B’Tselem, 12 January 2021
More than 14 million people, roughly half of them Jews and the other half Palestinians, live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea under a single rule. The common perception in public, political, legal and media discourse is that two separate regimes operate side by side in this area, separated by the Green Line. One regime, inside the borders of the sovereign State of Israel, is a permanent democracy with a population of about nine million, all Israeli citizens. The other regime, in the territories Israel took over in 1967, whose final status is supposed to be determined in future negotiations, is a temporary military occupation imposed on some five million Palestinian subjects.
Over time, the distinction between the two regimes has grown divorced from reality. This state of affairs has existed for more than 50 years – twice as long as the State of Israel existed without it. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers now reside in permanent settlements east of the Green Line, living as though they were west of it. East Jerusalem has been officially annexed to Israel’s sovereign territory, and the West Bank has been annexed in practice. Most importantly, the distinction obfuscates the fact that the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is organized under a single principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians. All this leads to the conclusion that these are not two parallel regimes that simply happen to uphold the same principle. There is one regime governing the entire area and the people living in it, based on a single organizing principle.
When B’Tselem was founded in 1989, we limited our mandate to the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip, and refrained from addressing human rights inside the State of Israel established in 1948 or from taking a comprehensive approach to the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Yet the situation has changed. The regime’s organizing principle has gained visibility in recent years, as evidenced by the Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People passed in 2018, or open talk of formally annexing parts of the West Bank in 2020. Taken together with the facts described above, this means that what happens in the Occupied Territories can no longer be treated as separate from the reality in the entire area under Israel’s control. The terms we have used in recent years to describe the situation – such as “prolonged occupation” or a “one-state reality” – are no longer adequate. To continue effectively fighting human rights violations, it is essential to examine and define the regime that governs the entire area.
This paper analyzes how the Israeli regime works to advance its goals in the entire area under its control. We do not provide a historical review or an evaluation of the Palestinian and Jewish national movements, or of the former South Africa regime. While these are important questions, they are beyond the purview of a human rights organization. Rather, this document presents the principles that guide the regime, demonstrates how it implements them and points to the conclusion that emerges from all of this as to how the regime should be defined and what that means for human rights.
Divide, separate, rule
In the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, the Israeli regime implements laws, practices and state violence designed to cement the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians. A key method in pursuing this goal is engineering space differently for each group.
Jewish citizens live as though the entire area were a single space (excluding the Gaza Strip). The Green Line means next to nothing for them: whether they live west of it, within Israel’s sovereign territory, or east of it, in settlements not formally annexed to Israel, is irrelevant to their rights or status.
Where Palestinians live, on the other hand, is crucial. The Israeli regime has divided the area into several units that it defines and governs differently, according Palestinians different rights in each. This division is relevant to Palestinians only. The geographic space, which is contiguous for Jews, is a fragmented mosaic for Palestinians:
- Palestinians who live on land defined in 1948 as Israeli sovereign territory (sometimes called Arab-Israelis) are Israeli citizens and make up 17% of the state’s citizenry. While this status affords them many rights, they do not enjoy the same rights as Jewish citizens by either law or practice – as detailed further in this paper.
- Roughly 350,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, which consists of some 70,000 dunams [1 dunam = 1,000 square meters] that Israel annexed to its sovereign territory in 1967. They are defined as permanent residents of Israel a status that allows them to live and work in Israel without needing special permits, to receive social benefits and health insurance, and to vote in municipal elections. Yet permanent residency, unlike citizenship, may be revoked at any time, at the complete discretion of the Minister of the Interior. In certain circumstances, it can also expire.
- Although Israel never formally annexed the West Bank, it treats the territory as its own. More than 2.6 million Palestinian subjects live in the West Bank, in dozens of disconnected enclaves, under rigid military rule and without political rights. In about 40% of the territory, Israel has transferred some civilian powers to the Palestinian Authority (PA). However, the PA is still subordinate to Israel and can only exercise its limited powers with Israel’s consent.
- The Gaza Strip is home to about two million Palestinians, also denied political rights. In 2005, Israel withdrew its forces from the Gaza Strip, dismantled the settlements it built there and abdicated any responsibility for the fate of the Palestinian population. After the Hamas takeover in 2007, Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip that is still in place. Throughout all of these years, Israel has continued to control nearly every aspect of life in Gaza from outside.