Amnesty International’s damning new report which details Israeli apartheid and calls for sanctions reflects a historic shift, writes Alex Snowdon
Amnesty International’s hard-hitting new report on Israel’s apartheid regime is a milestone. It follows reports in 2021 from B’Tselem (Israel’s leading human-rights organisation) and Human Rights Watch, both of which documented the apartheid practices of the Israeli state.
This third example of a major report foregrounding the concept of Israeli apartheid is especially notable, both because of Amnesty’s high profile and because of the forensic factual detail it contains. It is also significant because it highlights the continuities across historic Palestine, rather than limiting itself to the Occupied Territories of Gaza and the West Bank.
B’Tselem’s report, published last January, was centred on the notion of ‘a regime of Jewish supremacy’ stretching across the whole of historic Palestine, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. It recognised that apartheid varied in form in different parts of that territory, but argued that it was best understood as a single regime of systematic discrimination and inequality. It explicitly countered the myth that Israel itself was fundamentally different from the occupied territories.
The Amnesty report likewise emphasises the sweeping and systematic character of Israeli apartheid, subjecting Palestinians inside Israel to ‘cruel policies of segregation, dispossession and exclusion’ just as Palestinians in annexed east Jerusalem or the Occupied Territories endure the same. These policies are labelled ‘crimes against humanity’. They involve treating Palestinians as an ‘inferior racial group’ who are ‘systematically deprived of their rights’.
The report defines apartheid in the following terms:
‘A system of apartheid is an institutionalised regime of oppression and domination by one racial group over another. In international criminal law, specific unlawful acts which are committed within a system of apartheid and with the intention of maintaining it constitute the crime against humanity of apartheid.’
It is a breakthrough that Amnesty is explicit about the apartheid nature of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. The report refers to ‘a system amounting to apartheid under international law’, citing the UN Apartheid Convention and the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, with a vast array of examples of ‘unlawful killing, torture, forcible transfer and the denial of basic rights and freedoms.’
It states: ‘Israel enforces a system of oppression and domination against the Palestinian people wherever it has control over their rights.’ This is, correctly, extended not only to Israel and the occupied Territories, but to displaced refugees living elsewhere, who continue to be denied their right of return.
The report documents various aspects of Israel’s apartheid system. This includes the unlawful killing of Palestinian protesters, with 214 Palestinian civilians (including 46 children) killed by Israeli repression during the Gaza border-fence protests of 2018-19. This is the primary basis for Amnesty’s plea to the UN Security Council to impose ‘a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel’.
The report is also very strong in condemning Israel’s attempts ‘Judaise’ many areas, showing ‘that successive Israeli governments have considered Palestinians a demographic threat, and imposed measures to control and decrease their presence and access to land in Israel and the OPT.’ These measures can be seen in the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, the house demolitions in East Jerusalem, and the brutal treatment of Bedouin Palestinian communities in the Negev region in southern Israel.
The report also condemns Israel’s institutional and legal measures to condemn Palestinians to inferior racial status, especially highlighting the 2018 Nationality Law as enshrining ‘systematic discrimination’ of the Palestinian minority inside Israel’s borders. Furthermore, it notes that Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank ‘have no citizenship and most are considered stateless’. However, the most fundamental aspect of Israel’s demographic control is its continuing denial of the right of return for Palestinian refugees, which contrasts with the right of Jews (wherever in the world they originate) to migrate to Israel and gain citizenship.
Amnesty’s report calls for Israel to be held accountable, demanding that governments stop colluding in ‘the crime of apartheid’. The report specifically calls for the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel using the apartheid framework.
It insists: ‘There is no possible justification for a system built around the institutionalised and prolonged racist oppression of millions of people.’ For this reason, it urges governments worldwide to stop trading in arms with Israel. It also warns governments that they will be on ‘the wrong side of history’ if they continue to tolerate Israel’s apartheid system.
Crucially, Amnesty locates any discussion of peace in the context of dismantling Israel’s apartheid framework, saying that ‘peace and security will remain a distant prospect for Israelis and Palestinians alike’, so long as apartheid continues. This insistence that ending injustice is the precondition for peace and security is a long way from the familiar framing of a ‘two-sided conflict’ that characterised the doomed Oslo ‘peace process’ of the 1990s. The emphasis is on the need for Israel to end its regime of supremacy and on the international community to stop tolerating and sanctioning it.
There is a specific appeal for the UK to change its approach to Israel. Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s CEO, issued a forthright statement including these words:
‘Ministers should use the UK’s close diplomatic ties with Israel to hold it to account for its crushing system of apartheid and institutionalised discrimination against Palestinians - and ongoing settlement-building and the Gaza blockade must end. The UK should impose a comprehensive import ban on all products from Israel’s illegal settlements, rein in JCB’s exports linked to illegal house demolitions, and immediately suspend all UK military and policing assistance to Israel.’
This draws attention to the close economic relationship between Israel and Britain’s government and corporate elite. It is an endorsement of the call for state-level sanctions to hold Israel to account, which the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement has been campaigning for over many years.
The report’s recommendations also echo the aims of the BDS movement when they urge Israel to grant equal rights to Palestinians inside Israel, and call for recognition of ‘the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to homes where they or their families once lived’, accompanied by reparations.
Amnesty’s report represents not only a very welcome and serious shift in its own approach to Israel, but an ongoing and historic change in how the situation in Palestine is framed and discussed. Israel is, more and more, correctly recognised as a single apartheid regime that institutionalises injustice for all Palestinians.
Increasingly, there is pressure for sanctions against Israel and for governments to break their relationship to the apartheid state. Campaigners for justice for Palestine ought to be emboldened by this report, and use it to promote campaigns for ending complicity with apartheid.
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Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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