systematic oppression by one racial group over another, with the intent to dominate the marginalized group; and Persecution, that is, “severe abuses of fundamental rights committed with discriminatory intent.”

To date, the responses of Israel and its supporters in the US to the HRW report have been predictable. They worked themselves into a frenzied rage throwing every imaginable insult they could at HRW and the report’s leadership – “fabricated,” “a pack of lies,” “anti-Semitic.” The reactions of liberals have been more interesting, since they have long held that HRW reports on other countries as the “gold standard.” They have, therefore, twisted themselves in knots trying to maintain their concern with Israeli practices while still falling back on the two-state mantra.

In both instances, it was clear that the report hadn’t been read​, and in all likelihood​, wouldn’t be read because of the discomfort it will cause. And this too is infuriating.

My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” And as you read it, ask yourselves just one question: “Are Palestinians full human beings whose lives are as valuable as those of any other people?” If you decide the answer is “Yes,” then I ask​, how can you be silent and acquiesce in the face of the horrific systematic abuse to which Palestinians have been forced to endure? And how can you continue to tolerate the denial of Palestinian rights to the sanctity of their homes and properties and their fundamental rights to life and liberty?

If you remain silent, continue to find ways to absolve Israel’s behaviors, or refuse to consider measures to end these abuses, then you are, in fact, answering “No, Palestinians are not full human beings whose lives are as valuable as those of any other people” – and you, in effect, become complicit in these continuing crimes against humanity.  

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