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Israel's former attorney general says his country is an 'apartheid regime'

Michael Ben-Yair agrees with the Amnesty report and urges the international community to recognise apartheid
A protester holds a Palestinian flag in front of Israeli troops during a protest against the Israeli barrier in the West Bank village of Bilin near Ramallah. (Reuters)

Former Israeli attorney general Michael Ben-Yair said on Thursday that his country is an "apartheid regime" and urged the international community to recognise this reality and hold Israel accountable. 

In an article published in the Irish newspaper The Journal, Ben-Yair said he agreed with the Amnesty International report last week classifying Israel as an apartheid state. 

"It is with great sadness that I must also conclude that my country has sunk to such political and moral depths that it is now an apartheid regime," Ben-Yair said. 

'It was me, in my role as the attorney general who approved the expropriation of private Palestinian land'

- Michael Ben-Yair

The 79-year-old, who served as Israel's attorney general between 1993 and 1996, said Israeli courts uphold "discriminatory laws" to expel Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, which contributes to the "ongoing domination over these territories."

"It is the Israeli ministerial cabinet for settlements that approves every illegal settlement in the occupied territories. It was me, in my role as the attorney general who approved the expropriation of private Palestinian land in order to build infrastructure such as roads that have entrenched settlement expansion," he said.

Millions of Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are being permanently deprived of their civil and political rights, Ben-Yair added, saying that the "status quo on the ground is a moral abomination." 

Ben-Yair's remarks have appeared a week after Amnesty became the latest organisation to label Israel an apartheid state, joining a cadre of human rights groups that have used the term to describe Israel's discriminatory treatment of Palestinians.

Apartheid is a legal term defined by international law that refers to systematic oppression by one racial group over another. 

As well as serving as attorney general, Ben-Yair was an acting Supreme Court of Israel judge.

Amnesty report

In the 280-page-report, based upon research conducted from 2017 to 2021, Amnesty concluded that since 1948 Israel has pursued policies that "benefit Jewish Israelis while restricting the rights of Palestinians".

"Israel's system of institutionalised segregation and discrimination against Palestinians, as a racial group, in all areas under its control amounts to a system of apartheid, and a serious violation of Israel's human rights obligations," Amnesty said.

"The segregation is conducted in a systematic and highly institutionalised manner through laws, policies and practices, all of which are intended to prevent Palestinians from claiming and enjoying equal rights with Jewish Israelis." 

This is the case both for Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20 percent of the country's population, and the five million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

Prior to the report's release, Israel urged the rights group against publishing the study and branded the conclusions "false, biased and antisemitic".

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Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid said Amnesty "is just another radical organisation which echoes propaganda, without seriously checking the facts", accusing it of repeating "the same lies shared by terrorist organisations". 

"Israel isn't perfect, but we are a democracy committed to international law, open to criticism, with a free press and a strong and independent judicial system," Lapid said in a statement.

The United States also rejected the apartheid label.  

"We reject the view that Israel's actions constitute apartheid. The department's own reports have never used such terminology," US State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters last week.

"We think that it is important, as the world's only Jewish state, that the Jewish people must not be denied their right to self-determination, and we must ensure there isn't a double standard being applied."

Agnes Callamard, Amnesty's secretary general, refuted the criticism of the report as "propaganda and ideological" rather than evidence-based in an interview with Middle East Eye. 

"Have you done an assessment? Have you considered what is the meaning of apartheid under international law? Have you even tried to check whether the policies or practices of Israel meet that definition? No," Callamard said in response to the US position. 

"We cannot be held hostage by the government of Israel on those issues. We need to be very clear that our work is predicated on international human rights standards. And those accusations will not detract us."

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