‘An illegitimate regime’: How a top rights group shed Israeli myths to recognize apartheid

Yesh Din

Israeli human rights lawyer and Yesh Din legal counsel Michael Sfard.

Source: + 972

In an exclusive interview, human rights lawyer Michael Sfard explains what led Yesh Din to charge Israel with the crime of apartheid in the West Bank.

When he was a rising human rights lawyer two decades ago, Michael Sfard vehemently rejected the word “apartheid” to describe Israel’s military rule over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Despite being a fierce critic of the occupation and dedicating his career to defending Palestinian rights, he told himself that “words matter,” and that the occupation, while gravely unjust, was still a temporary structure that could be overturned with the help of international law.

Years later, Sfard — now a renowned advocate — has drastically changed his tune.

In what may go down as a significant moment in Israeli public discourse, human rights NGO Yesh Din released a detailed legal opinion on Thursday, chiefly authored by Sfard, who serves as the organization’s legal counsel, arguing that Israel’s 53-year occupation of the West Bank constitutes an “apartheid regime.”

Reviewing its development from white-minority rule in South Africa to its definition under the ICC’s Rome Statute, the opinion asserts that Israel is committing the international crime of apartheid by carrying out the “systematic oppression and domination” of one group over another in the territory “with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

“Up until now, Yesh Din would say that specific policies are illegal or are even war crimes, but now we are talking about the regime being illegitimate,” Sfard told +972 in an exclusive interview. The goal of the legal opinion, he says, “is to change the internal Israeli discourse, and no longer talk about our presence in the West Bank as an occupation that is temporary, but as an illegitimate crime.”

While the analysis focuses on the West Bank, Yesh Din emphasizes that this by no means excludes the argument that “the crime of apartheid is not committed only in the West Bank. That the Israeli regime in its entirety is an apartheid regime. That Israel is an apartheid state.”

The Israeli left, as small as it is, has also changed, in part because it includes many Palestinians today. I was a left-wing activist in high school, but I never acted shoulder to shoulder with Palestinians, not even Israeli Palestinians [citizens].

Today, there is no such thing as acting on this issue without Palestinians. Their understanding of the conflict has enriched us Jewish activists, including in groups like Yesh Din and B’Tselem. I will never see the reality the same way as you do, I can only try to understand better what you see — and vice versa.

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