JERUSALEM (AP) -- Amnesty International said Tuesday that Israel has maintained "a system of oppression and domination" over the Palestinians going all the way back to its establishment in 1948, one that meets the international definition of apartheid.
With the release of a 278-page report compiled over a period of four years, the London-based rights group joins Human Rights Watch and the Israeli rights group B'Tselem in accusing Israel of apartheid -- both within its borders and in the occupied territories.
Their findings are part of a growing international movement to redefine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a struggle for equal rights rather than a territorial dispute. Those efforts have gained strength in the decade since the peace process ground to a halt, as Israel has consolidated its control over the occupied territories and soured on the idea of a Palestinian state.
Israel rejects any allegation of apartheid, saying its own Arab citizens enjoy equal rights. It granted limited autonomy to the Palestinian Authority at the height of the peace process in the 1990s and withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005.
But Amnesty and the other groups say the very fragmentation of the territories in which Palestinians live is part of an overall regime of control designed to maintain Jewish hegemony from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
They point to discriminatory policies within Israel and in annexed east Jerusalem, Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has been ruled by the Hamas militant group since 2007, and its de facto annexation of the West Bank, where it exerts overall control and is actively building and expanding Jewish settlements that most of the international community considers illegal.
Palestinians have accused Israel of apartheid for decades. The Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the occupied West Bank and cooperates with Israel on security, welcomed the report.
Amnesty traces such policies back to the establishment of Israel in 1948. Around 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled during the Arab-Israeli war surrounding Israel's creation. They accounted for some 80% of the Palestinian population in what is now Israel. Israel barred the refugees from returning in order to maintain its Jewish majority.
The Palestinians remaining inside Israel lived under military rule until shortly before the 1967 Mideast war, when Israel captured east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, territories the Palestinians want for their future state.
Today, Palestinians inside Israel have citizenship, including the right to vote, and some have reached the upper echelons of business, law, medicine and entertainment. But overall, they face widespread discrimination in areas like the job and housing markets. Palestinians in the West Bank live under Israeli military rule, and those in Hamas-ruled Gaza also face a crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade.
Palestinians make up about 20% of Israel's 9.4 million population. But the Jewish and Arab populations are roughly equal when including the West Bank and Gaza.
"Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has pursued a policy of establishing and maintaining a Jewish demographic hegemony and maximizing its control over land to benefit Jewish Israelis while restricting the rights of Palestinians and preventing Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes," Amnesty said. "Israel extended this policy to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which it has occupied ever since."
Israel dismissed the previous reports as biased, but has adopted a far more adversarial stance toward Amnesty, accusing it of antisemitism and of delegitimizing Israel's very existence even before the report was published.
"Its extremist language and distortion of historical context were designed to demonize Israel and pour fuel onto the fire of antisemitism," the Foreign Ministry said Monday.
Agnes Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty, rejected those accusations as "baseless attacks" and "bare-faced lies." She said Amnesty recognizes the state of Israel and denounces antisemitism, and that accusations to the contrary are "nothing more than a desperate attempt to evade scrutiny (and) divert attention from our findings."
None of the reports compared Israel to apartheid South Africa, where a system based on white supremacy and racial segregation was in place from 1948 until 1994. Instead, they evaluated Israel's policies based on international conventions like the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It defines apartheid as "an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group."
The ICC is already investigating potential war crimes committed by Israel and Palestinian militants in recent years. After last year's Gaza war, the U.N. Human Rights Council set up a permanent commission of inquiry to investigate abuses against Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, including "systematic discrimination and repression based on national, ethnic, racial or religious identity."
Such a commission is the most intrusive type of investigative body that the council can create, and for the first time, this one was given an "ongoing" or permanent mandate.
Israel has accused both the ICC and the U.N. rights body of being biased against it and of singling it out while other countries commit far worse violations.
Yuval Shany, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a member of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Law, said it's "highly unlikely" the ICC would pursue apartheid allegations given the complexities involved.
He said the apartheid claim is "extreme and quite unfounded" within Israel, despite there being discrimination. The situation in the territories "is much more complicated."
"There you do have elements which could qualify as discrimination, segregation and oppression, given the length of the occupation," he said. But "it is difficult to distinguish between questions that have to do with security policy, with competing national claims, and what is a racist agenda."
Using the language of apartheid is "a bridge too far," he said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told reporters last month that he expects intensified efforts this year to brand Israel as an apartheid state that could lead to it being banned from sporting or cultural events. He said that reviving a political process with the Palestinians would help to combat those efforts.
The peace process ground to a halt more than a decade ago, and Israel's current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is opposed to Palestinian statehood. He heads an unwieldy coalition that includes more moderate members like Lapid and even a small Arab party.
In part because of its internal divisions, the government has ruled out any major initiatives to resolve the conflict. But several top officials, including Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, have met with Palestinian leaders with the aim of boosting the Palestinian economy and laying the groundwork for negotiations in the future.