Human Rights Watch should watch its words

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There are many problems with Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) contention that in “certain areas” of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, Israel’s “deprivations” against the Palestinians “are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

“Apartheid” is a fraught word, and using the term interferes with the cause of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

That was the argument made in a Newsweek op-ed by two longtime American diplomats: Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel; and Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator.

“The two of us have spent the majority of our professional lives wrestling with the complexities and frustrations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” they wrote in a critique of HRW’s “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.”

While they recognize the report as “deeply researched,” they dispute its conclusion that “the only solution is international pressure on Israel to force a change in its policy and end its occupation.” Rather, they assert: “If history is any guide, the vaunted international community is neither willing nor able to redeem Palestine through sustained pressure,” adding that the charge of apartheid “will drive Israelis and Palestinians and their respective backers into their fighting corners. It will do nothing to improve the situation on the ground and it will likely make it that much more difficult to bring about change in two of the constituencies that really matter: the Biden Administration and Israel.”

The HRW report reflects a level of frustration widely shared: that the only things moving forward between Israelis and Palestinians is the extent of settlement building and the length of time the Palestinians remain under Israeli “control.” But words have power, Kurtzer and Miller say, especially when they are abused by overstating offenses. “The truth is, by charging Israel with ‘crimes against humanity,’ Human Rights Watch has debased the term, when measured against the genocides and mass killings, from the Holocaust to Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur and Syria.”

Israel is not apartheid South Africa. And we applaud the forcefulness of Kurtzer and Miller’s challenge to the misuse of the word and its implications. At the same time, we recognize that efforts pursued to end South Africa’s apartheid could help guide what may be necessary to reach a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As pointed out by Kurtzer and Miller, it wasn’t external pressure that made the difference in South Africa — it was the leaders of the respective movements that drove the result. “[Without] Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk, apartheid would not have ended,” they wrote, and lamented that “today, that kind of leadership is sorely lacking among Israelis and Palestinians.”

As Israel struggles to establish a working government, as Palestinian leadership cancels yet another election, and as the two sides clash in Jerusalem, we pray for the emergence of inspired leadership that will work toward a comprehensive resolution.

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