What makes Amnesty’s apartheid report different ?

A Palestinian youth places a flag on Israel’s wall during a demonstration in the West Bank village of Bilin (Oren Ziv - ActiveStills)

Maureen Clare Murphy

The Electronic Intifada  /  February 3, 2022

What makes Amnesty International’s new report determining that Israel practices the crime of apartheid against Palestinians any different from those that came before it ?

Certainly, Israel’s “hysterical” reaction – (in the words of one Haaretz headline) – to the Amnesty study is notably different from its relatively understated response to similar reports recently issued by B’Tselem, a human rights group in Israel, and the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Palestinian human rights groups like Al-HaqAdalah and Al Mezan have been advancing an apartheid framework for far longer and the reports from the above-mentioned Israeli and international groups build on their work.

Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem examined Israel’s system of control throughout historic Palestine that privileges Israeli Jews and marginalizes Palestinians and violates their rights by varying degrees, largely depending on where they live.

And in contrast to the analyses published by Palestinian groups, those three reports, welcomed as groundbreaking and paradigm-shifting, fall short of placing Israel’s system of apartheid in the context of settler-colonialism. (A keyword search of Amnesty’s report yields three results for the terms “colonialism” and “colonial” – found in the titles of works cited in the footnotes.)

Amnesty repeatedly stresses Israel’s “intent to maintain this system of oppression and domination” without making the explicit point that apartheid is a means towards the end of settler colonization: removing Palestinians from the land so that they may be replaced with foreign settlers.

The rights group does state that “since its establishment in 1948, Israel has pursued an explicit policy of establishing and maintaining a Jewish demographic hegemony and maximizing its control over land to benefit Jewish Israelis while minimizing the number of Palestinians and restricting their rights and obstructing their ability to challenge this dispossession.”

Credit where credit’s due: Amnesty blasts away Israel’s foundational mythology, acknowledging that it was racist from the beginning – a departure from the typical liberal attitude that Israel strayed from its ideals somewhere along the way.

Amnesty even points out that “many elements of Israel’s repressive military system in the OPT [West Bank and Gaza] originate in Israel’s 18-year-long military rule over Palestinian citizens of Israel,” beginning in 1948, “and that the dispossession of Palestinians in Israel continues today.”

Amnesty also acknowledges that “in 1948, Jewish individuals and institutions owned around 6.5 percent of Mandate Palestine, while Palestinians owned about 90 percent of the privately owned land there,” referring to all of historic Palestine prior to the establishment of the state of Israel.

“Within just over 70 years the situation has been reversed,” the group adds.

And that is Israel’s aim – the “system of oppression and domination” stressed by Amnesty is the means by which it has usurped Palestinian land for the benefit of foreign settlers.

After all, Zionist settlers didn’t come to Palestine from Europe for the purpose of dominating and oppressing Palestinians; they came with the intent of colonizing their land.

As the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center, a Palestinian group, states, “any recognition of Israel as an apartheid state should be situated within the context of its settler-colonial regime.”

Amnesty also refrains from examining and discussing Zionism, Israel’s racist state ideology around which its settler-colonialism project is organized.

As Adalah-NY, an advocacy group based in the US, asked Amnesty on Wednesday, “Is it possible to end apartheid without ending the Zionist settler colonial project?”

Groundwork for accountability

Despite these critical shortcomings, Amnesty’s study lays a solid groundwork for holding Israel accountable within the flawed framework of international law and makes forceful recommendations towards that end.

Amnesty joins Palestinian groups urging the International Criminal Court to “investigate the commission of the crime of apartheid” and for its prosecutor to “consider the applicability of the crime against humanity of apartheid within its current formal investigation” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Given that the ICC doesn’t have territorial jurisdiction in Israel, Amnesty calls on the UN Security Council to either refer “the entire situation to the ICC” or establish “an international tribunal to try alleged perpetrators” of the crime against humanity of apartheid.

Amnesty adds that the Security Council “must also impose targeted sanctions, such as asset freezes, against Israeli officials most implicated … and a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel.”

Reiterating its “longstanding call” on states to suspend all forms of military assistance and weapons sales to Israel, Amnesty also calls on Palestinian authorities to “ensure that any type of dealings with Israel, primarily through security coordination, do not contribute to maintaining the system of apartheid against Palestinians” in the West Bank and Gaza.

Amnesty also states that Israel must recognize Palestinian refugees’ right of return and provide Palestinian victims “full reparations,” including “restitution for all properties acquired on a racial basis.”

These demands by Amnesty, which claims to be the world’s largest human rights organization, go much further than those made by Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem.

This goes some way toward explaining why Israel and its proxies and apologists attempted to pressure Amnesty to pull its report ahead of publication and, having failed to achieve that, are now resorting to the usual baseless accusations of anti-Semitism.

Yair Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister, attempted to discredit Amnesty’s report by saying it “echoes propaganda” and “the same lies shared by terrorist organizations,” referring to prominent Palestinian groups recently declared illegal by Israel.

“If Israel wasn’t a Jewish state, no one at Amnesty would dare make such a claim against it,” Lapid added.

In its report, Amnesty observes that “Palestinian organizations and human rights defenders who have been leading anti-apartheid advocacy and campaigning efforts have faced Israeli repression for years as punishment for their work.”

While Israel brands Palestinian human rights groups as “terrorist organizations,” it subjects “Israeli organizations denouncing apartheid to smears and delegitimization campaigns,” Amnesty adds.

Israel may find that such tactics when employed against the world’s largest human rights organization may not convince anyone beyond its choir.

Its attempt to “get ahead of the story,” reportedly spearheaded by Naftali Bennett, Israel’s prime minister, along with Lapid, by preemptively attacking the Amnesty report has only served to reinforce the association of Israel with apartheid.

It also ensured “that the report got a lot more exposure than it would otherwise receive,” as one Haaretz columnist observes.

Mainstreaming the apartheid framework

There is another key difference between the Amnesty report on apartheid and those that came before it.

Amnesty International is a campaigning organization with millions of members and supporters who, the group says, “strengthen our calls for justice.”

Amnesty has supplemented its report with a 90-minute online course titled “Deconstructing Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians.”

It also produced a 15-minute mini-documentary available on YouTube that breaks down the question of whether Israel practices apartheid for a mass audience:

So far Amnesty’s action items only include sending a polite letter to Naftali Bennett, Israel’s prime minister, opposing home demolitions and expulsions – hardly inspiring stuff.

Amnesty’s US chapter meanwhile has made bizarre disclaimers distancing itself from the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and even stated that the organization doesn’t take a stance on the occupation itself, instead focusing on Israel’s obligations, “as the occupying power, under international law.”

Meanwhile, its chapter in Germany has distanced itself from the report and stated that “the Germany section of Amnesty will not plan or carry out any activities in relation to this report” because of the legacy of the Holocaust and ongoing anti-Semitism in the country.

It is not the first time that Amnesty has limited its solidarity in ways that are enduringly shameful.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are based in imperialist countries and were founded in the context of the Cold War, largely focusing on advocating for the rights of individuals in communist Eastern Europe.

Their narrow frameworks and founding ideologies have put them in opposition to anti-colonial liberation struggles and the violence those necessitate because, as Nelson Mandela put it, “it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor.”

These fundamental contradictions mean that Western human rights groups will always take compromised, if not harmful, positions concerning Palestinian liberation, with Human Rights Watch recently suggesting a moral equivalence between the violence used by Israel against besieged Palestinians in Gaza and that of Palestinian resistance against it.

But Amnesty’s educational materials, including a lengthy Q & A, will help prepare grassroots campaigners to respond to Israel’s apologists who seek to deflect criticism of the state’s practices by attacking the messenger.

After all, as one astute observer put it on Twitter, that is the only arrow in the quiver of those committed to maintaining Israel’s apartheid rule and the situation of impunity.

Amnesty’s report is a strong indicator that an analysis beyond the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is becoming mainstream.

Meanwhile, Israel and its proxies and abettors in the US Congress and State Department trot out tired talking points while ignoring the substance of Amnesty’s findings.

(By contrast, a few members of Congress belonging to the Democratic Party are publicly supportive of Amnesty’s findings, with Cori Bush calling for an end to “US taxpayer support for this violence.”)

But like UN and EU officials forever droning on about their commitment to the nonexistent peace process towards a two-state solution, those parroting these Israel lobby talking points so detached from reality appear increasingly ridiculous.

Israel fears UN report

While rejecting the term “apartheid” and attacking Amnesty, Israel and its proxies and supporters have their eyes on an even bigger threat to Israeli impunity.

According to an Israeli foreign ministry cable seen by the publication Axios, Israel has planned a campaign attempting to discredit a permanent UN commission of inquiry into Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights in all the territory under its control.

The UN Human Rights Council narrowly passed a resolution establishing that commission of inquiry last May following Israel’s 11-day attack on Gaza during which Palestinians rose up throughout their homeland.

Palestinian groups have long called on states “to address the root causes of Israel’s settler colonialism and apartheid imposed over the Palestinian people as a whole,” as Al-Haq said ahead of the vote.

The commission of inquiry undertaken by three independent human rights experts tapped by the Human Rights Council is expected to deliver its findings in June.

Axios reported last week that Israeli officials are “highly concerned that the commission’s report will refer to Israel as an ‘apartheid state.’”

The publication adds that “the Biden administration doesn’t support the inquiry and played a central role in cutting its funding by 25 percent in UN budget negotiations.”

A bipartisan grouping of 42 members of Congress has meanwhile called on the US secretary of state to “lead an effort to end the outrageous and unjust permanent commission of inquiry.”

But Israel apparently fears that this intervention may not be enough.

Haaretz reported this week that unnamed “senior Israeli officials” are concerned that the UN “may soon accept the narrative that Israel is an ‘apartheid state,’ issuing a serious blow to Israel’s status on the international stage.”

A UN consensus around Israeli apartheid “could lead to Israel’s exclusion from various international events, including sports competitions or cultural events,” the paper adds.

In other words, Israeli officials are afraid that the state will be treated as a global pariah as South Africa was before the fall of apartheid in that country.

The steering committee of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – inspired by the global campaign that helped bring apartheid to an end in South Africa – argues that “investigation of Israeli apartheid by the UN and its members are necessary steps for achieving freedom, justice and equality for the Palestinian people.”

That committee urges formerly colonized states to reprise “the leading role they assumed in the UN for the eradication of apartheid in Southern Africa.”

Human Rights Watch has called for the appointment of a global UN envoy for the crimes of persecution and apartheid.

Amnesty states that the UN General Assembly “should reestablish the Special Committee against Apartheid, which was originally established in November 1962, to focus on all situations … where the serious human rights violation and crime against humanity of apartheid are being committed.”

These moves would have implications beyond the Palestinian cause within the UN system, where “bullying and political pressure have prevented the study and debate, let alone punishment, of Israeli apartheid,” according to the BDS movement steering committee.

Ultimately, Amnesty’s study may not be fundamentally different from those that came before.

But the context in which it appears – as international consensus coalesces around recognizing Israeli apartheid, an International Criminal Court investigation is underway and amid Israeli spyware blowback – suggests that a new chapter in the global struggle for Palestinian freedom may have begun.

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada