The Palestinian Authority on Friday welcomed remarks by a former head of Israel's Mossad spy agency qualifying the legal situation in the occupied West Bank as "apartheid", but Israelis denounced the comments.
Tamir Pardo, who led Mossad from 2011 to 2016, told US news agency the Associated Press that "there is an apartheid state here", referring to the Palestinian territory Israel has occupied since 1967.
"In a territory where two people are judged under two legal systems, that is an apartheid state," he said in the interview published on Wednesday.
Ahmed al-Deek, a top Palestinian Authority official, said Pardo was among an "increasing number of Israeli officials" expressing such a view.
"We hope that this marks the beginning of an awakening in Israeli society to support the rights of the Palestinian people and to pressure the Israeli government to end its occupation of Palestinian land," Deek said in a statement.
In 2021, US-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) joined some Palestinian and Israeli NGOs in adopting the term "apartheid" to describe Israel's policies towards Palestinians and the country's Arab minority.
A year later, Amnesty International followed suit with a report on the subject which was promptly condemned as "lies" by Yair Lapid, then Israel's foreign minister and now opposition leader.
Pardo's interview comes as the current hard-right government advances controversial judicial reforms which the former Mossad chief has publicly opposed.
He joined several Israeli officials and diplomats who have expressed concerns that Israel risked becoming an apartheid state, but Pardo went further than most of them.
The comments drew condemnation in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party dubbed them "shameful and false".
"Hospitals in Israel treat Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians in the same way. Arabs and Jews study and work together in Israel," the right-wing party said in a statement.
"Pardo, shame on you."
In a joint statement, senior officers from the Israeli army, police and other security services said the remarks were "pitiful and baseless".
"Pardo's allegations are detached from reality" and "a vile defamation of the State of Israel and its security forces", the statement said.
His remarks were "based on personal political views", the officers argued.
The West Bank, excluding annexed east Jerusalem which Israel also seized in the Six-Day War of 1967, is home to some 490,000 Israelis who reside in settlements deemed illegal under international law.
About 2.9 million Palestinians live in the territory.
Netanyahu's administration, a coalition between his Likud party and extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, favours settlement expansion, and some of its members advocate annexation of the West Bank.
Human rights groups regularly denounce restrictions imposed by Israel on Palestinians' freedom of movement and discrimination faced by Israel's Arab minority.
HRW said in its 2021 report that "Israeli authorities are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution" through "systematic oppression and inhumane acts".
It described a "government policy... to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians across Israel and the occupied territory".
Israel firmly rejected those allegations and accused the group of bias.
The apartheid regime in South Africa, which ended in the early 1990s, classified and segregated inhabitants by ethnicity and imposed harsh restrictions on the non-white majority.
South Africa's ruling ANC party has previously compared Israel to an "apartheid state".