Amnesty International singles out Israel for ‘apartheid’ against the Palestinians

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


An Amnesty International report has reignited the debate regarding Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and of the Arab population in Israel. Characterizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as apartheid, Amnesty International’s report accuses Israel of having “a cruel system of domination” and urged the International Criminal Court to exercise its jurisdiction in the matter. The report has been condemned by many in Israel, even though others agree with the evidence presented. Still, the report’s conclusions were controversial enough that Amnesty International’s German branch felt that it could not definitively agree with the apartheid accusations.

The report, which was published last week on Amnesty’s website, calls for greater accountability and coordination at the international level for putting an end to Israel’s “system of oppression and domination against the Palestinian people wherever it has control over their rights. This includes Palestinians living in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), as well as displaced refugees in other countries. The comprehensive report, ‘Israel’s Apartheid against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime against Humanity,’ sets out how massive seizures of Palestinian land and property, unlawful killings, forcible transfer, drastic movement restrictions, and the denial of nationality and citizenship to Palestinians are all components of a system which amounts to apartheid under international law. This system is maintained by violations which Amnesty International found to constitute apartheid as a crime against humanity, as defined in the Rome Statute and Apartheid Convention.”

Even before the official report was published, Israeli government officials and Israeli commentators came together to condemn its conclusions. For example, in an op-ed for Israel Hayom, Meir Ben-Shabbat, Israel’s former national security adviser and head of the National Security Council, accuses Amnesty of being insensitive and biased: “Not even a week after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Amnesty UK showed us what modern-day antisemitism is, the kind that disguises itself as pursuit of human rights and justice, that strives to deny the Jewish people the right to self-determination, and that applies a double standard to Israel alone. … Israel wages many struggles, constantly, in various arenas, the biggest one of which is the struggle for the truth. Allegations against it change, transform, morph, but their purpose is the same: to challenge the legitimacy of the Jewish state.”

In another Israel Hayom commentary, Chief Executive Officer and Executive Vice President Daniel Mariaschin of B’nai B’rith International, draws a line between Amnesty’s report and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to paint Amnesty’s conclusions, and those of other similar organizations, as part of a broader effort to delegitimize the state of Israel: “The apartheid charge has been a staple of the BDS movement for years. Human Rights Watch has long been at the forefront of those seeking to undermine Israel’s legitimacy, aided by its cachet among those who are like-minded or who look past its selective use of the term ‘human rights.’ … For decades now, Amnesty International, running on the same fuel as Human Rights Watch, has had a Jewish problem. The two organizations are two sides of the same coin with frequent, obsessive criticism of Israel becoming a staple of press releases and annual reports. … Amnesty UK’s report is nothing more than another bald-faced attempt to exile, demean, marginalize, and yes, ultimately eliminate the world’s only sovereign Jewish state.”

Writing for Times of Israel, Zev Farber tries to insert more nuance into the discussion. While not dismissing outright the characterization, Farber questions whether apartheid is the right framework for making sense of what is happening in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Israel: “The first thing to note is that the accusation can be interpreted narrowly or broadly. In a narrow interpretation, the question posed is whether Israel is literally like South African apartheid. This question is easily answered: no, not even remotely. … The accusation of Israeli apartheid could be interpreted more broadly, however. One might say that apartheid in this context is not meant literally, but is a harsh term meant to express discrimination. Thus, the question could be phrased, ‘Does Israel discriminate against its Arab population?’ Here, the question is more difficult to answer, since Arabs living in what one might call ‘greater Israel’ have very different experiences depending on where they live.”

The answer to the question of the status of Israeli Arab citizens receives more extensive treatment by Yoseph Haddah, the head of an NGO working for greater cooperation between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. In his op-ed published by the Jerusalem Post, he is emphatic, albeit ultimately perhaps too much so, in his denunciation of the charges made by Amnesty’s report: “As an Israeli Arab who grew up in Nazareth, Amnesty International’s recent report tries to distort my identity. The 211-page document constantly refers to an ‘apartheid’ against ‘Palestinian citizens of Israel,’ making no differentiation between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. … We live under the democratically elected government of Israel with equal rights like any Jewish citizen. No matter how many times Amnesty International tries to erase my identity for trying to advance their political agenda, that doesn’t make it the truth. … As for the Palestinians, the status-quo of occupation is problematic, but still, it’s not based on racial discrimination, but rather on national conflict.”

However, longtime Haaretz contributor Gideon Levy pushes back against such knee-jerk reactions to the report by posing several questions which add up to an indictment of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs: “As the curses and screeches subside – Amnesty are antisemites, the report is full of lies, the methodology is absurd – one must ask: What, precisely, is incorrect in the apartheid report? Was Israel not founded on an explicit policy of maintaining Jewish demographic hegemony, while reducing the number of Palestinians within its boundaries? Yes or no? True or false? Does this policy not exist to this day? Yes or no? True or false? Does Israel not maintain a regime of oppression and control of Palestinians in Israel and in the occupied territories for the benefit of Israeli Jews? Yes or no? True or false? Do the rules of engagement with Palestinians not reflect a policy of shoot to kill, or at least maim? Yes or no? True or false? Are the evictions of Palestinians from their homes and the denial of construction permits not part of Israeli policy? Yes or no? True or false?”

Edo Konrad, writing for +972 Magazine, has a simple explanation for why defenders of Israel denounce Amnesty’s lengthy report so vehemently. Konrad notes that the report itself is meticulous in the documentation of the state of Israel’s discriminatory practices which may constitute grounds for international prosecutions: “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. … 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.”

Chris Doyle for Arab News builds on that argument by pointing out that the report is only the latest in a series of reports by various human rights organizations that aim to document and highlight the plight of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. He writes, “Whether Israeli government and its apologists like it or not, the issue of whether Israel operates an apartheid regime is becoming mainstream. The human rights community is practically speaking with one voice. … Will the report make any difference? It will push the issue up the agenda. Serious politicians around the world must take the time to actually read the report and consider its findings with care. Even if they do not accept the term apartheid, hopefully they will admit that there are major issues Israel has to be held accountable for. … For Palestinians on the ground, nothing will change unless international actors react appropriately. … [Amnesty] has also recommended that the International Criminal Court examine whether Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid, while urging all states to exercise Universal Jurisdiction. This may be the only avenue left open for Palestinians to escape the system that oppresses them.”

However, Amnesty International’s controversial report has also proven challenging for its own section in Germany, which has refused to disseminate widely the findings due to concern that the report’s conclusions require more nuanced discussion. Reacting to this decision, +972 Magazine’s Michael Sappir asserts, “Instead of fighting for Palestinians’ human rights and against antisemitism in the same breath, the German section shamefully announced its withdrawal from the debate over the report, thereby leaving the field open to ‘instrumentalization or misinterpretation’ — the very thing it had hoped to counteract. … This shameful episode serves to highlight the sorry state of human rights in Germany. In this country, even a massive international organization putatively dedicated to the rights of all human beings everywhere cannot help but set aside the rights of Palestinians.”

The use of the term apartheid in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was also denounced by U.S. government officials, who, as Nabil Amr argues in this Asharq Al-Awsat op-ed, despite agreeing with the overall depiction of the reality on the ground, “offered a more forceful defense of Israel than the Jewish state itself. The headline and details of Israel’s automatic reaction are to say that any international institution criticizing Israel, no matter what it does, is hostile and anti-Semitic. This overlooks the fact that in Israel itself, there are institutions, writers, opinion-makers, and even parties that speak out more aggressively than Amnesty International – reports by the Israeli NGO B’Tselem and articles by Gideon Levy and others, whom Israel does not dare label anti-Semites. While the Americans pay the bills for their pampered ally, which is granted leniency denied to all countries and permitted to blatantly and obnoxiously violate the most basic international ethical and legal rules, they also acknowledge Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians. However, they objected to the categorization.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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