Amnesty report: The limits of the apartheid framework

A Palestinian protester lifts the national flag during a demonstration against the expansion of settlements, near the village of Beit Dajan, east of Nablus (AFP)

Lana Tatour

Middle East Eye  /  February 8, 2022

The failure to acknowledge settler colonialism misses how citizenship in Israel is not merely the story of racial discrimination, but one of colonial domination.

Last week, Amnesty International finally caught up with what Palestinian activists, intellectuals, human rights organizations and their allies have been saying for decades, and published a report that concluded that Israel practices apartheid – a crime against humanity under international law – from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea.

Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem published similar reports last year.

Amnesty’s report offers a damning documentation of Israeli apartheid, showing Israeli “intent to oppress and dominate Palestinians”. According to the report, Israel’s land and planning policies, its demographic racial engineering that aims to ensure Jewish majority, the practices of targeted killings, movement restrictions, its policies of ethnic cleansing and forcible transfer, institutionalized discrimination, and denial of citizenship and nationality are all part of a planned system of domination and apartheid. 

Inherent to this domination, the report asserts, is the exercise of differentiated citizenship regimes that distinguish between Jews and Palestinians and the fragmenting of Palestinians into separate groups (Palestinian citizens of Israel, Jerusalemites, Palestinians in the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip, and refugees).

Amnesty’s report also determines that Israeli apartheid applies to 48 Palestinians, or in other words to Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship. The report shows that despite their formal status as citizens, there is a clear “discriminatory intent to dominate Palestinian citizens in Israel” – domination manifested in the exercise of “separate and unequal citizenship structure” and the denial of “equal rights with Jewish Israelis”.

Israel’s entire legal, political and economic structures are deliberately designed to leave Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship in an inherent inferior position to that of Jews. 

Israeli response 

Struggling to dispute the facts presented in the report, Israel, in a Pavlovian manner, rushed to claim the report was “false, biased, and antisemitic” and accused Amnesty International of using “double standards and demonization in order to delegitimize Israel. These are the exact components from which modern antisemitism is made”.

Pro-Israel groups and their apartheid apologist allies joined the chorus, saying that the report was “tantamount to a ‘blood libel’ against the Jewish state and deserves to be placed in the dustbin of antisemitic history”. 

The facts that the report is based on remain, however, undisputed by the Israeli and Zionist lobby.

The Israeli/Zionist responses to the allegations of apartheid include another important dimension. Knowing that it would be difficult to convince the world that Israel is not practicing apartheid in the 1967-occupied Palestinian territories, the hasbara machine, including Israeli foreign policy and the pro-Israel groups and campaigns turned its focus to 48 Palestinians, Palestinian citizens of Israel, to deny that Israel is an apartheid state by showcasing “Arab” integration. 

Israel, the propaganda machine tells us, is a liberal democracy where 48 Palestinians (or, as they call us, “Israeli Arabs”) enjoy full civil rights and equality, including the right to vote and to be elected. As Israel’s former ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, tweeted: “Israel is the only democratic state in the Middle East. One that grants all its citizens, Jews, Muslims and Christians, full and equal rights. In Israel, there are Arabs judges in the Supreme Court, Arab doctors in hospitals, and Arab ministers and parliamentarians in government.”

Likewise, a tweeted statement issued by the Zionist Federation of Australia read that: “The full participation of Palestinian citizens of Israel is ignored or downplayed in the report. That Israel’s governing coalition has an Arab party, that there are Arab cabinet members, Arab High Court justices and more are all ignored by Amnesty, because they are unfortunate truths that would prove the lie of Amnesty’s claims.”


The use of 48 Palestinians in Israeli propaganda and foreign policy is not new, but rather dates back to 1948. Israel has leveraged the Israeli citizenship of 48 Palestinians as a political and diplomatic weapon since its establishment, systematically using them to promote a false image of a liberal democracy. 

After extending citizenship to 48 Palestinians following the Nakba, in order to secure the admission of Israel as a member of the United Nations, it used the participation of 48 Palestinians in its first parliamentary elections in 1949 and their inclusion as elected members of the Israeli parliament for its first international democracy-washing campaign. 

Israel’s first elections in 1949 garnered significant international political and media attention. 

With the world watching, only two speeches were made during the festive opening session of the Knesset: the first by Chaim Weizmann, the first president of the State of Israel; the second by Amin Jarjoura, a newly elected Palestinian member of the Knesset. Doing so allowed Israel to appear as a state attentive to the inclusion of Palestinians, while at the same time subjecting them to militarily rule, limiting their movement, confiscating their land and driving them into extreme poverty, as well as denying refugees the right to return to their homes.

This colonial reality, however, is not easy to conceal, not then and not now. This is why Israel decided to revamp its hasbara efforts from day one. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, devised a comprehensive hasbara plan to showcase Israel’s “good” treatment of its Palestinian citizens. Special pamphlets and booklets, titled The Arabs in Israel, were produced and distributed internationally.

The first booklet appeared in English in 1955 and was translated into French and Spanish. Israel also prepared a monthly bulletin, titled Arab Life in Israel, to extol Arab progress in the state. A special periodic bulletin on Christians in Israel was also launched to address the concerns of the Catholic Church and the Christian West more generally.

These propaganda materials included photos of Palestinians voting, celebrating Israel’s Day of Independence, enjoying a “modern” western-like lifestyle and integrating into the Israeli workforce, as well as Palestinian women enjoying vocational training and employment and education opportunities.

The use of Palestinians was so central to the propaganda of the new state that the crown jewel of Israel’s 10th-anniversary celebration in 1958 was the Minorities Folklore Exhibition, which was described as a national celebration of Israel’s “Arab minorities and their cultures”.

Today’s propaganda looks very much like the propaganda that was promoted in the early days of the state. While Israel continues to suppress 48 Palestinians domestically, it celebrates them as markers of Israeli democracy at the international level. Israel used, and continues to use, typical colonial discourse to show it is modernizing the Palestinians and that it is “the only democracy in the Middle East”.

For example, while the Benjamin Netanyahu government consistently quashed Palestinian protest in Israel and warned that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves”, its rhetoric overseas hailed Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East.

In an address to the US Congress at the height of the 2011 Arab uprisings, Netanyahu stated: “Courageous Arab protesters are now struggling to secure these very same rights for their peoples, for their societies. We’re proud in Israel that over one million Arab citizens of Israel have been enjoying these rights for decades. Of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights.”

Centering Palestinian citizens as part Israeli and Zionist propaganda is, however, a double-edged sword. As Israel uses them to appear as a progressive force, the reality of 48 Palestinians helps further reveal Israel’s entrenched racial structure and apartheid. 

It’s settler colonialism

The focus on institutionalized discrimination against 48 Palestinians in the recent Amnesty report reveals the limits of the apartheid framework, as it is framed in this document, as well as in the HRW and B’Tselem reports, and by liberal human rights institutions more broadly. 

Palestinian citizens of Israel do not merely face institutionalized discrimination and racial domination; they face Israeli-Zionist settler colonialism, of which apartheid is part. 

The failure to acknowledge settler colonialism as the overarching structure behind Israeli apartheid misses how citizenship in Israel is not merely the story of racial discrimination, but rather the story of colonial domination.

It is not a secret that Israel never wanted the Palestinians who remained. Despite extending citizenship to them, Israel had no intention of transforming 48 Palestinians from colonial subjects to citizens. Citizenship did not undo colonial subjugation; it merely reshaped it. And so, in Palestine, racial discrimination does not exist outside colonial domination. Rather, it’s an integral part of it. 

Apartheid is a feature of the Israeli state structure and core ideology, but not its sole feature. Apartheid serves a broader purpose, which is the advancement of Zionist settler colonization in Palestine. Apartheid, alongside occupation, are thus modes of colonial domination.  

While the recent acknowledgement by the international human rights community of Israeli apartheid is important, the apartheid frame must include a settler colonial analysis and a recognition of Zionism as the racial ideology that drives settler colonialism and apartheid in Palestine. Refusing to acknowledge the racial foundations of Zionism when discussing Israeli apartheid is like refusing to address white supremacy when discussing the Black Lives Matter movement.

These issues are important if the aim is to end the domination and oppression of Palestinians. The path to undoing apartheid in Palestine does not run through the pursuit of liberal equality. 48 Palestinians have tried this path for decades to no avail.

Rather, the path to undoing apartheid runs through the dismantling of settler colonialism and the pursuit of decolonization as a liberation project. 

Lana Tatour is a lecturer/assistant professor in global development at the School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney – Australia