The growing international consensus on Israeli apartheid

9 min read
07 February, 2022

Pre-emptively trying to discredit it, Israeli officials backed by Israel’s lobbies blasted Amnesty International’s report on the eve of its official release, calling it “false, biased, antisemitic, and dangerous to the safety of Jews worldwide.”

In a video statement, Israeli foreign minister, Yair Lapid said that the report denies Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people. For the US-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the report paints “Israel's very creation as illegitimate, immoral, and faulted…[and] denies the Jewish right to self-determination in its historic homeland.”

Titled ‘Israel’s Apartheid against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime against Humanity’, Amnesty’s 280-page report is based on research and analysis carried out by the organisation and in consultation with external experts between July 2017 and November 2021.

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It concludes that Israel has been operating an institutionalised regime of oppression and domination against Palestinians that amounts to apartheid.

“Oppression without borders” is the phrase Amnesty chose to signify the extent and multi-tiered nature of Israel’s system of domination, not only in the occupied Palestinian West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but also against Palestinians within Israel.

This includes but is not limited to massive seizures of Palestinian land and property, unlawful killings, forcible transfer, drastic movement restrictions, and the denial of nationality and citizenship.

"'Oppression without borders' is the phrase Amnesty chose to signify the extent and multi-tiered nature of Israel's system of domination"

All of the above are components that amount to apartheid under international law. They are also deemed a crime against humanity as per the definition of apartheid in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.

Amnesty is the third major independent rights organisation in just over a year to declare Israel an apartheid state.

In January 2021, Israel’s largest human rights organisation, B’Tselem, concluded that Israel has been incrementally perpetuating a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, emphatically calling it apartheid.

Three months later, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the Israeli state was committing the crimes of apartheid and persecution.  

Phrased and presented differently, the three organisations seemingly agree that the Israeli model of apartheid is built upon four general foundations: land, citizenship, freedom of movement, and political rights.

Each one of these foundations has two realities: the Israeli-Jewish reality and the Palestinian reality, the former is implemented separately from and often at the expense of the latter.

Palestinians wait to cross the Qalandia checkpoint between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem during Ramadan in 2017. [Getty]
Palestinians wait to cross Israel's Qalandiya military checkpoint near Ramallah. [Getty]

The Israeli government operates based on the conviction that the right to the land is exclusive to Jews. As such, it has created a set of legal procedures to Judaise and appropriate Palestinian land, demolish Palestinian homes and ban new Palestinian construction and access to natural resources. Simultaneously, Jewish settlements continue to be expanded and settler-only roads constructed on Palestinian land.

The contrast in citizenship laws between Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians is just as pronounced. Termed Aliyah, every Jew worldwide has the right to come to Israel and receive Israeli citizenship upon arrival. Meanwhile, Israel continues to deny Palestinian refugees the right of return. Palestinians from the territories and diaspora are also banned from family reunion and Israeli citizenship when marrying Palestinians within Israel.  

Most Palestinians cannot enter Israel proper or easily travel between towns and villages in the occupied West Bank. Geographical and economic connections between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and between both territories and Palestinians within Israel, are extremely limited. 

There is also the fact that even though Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are effectively under Israel’s military and political control, they cannot vote in Israeli elections, hence have no say in policies that affect them directly.  

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Accumulative indictment

With the publication of the report, Amnesty joins a growing consensus among rights and civil society groups and other credible authorities worldwide, who have used the term apartheid for years to describe Israel’s modes of oppression.

It especially provides an additional significant dimension to years-worth of legal and political scholarship, official probes, and expert opinions on the issue.

Rights NGOs became particularly vocal about Israeli apartheid following Israel’s erection of the separation wall in the occupied West Bank. In 2011, after an extended legal battle, Israel’s High Court upheld the state’s security reasoning for the wall and rejected NGO petitions which argued that exclusively applying segregation measures to Palestinians was discriminatory and comparable to the Pass Laws of apartheid-era South Africa.

That considered, Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories (2008-2014) concluded in his 2014 report that Israel’s “systematic oppression” in the territories - at the time focusing on the impact of Israel’s wall -  amounted to racial discrimination and apartheid.

"Amnesty joins a growing consensus among rights and civil society groups and other credible authorities worldwide, who have used the term apartheid for years to describe Israel's modes of oppression"

Falk’s conclusion built on a 2013 study by his predecessor, South African law professor John Dugard, who maintained that given the systemic and institutionalised nature of racial domination, there were strong grounds to conclude that a system of apartheid had emerged in the Palestinian territories. 

Another indictment came in 2017 with the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) concluding in a report that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid.

In 2020, prompted mainly by Israel’s plans to annex large swathes of the occupied West Bank, over 450 civil society organisations worldwide signed a petition calling upon the UN General Assembly to launch an international probe into Israel’s apartheid regime, ban arm trades with Israel, and prohibit trade with Jewish settlements.

Even among some of Israel’s leaders, the prospect of apartheid has been visible from the outset. Former Israeli PM, Ehud Barak, warned in 2010 that keeping hold of the occupied territories would eventually lead to a single entity with two different legal systems. Barak said: "If this bloc of millions of ­Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

Again in 2017, Barak told German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) that his country is on “a slippery slope toward apartheid.”

Settlement Palestine
There are over 600,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. [Getty]

Shoot the messenger

Supported by such a significant and rather diverse body of legal and political perspectives classifying Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as a form of apartheid, it may be hard to discredit Amnesty’s report as biased or anti-Semitic.

But Israel’s aggressive approach toward the organisation - much like the majority of rights groups and the UN - is not a one-off event. Amnesty has been systematically demonised and routinely targeted with smear campaigns, using almost the same tactics and tropes deployed against most criticisms directed at the Israeli state.

Attacking the Amnesty report, Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid said: “We are a democracy committed to international law…with a free press and independent judicial system […] Amnesty doesn’t call Syria — where the regime has murdered over half a million of its own citizens — an apartheid state. Nor Iran, or other murderous regimes around the world. Only Israel.”

The fact that Lapid does not acknowledge Amnesty’s other reports indicting Syria and Iran, only serves to demonise the organisation and frame it as systematically biased against Israel and, as such, allegedly anti-Semitic.

"Rights NGOs became particularly vocal about Israeli apartheid following Israel's erection of the separation wall in the occupied West Bank in 2002"

Calling Israel a democracy accentuates this worldview. It suggests equal rights and accountability; ergo, the accusations of apartheid only confirm that Amnesty’s report is based on mere allegations and “disconnected from reality,” to quote Lapid. 

The previous reports by Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem were met with a lower-profile, less aggressive response from the Israeli state. Haaretz noted that while this could have been the official Israeli response to Amnesty, the Israeli government reacted almost hysterically and aggressively.

This is partly due to the much higher international profile of Amnesty than B’Tselem or HRW, and possibly because the report - along with HRW and B’Tselem - somewhat completes the case against Israel. It also comes at a time of - and therefore in line with - an escalating smear campaign against pro-Palestine advocacy over the past few months.  

+972 Magazine suggests that behind the Israeli panic is the proactive nature of the report. Unlike HRW and B’Tselem, Amnesty’s report is not merely descriptive. It emphatically 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 Palestinian territories.

This adds to the growing volume of international indictments which may have been slowly bringing Israel’s officials to the realisation that, for reasons of both international politics and jurisprudence, Israeli impunity may not be everlasting.

Despite that, the Israeli response to the accusations of apartheid seems to be directed at the accuser, not the issue of concern. The Israeli government has refrained from engaging with Amnesty constructively, according to Saleh Hijazi, AI’s Deputy Regional Director of MENA. This is despite repeated requests from the organisations.

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Instead, it sought to cut off Amnesty at the source and end its work in Israel. In 2019, then Netanyahu's strategic affairs minister, Gilad Erdan (now Israel’s ambassador to the UN), threatened to bar Amnesty International from Israel over its report that called on websites like Airbnb and to boycott listings in the West Bank settlements.

Whilst Erdan’s plan did not fully pan out, it did lead to the expulsion of HRW’s local director, Omar Shakir, from Israel over support for BDS.

The suppression policy took a more serious turn a year later when then-Secretary of the State Mike Pompeo reportedly sought to label a number of key rights organisations, including Amnesty International, as anti-Semitic after they documented Israeli violations against Palestinians. The controversial move followed recent statements by senior Israeli political figures making similar charges.

Amnesty responded by describing the accusations as yet another attempt to silence and intimidate international human rights organisations. “Conflating antisemitism with legitimate criticism of Israeli government policy is detrimental not only to ending serious crimes under international law, but also to efforts to address and end antisemitism,” Amnesty said.

As it stands, neither the attempts to bar Amnesty nor the accusations of anti-Semitism are critical of the content and merits of the organisation’s work, and appear more of an ad hominem attack on the organisation itself and, by extension, the entire human rights community.

This approach’s sole purpose is to curb criticism of Israel and maintain the status quo in Palestine in Israel’s favour. 

But if the mounting international criticism of Israel proves anything, it is that the Israeli state’s incremental apartheid on the ground is growing ever more indefensible and the tactics to justify or hide it are unconvincing and quickly losing currency.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa