Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning ‘separation’ and was the name given to the institutionalized system of racial segregation and subjugation of the African and other non-white population of South Africa by white settlers from 1948 to 1994. In 1973, the Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid codified ‘apartheid’ as a crime based on a universal set of criteria, applicable not only in the case of South Africa.

After a decades-long struggle, apartheid was abolished in Southern Africa in the 20th century. Yet it is still practised by the state of Israel well into the 21st century and thrives on the complicity of states, institutions and corporations.

While racial discrimination by one ethnic, religious or racial group against another group or groups is prevalent across the world, apartheid is distinguished by the institutionalized, legalized and oppressive character of racial discrimination and segregation involved coupled with the aim of racial domination. 

1)    Definition of apartheid in international law

Based on the similar definitions contained in the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (1973) and the Rome Statute of the ICC, apartheid is commonly defined as:

Inhumane acts committed by one racial group against another racial group in the context of an institutionalized regime of domination and systematic oppression, and with the aim/intention of maintaining that regime.

2)    Legal status consequences

Apartheid is one of the most serious violations of human rights. Under customary international law, the prohibition of apartheid is a peremptory norm. Consequently, apartheid, when committed by any State, results in legal obligations not only for the responsible State, but also for all other States and international organizations. This includes the duty not to recognize the situation arising from the crime as legitimate and not to give any aid or assistance to the commision of the crime of apartheid. Finally, it puts the obligation on Third States to, individually or collectively, take proportionate and effective measures, including sanctions, to dismantle the regime of apartheid. 

States signatories of the 1973 anti-apartheid Convention also have additional specific obligations under this treaty. The Rome Statute of the ICC, moreover, classifies apartheid as a crime against humanity that results in individual criminal responsibility.


Since it was established in 1948 by ethnically cleansing a majority of the Indigenous Palestinian people from their towns and villages, the state of Israel has imposed a system of apartheid against the entire Palestinian people, including the refugees, Palestinian citizens of present-day Israel, and those in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Israel’s regime against the Palestinians, therefore, combines settler-colonialism, military occupation and apartheid.

Apartheid faced by Palestinian refugees: 

  • The most egregious violation of rights Israel’s regime of apartheid imposes on Palestinian refugees is the denial of their right of return. Laws such as the Law of Return (1950) and the Israeli Citizenship Law (1952) stripped Palestinian refugees of their right to citizenship and gave an almost absolute right to citizenship and a range of other privileges to any Jewish individual and his/her relatives. These laws grant the superior civil status of “Jewish nationality” to Jewish Israelis. 

Apartheid faced by those that survived the 1948 Nakba staying in the land and are now Israeli citizens: 

  • Land theft and demolitions of homes and communities by Israeli forces is the prevalent reality for Palestinians. By forcibly displacing Palestinian communities inside present-day Israel (such as in the Bedouin Palestinian communities of Al-Araqib and Umm al-Hiran) Israel forces them to become refugees (internally displaced) in their own homeland. This is how al Nakba (catastrophe) is not an aspect of the past but an ongoing crime of colonial dispossession and grave denial of rights. 
  • Palestinian citizens of Israel are denied equality in land ownership, jobs, housing, education and other vital aspects of life by means of over 65 racially discriminatory laws.

Apartheid faced in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT):

  • Israel regularly demolishes Palestinian homes and displaces Palestinian communities for the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements. This also includes separate roads only used by Jewish Israeli citizens and settlers.
  • Palestinian land and water resources are stolen and diverted towards Jewish-Israeli settlements. Over 60% of the territory is demarcated as Area C, under complete control of Israeli forces. This is predominantly agrarian and resource rich land.
  • Palestinian natural resources, including stone, natural gas and oil are plundered and robbed off Palestinians. 

Israel employs de facto and de jure annexation of occupied territories as part of its systematic policy to cage Palestinians in ever smaller ghettos, destroying their livelihoods.  

Apart from all of these manifestations of apartheid, Israel’s parliament in 2018 passed the Nation State law which “constitutionally enshrin(es) Jewish supremacy and the identity of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people». This is only the latest, albeit most far-reaching quasi-constitutional law that discriminates against and subjugates the Indigenous Palestinians. And this is what makes Israel an apartheid state, where racist domination of Palestinians and denial of their basic rights are not only a matter of everyday practise and policy but also enshrined in law and overall intentional system of racial domination, just as it was in apartheid South Africa. 


Over the last two decades, the demand by the Palestinian people to condemn Israel as an apartheid regime against the entire Palestinian people has gained increasing force. 

  • The question of Israeli apartheid came to the fore during the NGO Forum of the  World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 and attended by representatives of close to 3,000 NGOs from all continents. The NGO Forum’s Final Declaration recognized that the Palestinian people endure “a colonialist, discriminatory military occupation that violates their fundamental human right of self-determination” and amounts to “Israel’s brand of apartheid”.
  • In 2007, South African jurist John Dugard was the first UN Special Rapporteur to alert the United Nations (A/HRC/4/17) that Israel’s occupation shows many of the features of colonialism and apartheid. The report of UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights in the OPT in 2011 (A/HRC/16/72) and 2014 (A/HRC/25/67) include similar conclusions.
  • In 2008, the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society, represeted in  the Palestininan BDS National Committee (BNC), endorsed the Palestinian Civil Society Strategic Position Paper: «United against Apartheid, Colonialism and Occupation, Dignity and Justice for the Palestinian People» for presentation to the Durban World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) Review Conference, Geneva, April 2009.
  • Concluding observations by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) repeatedly denounced Israel’s policies as forms of racial discrimination and apartheid in the subsequent periodic reviews of 2007, 2012, 2020. In 2012, CERD urged Israel, pursuant to Article 3 of the Convention, to prohibit and eradicate policies or practices of racial segregation and apartheid that “severely and disproportionately affect the Palestinian population.” (CERD/C/ISR/CO/14-16 (9 March 2012)
  • In 2009, Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa sponsored the study “Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid?”,  which confirms the applicability of these three complementary legal frameworks to Israel’s regime over Palestinians in the OPT and lays out the legal consequences for Israel and all other States. 
  • In 2011, the Russell Tribunal on Palestine held in Capetown, South Africa found Israel guilty of the crime of apartheid. 
  • In 2013, the European Journal of International Law (EJIL) published an extensive analysis on “Apartheid, International Law, and the Occupied Palestinian Territory” by John Dugard and John Reynolds, which is based on the South African Human Sciences Research Council-sponsored study from 2009.
  • In 2017, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia  (ESCWA) commissioned and published the report “Israeli Practices toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid(subsequently removed from ESCWA’s website upon instruction of the UN Secretary General under US-Israeli pressure).
  • In 2019, Palestinian human rights organizations submitted a report on Israeli apartheid to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
  • In 2020, ten ex-presidents and over 700 members of parliament, diplomats and cultural figures from Asia, Africa and Latin America called for a UN investigation into Israel’s apartheid 
  • In January 2021, B’Tselem, a leading Israeli human  rights organization, declared that Israel’s regime over Palestinians «from the river to the Sea» is a system of apartheid
  • In April 2021, Human Rights Watch issued an in depth analysis of Israeli laws and policies directed at Palestinians, concluding that they amount to a system of apartheid in present-day Israel and the OPT, and to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution in the OPT.


The decades long struggle of the South African people, including international boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the then apartheid regime, led to dismantling it. Even as the effects of colonialism and apartheid live on, particularly in the economic sphere, South Africans have ended the inhumane formal and legalized racist structure that dehumanized and subjugated them. 

While neither the system of oppression nor the struggle to end it in South Africa and Palestine are identical, the South Africa victory over apartheid serves as an inspiration and a precedent for the Palestinian people, who until today suffer Israel’s regime of military occupation, apartheid and settler colonialism.

In 2020, following the mobilization by Palestinian civil society and partners in the Global South against further Israeli annexation of occupied Palestinian land,, ten ex-Presidents and over 700 members of parliament, diplomats and cultural figures from Asia, Africa and Latin America called for a UN investigation into Israel’s apartheid and accountability measures, including  lawful and targeted sanctions.In March 2021 Namibia’s government raised  these demands to the UN Human Rights Council, while Human Rights Watch included them in itsrecent report ‘A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution’. 

Support from the Global South is essential for ending Israel’s apartheid. In order to take forward and strengthen the Global South Response, Palestinian civil society calls on you to: 

  • Build awareness in your community about Israel’s apartheid regime using resources shared here and above. 
  • Endorse and share with elected officials, civil society leaders and people’s movements the Global South Response to mobilize support for lawful and targeted sanctions to dismantle Israeli apartheid.
  • Support the call for a UN investigation of Israeli apartheid and the reactivation of the UN mechanisms to fight apartheid.