Why Amnesty is taking aim at the ‘root causes’ of Israeli apartheid – an interview with Saleh Hijazi

Amnesty International’s Saleh Hijazi (Oren Ziv)

Edo Konrad

+972 Magazine  /  February 1, 2022

Amnesty International’s Saleh Hijazi speaks to +972 about his organization’s new report, the Israeli government’s harsh response, and why our analysis of Israeli apartheid needs to begin from 1948.

Even before Amnesty International’s bombshell new report on Israel-Palestine was released on Tuesday morning, the Israeli government and some of the most prominent pro-Israel organizations around the world were on the offensive. The report, titled “Israel’s Apartheid against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime against Humanity,” was leaked to the Israeli government as well as the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League, each of which roundly accused Amnesty International of outright antisemitism.

It’s not hard to see why Israel and its supporters are feeling like their backs are against the wall. The 280-page report by the world’s premier human rights organization is a damning indictment of what Amnesty calls Israel’s “system of oppression and domination against the Palestinian people wherever it has control over their rights,” including in the occupied territories, Israel, and everywhere that Palestinian refugees are living. The investigation includes details on Israel’s military occupation, segregation, torture, land confiscation, restrictions on movement, and denial of citizenship and nationality, among other violations.

But Amnesty’s report is not merely descriptive. Like similar recent reports by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and B’Tselem, Amnesty demands that Israel’s apartheid regime be dismantled, and that the International Criminal Court (ICC) take into account the crime of apartheid as it investigates potential war crimes in the occupied territories. This is precisely why the report is so terrifying for Israel and its supporters.

I sat down with Saleh Hijazi, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director of the Middle East and North Africa region, following the press conference in Jerusalem marking release of the report on Tuesday. We spoke, among other things, about the Israeli government’s attacks on his organization, why Amnesty deliberately talks about 1948 as the starting point of apartheid, and navigating criticisms from Palestinian and Israeli allies.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We’re just a few hours after the release of Amnesty’s report, which was met with an extremely severe response by Israel and various organizations around the world, who claimed the report was ‘antisemitic’ and “spreads lies of terrorist organizations.” Did those reactions shock or surprise you? 

Unfortunately not. The use and weaponization of antisemitism to attack those who criticize Israel’s policies specifically when they relate to Palestinians is a tactic that has been used for many years, including against Amnesty International. These types of false and baseless attacks are expected from governments and states that systematically abuse human rights, or in this case impose a system of repression and domination that amounts to apartheid. When you provide solid analysis that a crime against humanity is taking place, the government certainly perpetrating it is going to be worried.

Did you experience any pressure from the Israeli government while working on the report?

No. The government has decided not to engage with us constructively, despite the fact that we have repeatedly requested meetings and information from them for many years. Since I began working for Amnesty in 2011, we’ve had only one meeting with the Foreign Ministry, which took place in 2012. Since then, every letter that we’ve sent requesting meetings or asking for information from the government or the army has gone unanswered. 

It’s important to mention that in this context, Israel continues to ignore our requests to access the Gaza Strip. We want to enter Gaza to examine the human rights situation resulting from the illegal blockade that amounts to collective punishment, or the effects of Israeli military offenses, as well as to examine violations by the Palestinian authorities there, particularly the Hamas government and various armed groups. 

Human Rights Watch put out a report on Israeli apartheid in April 2021. What kind of lessons did you draw from their report, and how did their work guide your thinking?

The Human Rights Watch report was absolutely influential. HRW is a major human rights organization that provides top-notch documentation and legal analysis, which we had to examine, reflect on, and think about how our own research and analysis compares, as well as how we can work together. With the launch of our report, we are hopefully going to form, along with HRW and other Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations, an anti-apartheid coalition. 

I do have a feeling that the reaction to Amnesty’s report is much louder and harsher than the reaction to HRW’s report. With Amnesty, you’re bringing in the power of a movement. A major part of our launch is not only the report and campaign, but also a human rights education element. We’ve put online a human rights education course on Israeli apartheid that will be available to anyone with internet access in a number of languages, including Hebrew. We put a lot of work and energy into this course because we wanted to take advantage of having membership that can take action and be effective. For that, they need to understand how apartheid works in Israel-Palestine, so that they can then go and talk to their elected officials. 

Your report traces the roots of Israeli apartheid back to 1948, which is something many human rights organizations often tend to shy away from. Can you speak about the thinking behind choosing to make that the starting point?

This report took four years to write, but the story is much longer than that. After the ICC announced it had jurisdiction over the occupied territories, we began to look at the way in which we can make international justice a central part of the human rights work that Amnesty does on Israel-Palestine. Once we began examining the patterns of violations from that lens, the crime of apartheid immediately emerged as something that as a human rights organization we could examine. The next step was formulating a global policy for how Amnesty International understands the crime of apartheid as embedded in international law, as well as a way for us to determine what does or does not constitute apartheid. The process of formulating that criteria was completed in 2017. 

What the report does is look at the last 20 years, but to fully understand the situation today, you need to trace some of the system’s main components back to their roots. This includes territorial fragmentation, segregation and control, dispossession of land and property, and the deprivation of economic and social rights. These are the elements that make up the Israeli apartheid system today, but they don’t start there.

So we go back to 1948 and see how, upon the establishment of the state, Israel passed laws regarding nationality and status, whereupon Palestinians who remained in Israel after the Nakba were granted citizenship but not treated as nationals, as opposed to Israeli Jews. The Law of Return allowed only Jews to return to Israel and be granted automatic citizenship, while Palestinians who were fragmented as a result of ethnic cleansing were denied that right of return. When it comes to property, the Absentees’ Property Law and the various laws that make up Israel’s current land regime were all passed in the 1950s. The strategy of military rule in the occupied territories is the same strategy used by Israel against Palestinian citizens of Israel between 1949 and 1966. 

So you begin to see how these elements that make up the system all started right after the establishment of the State of Israel. That is why the analysis needs to begin from there rather than from the occupation of 1967.

The report also calls for the return of Palestinian refugees, which is something major human rights organizations don’t typically do. 

The initial act of Palestinian fragmentation took place during the ethnic cleansing — the Nakba of 1948 — which saw the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, and not allowing them to return, which is a right granted in international refugee law, as well as UN General Assembly Resolution 194. The denial of the right of return is crucial for maintaining a system whose intention and aim is to maintain Jewish demographic hegemony and maximum control over land. If you want to keep that hegemony, you simply will not allow the millions of Palestinian refugees living in camps across the Middle East to return. That’s how it becomes a crucial part of our analysis on apartheid. 

Palestinian activists have been using terms such as “apartheid” and “settler colonialism” to describe the regime between the river and the sea for years. How has the work of those activists influenced and guided your thinking in crafting this report?

It is the responsibility of an international human rights organization to react when local organizations are making a claim. We acknowledge that we’re late to this and should have examined it before. But there are two reasons why we are doing it now: First of all, and this is unrelated to Israel-Palestine, we have come to see that systems of institutionalized discrimination and violently racist — with apartheid being the most extreme manifestation of those systems — are unfortunately prevalent across the world, and we found that we need to face that head on. 

There were also requests from Palestinian organizations, as well as from our own members, to investigate whether the crime of apartheid was being perpetrated here. When we started doing that, we revisited the body of knowledge that had been produced by Palestinian activists, academics, and intellectuals, going back many years — including the 2005 call by Palestinian civil society organizations for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, which was based on the apartheid framing. The discourse, knowledge, and legal analysis generated by Palestinians was part and parcel of the research that we did.

As a Palestinian member of Amnesty International, was it difficult trying to get what is often viewed as such a “toxic” topic on the agenda? Did it take a lot of persuading your superiors? 

I was happily surprised that this move was actually not led by Palestinians in the organization. We have many friends in the International Secretariat [the body responsible for the majority of Amnesty International’s research and which leads its campaigning work] and in various sections who took the lead on this, and with whom we worked shoulder to shoulder. In 2011, Amnesty Greece sent the International Secretariat a request to look into the situation in Israel-Palestine. As a democratic movement, you have to respond to this kind of request. After that, another request came from Amnesty Spain, and there were a number of other informal requests from sections around the world. 

Were there difficult conversations with Amnesty Israel during the process? Yes. It was particularly difficult for Palestinians and Israelis in the movement. Those conversations were great and necessary, and now that the report is out, they open up a lot of opportunities. Eventually, the Israel section decided that they may face legal consequences for carrying out this kind of work. Some of the recommendations [in the report] may be seen as calling for sanctions or a boycott of Israel, and that the anti-boycott law can be used against them, and therefore decided to not engage proactively on this report, but would use it [as an opportunity] to open crucial conversations on the issue. Hopefully, should they decide to become more proactive, they will have membership all around them to support.  

But not everybody is celebrating. We saw [Local Call editor and +972 writer] Orly Noy, who moderated today’s press conference, begin her remarks by saying that as a Jewish Israeli, this was not a joyous day. We’ve also seen a lot of Palestinians telling us, “You’re late,” or asking “Where have you been?” or “What about talking about settler colonialism?” Obviously, we all live the reality here and Palestinians live the oppression on a daily basis, so it is not easy, and I was not expecting anybody who faces such high stakes and is involved professionally and personally to take it so easily. 

What do you say to Palestinians who are skeptical of what these reports can actually do for them? You had members of the Salhiyeh family, who were expelled from their home in Sheikh Jarrah a few weeks ago, stand up during the press conference and ask you what you can do about their eviction and what is happening in their neighborhood.

It’s difficult to answer that question. You look at the reality here — it’s a relatively small country, Palestinians and Israelis together make up less than the population of Sao Paulo. You have had decades of reports, commissions, and investigations by the UN and human rights organizations. You have very professional civil society organizations, both Palestinian and Israeli, who comprehensively document human rights violations. And yet the situation only gets worse. It is this realization that makes this report so relevant. 

Will [the report] bring the change that is required immediately? Absolutely not. This requires strategizing, working together, and partnerships. We’re seeing this happen, including between Palestinian and Israeli organizations, which is something we have not seen before. This is promising. 

The Salhiyeh family and others will not see an immediate change. And unfortunately the evictions and home demolitions will continue, while the situation in the Naqab will only get worse. But I feel that the apartheid analysis will allow us to connect all the dots so that we are not always shifting from focusing on administrative detention, and then going to unlawful killings, and then a demolition in the Naqab. Now we can connect the dots. When you do that you can see the system of apartheid. This paves the way for tackling these violations in a more strategic manner. We’re not dealing with symptoms anymore, we’re dealing with root causes.

Edo Konrad is the editor-in-chief of +972 Magazine