A United Nations agency has branded Israel an "apartheid state" in what it says is the first time it has levelled the charge against the country.

The body said it was aware of the seriousness of the allegation, but concluded that the available evidence on how Israel dominates the Palestinian people establishes the finding "beyond a reasonable doubt".

It said the "strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people" was the main way Israel imposes apartheid, with Palestinian people oppressed through "distinct laws, policies and practices".

The finding was published by the UN's Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in a report published on Wednesday (15 March).

Israel moved quickly to brand the report as anti-Semitic, but its authors anticipated and firmly denied the claim in the preface to the report.

"The authors reject the accusation of anti-Semitism in the strongest terms," the report states.

"First, the question of whether the State of Israel is constituted as an apartheid regime springs from the same body of international human rights law and principles that rejects anti-Semitism: that is, the prohibition of racial discrimination.

"No State is immune from the norms and rules enshrined in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which must be applied impartially. The prohibition of apartheid, which, as a crime against humanity, can admit no exceptions, flows from the Convention.

"Strengthening that body of international law can only benefit all groups that have historically endured discrimination, domination and persecution, including Jews."

US 'outraged' by report's conclusion

The findings also garnered a strong reaction from the United States, who said they were outraged by the report and demanded that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres withdraw it.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told Reuters reporters in New York that the report as it stands does not reflect the views of the secretary-general, but those of the ESCWA authors Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley.

In their findings, the authors concede the term apartheid can only authoritatively be assessed by an international tribunal, but called on the UN to do so as quickly as possible.

"Any delay compounds the crime by prolonging the subjugation of Palestinians to the active practice of apartheid by Israel," the report states.

"Prompt action is accordingly imperative to avert further human suffering and end a crime against humanity that is being committed now."

Israeli soldiers Hebron
A Palestinian activist argues with Israeli soldiers during a protest in the West Bank city of HebronReuters