Amnesty: Israel an apartheid state
Amnesty: Israel an apartheid state

Amnesty International is the latest human rights organisation to declare Israel guilty of the crime of apartheid. The human rights group joins Human Rights Watch, Yesh Din and B’Tselem in reaching the same conclusion over the last two years. 

Amnesty’s 280-page report concludes that “Israel has imposed a system of oppression and domination over Palestinians wherever it exercises control” through “laws, policies and practices” that collectively constitute “the international wrong of apartheid”. 

“Indeed, for over seven decades, the international community has stood by as Israel has been given free rein to dispossess, segregate, control, oppress and dominate Palestinians,” Amnesty stated.

Israel is using four strategies to subordinate Palestinians, the report argues.

First, it separates Palestinians from each other in distinct territorial, legal and administrative areas. Palestinians in the West bank live under Israeli military law, while those in Gaza live under siege. In East Jerusalem, Palestinians have residency status but are denied citizenship. In Israel, Palestinians have formal citizenship but are subject to a raft of discriminatory laws.

Second, Israel is dispossessing Palestinians through land and property seizures, home demolitions and forced evictions. Its efforts to drive out Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah, in East Jerusalem, is just one example.

Third, Israel maintains a system of segregation and control, using laws and policies to restrict Palestinians to enclaves segregated from Jewish Israelis. 

Finally, Israel deprives Palestinians of economic and social rights. Disadvantage is maintained through a deliberate policy of impoverishment. 

While Amnesty makes no direct comparison with apartheid South Africa, the similarities are obvious.

Nearly five years in the making, Amnesty’s report has provoked a hysterical reaction from the Israeli government and the country’s supporters around the world. 

A day before the report’s official release, Israel’s Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid claimed that the report’s “extremist language and distortion of historical context were designed to demonize Israel and pour fuel onto the fire of antisemitism”.

Amnesty’s UK branch, he claimed, was “corrupted by racism and xenophobia”.

Accusations of anti-Semitism from Israel have become a well-worn trope. The late Desmond Tutu, a pillar of the South African anti-apartheid struggle, was also accused by Israel of being an anti-Semite when he compared Israel’s oppression of Palestinians to South African apartheid. 

Just last month, Israel’s former ambassador to the UN accused actor Emma Watson of being anti-Semitic for posting on Instagram a photograph of a pro-Palestine protest accompanied with a banner stating, “Solidarity is a Verb”.

Amnesty’s report was also swiftly rejected by Israel’s allies, including the US, UK, German and Australian governments.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides dismissed the report as “absurd”, while US Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, claimed that the report “diminishes the very real apartheid that brutalized Black South Africans for decades”. 

German Foreign Ministry spokesperson Christopher Burger rejected the use of the term “apartheid”, claiming Amnesty’s focus was a “one-sided” criticism of Israel. 

“That is not helpful to solving the conflict in the Middle East”, he said at a press conference.

Australian PM Scott Morrison similarly told ABC News: “No country is perfect and there are criticisms made of all countries, but I can assure you that Australia and my government, in particular, will remain a staunch friend of Israel”.

Labor shadow foreign minister Penny Wong echoed Morrison’s critique, telling the ABC: “Labor does not agree with the use of the term ‘apartheid’”. 

The accusation that Israel is committing apartheid is not new.

In 1961, South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd told the UN that Israel was being hypocritical when it criticised South Africa for its apartheid policies. “Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state”, he declared.

In 2007, UN Special Rapporteur John Dugard concluded that “elements of the occupation constitute forms of colonialism and of apartheid”. 

A decade later, another UN special rapporteur, Ricard Falk, agreed, co-authoring a report that accused Israel of implementing “policies and practices that constitute the crime of apartheid”.

However, Amnesty’s condemnation presents a new challenge to Israel’s narrative of being “the only democracy in the Middle East”.

First, Amnesty is the largest human rights organisation in the world. Since its inception 60 years ago, it has grown to an organisation of 10 million members worldwide.

Second, Amnesty is not just a fact-finding human rights organisation, but a campaigning organisation. It’s webpage now urges its supporters to get involved in a campaign to save Palestinian homes in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah from demolition by Israeli authorities.

Significantly, the report does not repeat the tired old cliches of ALP politicians and liberals who argue that the conflict must be resolved through dialogue leading to a two-state solution. Such an approach has not only failed, but given Israel breathing space to extend its settlements further into the heart of Palestinian territory.

Instead, it urges its supporters “to speak up, to stand with Palestinians and tell Israel that we will not tolerate apartheid”.

Demands are made on Israeli authorities for reform. In addition, it calls for the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel’s complicity in the crime of apartheid and for the UN to pressure Israel to dismantle its “system of oppression and domination”.

Amnesty calls for the UN Security Council to impose an international arms embargo on Israel, and other targeted sanctions including asset freezes “against Israeli officials most implicated in the crime of apartheid”.

This is a welcome boost for the international campaign calling for Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions against Israel. Amnesty’s calls echoes those of the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and 1980s that came to the support of a powerful working-class movement that brought South Africa’s apartheid regime to its knees.

However, Amnesty’s report falls short in explaining why the world’s most powerful imperial states continue to support Israel to the hilt and vehemently reject claims of apartheid.

Israel is a highly militarised settler-colonial regime. It remains the largest recipient of US military aid, currently receiving US$3.8 billion per year. 

According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, the UK issued Single Individual Export Licences for arms sales to Israel to a value of £387 million between 2016 and 2020, a nearly six-fold increase on the previous five years.

The US, the UK and the EU recognise Israel as a strategic ally in their efforts to control the flow of oil and trade through the Middle East. After facing defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and unable to counter Russian and Iranian intervention to save the Assad regime in Syria, the US is now more dependent than ever on Israel to police the unstable Arab states that surround it. 

Israeli apartheid is incapable of dismantling itself. That task can only be achieved by Palestinians themselves, rising up in a new rebellion aided by working-class mobilisation throughout the Arab World. 

As was the case with apartheid South Africa, an international solidarity movement has an important role to play supporting Palestinian liberation. Amnesty’s forthright condemnation of Israeli apartheid is another welcome chink in Israel’s armour.

Nick Everett is the chairperson of Friends of Palestine WA.

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