BEIRUT (Reuters) - A U.N. agency published a report on Wednesday accusing Israel of imposing an "apartheid regime" of racial discrimination on the Palestinian people, and said it was the first time a U.N. body had clearly made the charge.
The report commissioned by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) concluded "Israel has established an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole". The accusation - often directed at Israel by its critics - is fiercely rejected by the Jewish state.
U.N. Under-Secretary General and ESCWA Executive Secretary Rima Khalaf said the report was the "first of its type" from a U.N body that "clearly and frankly concludes that Israeli is a racist state that has established an apartheid system that persecutes the Palestinian people".
Israeli officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Khalaf was speaking at an event to launch the report at ESCWA's Beirut headquarters. ESCWA comprises 18 Arab states in Western Asia, according to its website. Its aims include to support economic and social development in member states. The report was prepared at the request of member states, Khalaf said.
The report said it had established on the "basis of scholarly inquiry and overwhelming evidence, that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid". "However, only a ruling by an international tribunal in that sense would make such an assessment truly authoritative," it added.
The report said the "strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people" was the main method through which Israel imposes apartheid, with Palestinians divided into four groups oppressed through "distinct laws, policies and practices".
It identified the four sets of Palestinians as: Palestinian citizens of Israel; Palestinians in East Jerusalem; Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and Palestinians living as refugees or in exile.
ESCWA hoped the report would inform further deliberations on the root causes of the problem in the United Nations, among member states, and in society, Khalaf said. ESCWA also hoped it would prompt action.
It was authored by Richard Falk, a former U.N. human rights investigator for the Palestinian territories, and Virginia Tilley, professor of political science at Southern Illinois University.
Before leaving his post as U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories in 2014, Falk said Israeli policies bore unacceptable characteristics of colonialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing.
The United States accused him of being biased against Israel.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Alison Williams)