Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that Israel is committing the crime of "apartheid" by seeking to maintain Jewish "domination" over Palestinians and its own Arab population, an allegation fiercely denounced by Israel.
Israel, currently being investigated by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes, blasted the accusations as "preposterous and false" and accused the New York-based group of having "a long-standing anti-Israeli agenda".
HRW said its finding that Israel is "committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution" against Palestinians was based on robust sourcing including government planning materials and statements by public officials.
The 213-page report finds that the Israeli government is the "single authority" with primary control "over the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea".
Within that territory, there is "an overarching Israeli government policy to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians," HRW said.
The group said its findings apply to Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, the blockaded Gaza Strip and annexed east Jerusalem as well as Arab Israelis -- Palestinians who stayed on their land following Israel's creation in 1948.
- 'Threshold crossed' -
HRW said that while apartheid was initially coined with respect to institutional persecution of black people in South Africa, it was now a universally recognised legal term.
An apartheid system is defined by "an effort to maintain domination by one racial group over another, a context of systematic oppression by the dominant group over the marginalised group (and) inhuman acts," the group said.
Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, told AFP there have been warnings for years that "apartheid is around the corner".
"I think it's quite clear that that threshold has been crossed," Shakir said from Jordan.
A US citizen, Shakir was the first foreign national deported by Israel for allegedly supporting an international boycott movement that seeks to isolate Israel, an allegation he denies.
- 'Propaganda pamphlet' -
Israel's foreign ministry told AFP the HRW report amounted to a "propaganda pamphlet" from an organisation that has been "actively seeking for years to promote boycotts against Israel".
Israel has occupied the West Bank since the 1967, the same year it annexed east Jerusalem.
Since then, more than half a million Jewish settlers -- both ideologically and economically motivated -- have moved into or grown up in these areas.
Palestinians in east Jerusalem and across much of the West Bank are regularly denied building permits, while Jewish home construction has steadily grown.
"While much of the world treats Israel's half-century occupation as a temporary situation that a decades-long 'peace process' will soon cure, the oppression of Palestinians there has reached a threshold and a permanence that meets the definitions of the crimes of apartheid and persecution," said HRW executive director Ken Roth.
HRW called on nations to stop viewing the occupation as an issue that can be resolved through a peace deal, and to foster accountability by reconsidering their Israel ties, including military cooperation.
- Sanctions call -
The group also called on the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority to cease some forms of security cooperation with Israel to avoid being "complicit" with apartheid.
Palestinian officials welcomed the HRW findings.
"The report exposes the nature of Israel's colonial occupation as an entrenched regime of Jewish supremacy and domination over the Palestinian people," the Palestinian foreign ministry said, according to the official Wafa agency.
Hamas, considered a terrorist group by most Western states and also being probed by the ICC, welcomed the HRW report as proof of the "credibility of the Palestinian narrative which exposes the crimes against humanity committed by the Israeli occupation against Palestinians".
The report emphasises the "necessity for a serious and practical international action to punish and hold the Israeli occupation accountable for its crimes and for the international community to assume its duty towards such atrocities," the militant group said in a statement.
Israel has said it will not cooperate with the International Criminal Court investigation, expected to focus on war crimes allegedly committed by both sides during its 2014 war with Hamas.
But HRW said the ICC should conduct additional investigations into those "credibly implicated" in committing the crimes of apartheid and persecution.
It called on nations to "impose individual sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on officials responsible for committing these crimes."
While HRW is the first major international organisation to level the controversial apartheid charge against Israel, it is following a move made this year by Israeli civil society group B'Tselem.
The settler watchdog charged that the "Israeli regime implements laws, practices and state violence designed to cement the supremacy of one group -– Jews –- over another -– Palestinians."