Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Washington earlier this month, hot on the heels of an announcement that Israeli authorities had approved yet more housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. In a week when the U.S. paused to recall the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, President Peres might have considered King's message -- an end to segregation -- and why such a system of racial inequality remains in place in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Back in 1968, when Dr. King was murdered, the debate about discrimination was live and real. Most governments have long since stopped trying to justify separating people based on race or national origin, whether for ostensible security concerns, like the U.S. internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, or plain old bigotry, like the Jim Crow laws of the American south.
Yet in the areas of the Occupied Palestinian Territories where Israel has moved almost half a million Jewish "settlers," not only do Israeli laws and policies strictly segregate Jews from Palestinians, they deliberately deprive Palestinians of the most basic needs, in many cases forcing them out of their communities. With little regard for the blatant racial inequality of its policies, the Israeli government provides Jewish settlements with water, electricity, housing, schools, hospitals and roads, while it severely restricts access to these necessities to Palestinian communities under its control. On April 3, a planning committee approved the construction of 942 more settlement housing units in East Jerusalem and Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved construction plans for five other settlements.
Put aside for the moment that these settlements are illegal under the Geneva Conventions because they're on occupied territory. In the 60 percent of the West Bank known as "Area C" and in East Jerusalem, Israel maintains exclusive control over the lives of settlers and Palestinians. In these circumstances, Israel must, under international human rights law, treat the two populations equally. Except with respect to voting rights in Israel, it is prohibited from discriminating against the Palestinians because they, unlike the settlers, lack Israeli citizenship. Even in East Jerusalem, which Israel unilaterally annexed but no other state has recognized, Israel subjects Palestinians to grossly unequal laws and policies -- not just separate, but disturbingly unequal.
Israel justifies its policies on security grounds: it must protect the security of settlers. Israeli authorities indeed have an obligation to safeguard citizens -- all citizens, whatever their ethnicity or religion. But security concerns do not warrant treating every last Palestinian man, woman and child as a threat. And security concerns do not justify systematically separating Palestinians from Jews, with shanties and dirt roads provided for the one, and spacious villas with swimming pools and paved highways provided for the other.
Israel restricts Palestinians' access to their agricultural lands if they're near a settlement and limits how much they can export. It keeps Palestinians from building or expanding their homes and demolishes those built without permission -- 430 structures last year alone. It refuses to grant them access to the water beneath their land, or to the electricity grid, or even permission to install solar panels; it denies them permits to build schools or medical clinics. None of these things are permitted in century-old Palestinian villages that Israel now re-defines as "closed military zones."
Israel's security justifications fall far short of the strict and narrow limits on differential treatment permitted under international law between people of different ethnicities or national origins. A state should never apply such measures categorically against an entire group and must limit them to specific individuals who pose a threat.
In recent polls, 63 percent of Israeli Jews supported continued settlement expansion and 34 percent of American Jews opposed dismantling settlements. Yet how can Israelis, so proud of the democratic values of their state, tolerate a settlement system that has thrived on outdated and discredited discrimination against the people who live alongside them? And why should American Jews, who have a history of deep engagement with the U.S. civil rights movement, support settlements built on these kinds of laws and policies in Israel? A peace accord may come, or not, but meanwhile Israel's separate and unequal treatment of Palestinians and Jews is causing tremendous harm and suffering in the life of every Palestinian living under Israeli control.
One could "tsk tsk" and look away, but the international community's involvement in Israel's discriminatory system makes it hard to shrug off responsibility for the humiliation and abuse this system imposes on Palestinians. When the EU imports tax-free goods from settlement greenhouses, using water and land that Palestinians can't access, and doesn't even let consumers know the source of these goods, it supports the system. When businesses invest in settlement agriculture and construction accomplished by denying basic resources to Palestinians, the businesses help the system flourish. When the U.S. government gives financial aid to Israel, it frees up Israeli funds for settlements; when it grants tax exemptions to charities that finance settlement expansion, it undermines US opposition to discrimination and settlements.
This is why Human Rights Watch, which extensively documented these discriminatory practices in a report, has called on the EU to clearly label settlement-produced goods, on businesses to review their activities in the settlements, and on the US to cut aid to Israel equal to what Israel spends on the settlements and to investigate tax exemptions for settlement charities.
We do no honor to King's legacy by supporting policies that promote racial discrimination and segregation, no matter where in the world they may be. The universal principles of equality under law are ones that all people, Jewish or Palestinian, in the United States or Israel, deserve to enjoy.
Sarah Leah Whitson is director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. The report, Separate and Unequal: Israel's Discriminatory Treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, documents the situation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank area under complete Israeli control.