It’s settled that Israel is committing apartheid. Now what should we do about it?

When Amnesty International released its report “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity” earlier the month, it was clearly part of a rapidly expanding trend.

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SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus

Originally published in Common Dreams.

The international movement for Palestinian rights and justice laid the ground for recent declarations by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations. Now we have to follow up.

When Amnesty International released its report “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity” earlier the month, it was clearly part of a rapidly expanding trend. Palestinian human rights defenders, members of Congress and faith leaders in the United States, academics, and activists of the Palestinian rights movement around the world have long recognized and condemned Israeli apartheid, and called for accountability.

More recently, influential human rights organizations and experts have produced a spate of reports analyzing and condemning the phenomenon. Amnesty’s report emerged after acclaimed Israeli human rights advocacy organizations published their reports: 18 months after Yesh Din’s “The Occupation of the West Bank and the Crime of Apartheid: Legal Opinion,” and a year after B’tselem’s “A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This Is Apartheid.” Amnesty’s arrived eight months after Human Rights Watch published “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.”

The precedents had actually been emerging even earlier—almost five years before, experts commissioned by the UN’s Economic and Social Commission of West Asia had authored “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” (though pressure from Israel’s supporters forced ESCWA to remove the report from its website).

The reports all build on each other, though their conclusions differ in some specifics, including where in the varied territories it controls Israel’s actions constituted the crime of apartheid, when it started, and more. Yesh Din limited their assessment of apartheid to the West Bank; HRW found the crime of apartheid was being committed in all of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT)—meaning Gaza, the West Bank, and occupied East Jerusalem—while inside the 1948 border of Israel the crime was that of persecution. B’tselem went further, holding Israel guilty of the crime of apartheid throughout all of historic Palestine—”from the river to the sea” as the statement goes. The UN’s ESCWA report, written in 2017 by Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley, went furthest, by including the Palestinian refugees, whose right to return to their homes Israel has long been denied.

But crucially, this slew of recent reports come to the legal conclusion that Israel’s actions of discrimination, dispossession, and more, were carried out for the purpose of ensuring the dominance of one racial or national group over another—for the purpose of empowering Israeli Jews at the expense of Palestinians—and that therefore Israel was committing the crime of apartheid.

The context

It is also crucial to recognize the degree to which all of the reports reflect the political moment in which they are released. The massive public and media discourse shifts in Europe and especially in the United States towards support for Palestinian rights, even while conditions facing Palestinians on the ground continue to deteriorate without even the pretense of governments exerting diplomatic or economic pressure on Israel, clearly played a role in the timing of the recent reports on apartheid.

In the US, recent polls show huge changes among young people, especially young Jews, among African-Americans, among Democrats—with rising pluralities and even majorities critical of Israel. Some members of Congress, as well as influential movement leaders with broad mainstream influence and access to power, such as Rev. Dr. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, have called explicitly for an end to Israeli apartheid.

The shift is not nearly as strong at the policy level, but even there identifiable changes are underway. The 2018 and 2020 election of new progressive members of Congress, most of them young people of color and overwhelmingly women, explicitly committed to some version of Palestinian rights, has opened up new terms of debate on support for Israel long viewed as unchangeable. A bill by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) aimed at establishing end-use restrictions on US military aid, thus preventing US financial support for Israel’s military detention of Palestinian children, demolition of Palestinian families’ homes and more, has helped to mainstream the importance of treating Israel according to US law, like every other country.

Israel’s May 2021 assault on Gaza led a group of 25 senators and a separate group of 12 Jewish Democratic members of Congress to challenge the president and demand a ceasefire. At the same time, a cohort of 500+ former Biden campaign staffers rooted the attack in the earliest history of Israel, calling on the president to “work to end the underlying conditions of occupation, blockade, and settlement expansion that led to this exceptionally destructive period in a 73-year history of dispossession and ethnic cleansing.” They went further, recognizing in their letter that “the resulting status quo is one that international and Israeli human rights organizations agree meets the definition of the crime of apartheid under international law.”

Israel is also facing an unprecedented wave of international and particularly US condemnation for its NSO company’s Pegasus spyware—sold to repressive governments around the world and used against human rights defenders, journalists, officials, and others. The White House announcement that it would ban Pegasus, and the New York Times exposé of Israel’s use of the spyware as a foreign policy tool threatens to significantly undermine Israel’s credibility in key business circles.

Predictably, Israel cracked down on human rights defenders—most notably by outlawing six of the most internationally respected Israeli human rights organizations, by the misuse of counterterrorism laws, and by subjecting “Israeli organizations denouncing apartheid … to smears and delegitimization campaigns.” But the goal of Israel’s attack—to get European supporters to cut their vital funding to the six organizations, has so far largely failed, as Israel was unable to produce any credible evidence of their spurious charges.

Amnesty and some of the other human rights organizations had long been known as cautious (many would say overly so) and reluctant to seriously criticize Israel. That began to change in the 1980s and 90s, but it is clear that the discourse-changing factors of the last five or six years made it easier (despite the outraged responses that predictably included false accusations of anti-semitism) for the leaderships of Amnesty and the other organizations to release their unsparing reports. Even more importantly, it made it much more likely that the reports would be heard, taken seriously, and maybe—just maybe—encourage new campaigns for Israeli accountability.

Amnesty International’s significance

The Amnesty report holds special significance in a number of ways. With its publication, virtually every internationally known and globally powerful human rights organization recognizes Israeli apartheid, and Amnesty is arguably the most influential of them all.

Amnesty articulates the most expansive definition of Israeli apartheid in terms of when the crime began and where it is being committed. Its report emphasizes the role of demography at the root of Israel’s apartheid methods, underscoring the goal of creating a new state designed to benefit the Jewish residents, then a 30% minority, at the expense of the 70% majority Palestinian population. It identifies several particularly important recommendations for the United States and the UN, rooted in the struggle for accountability.

And critically, Amnesty is a campaigning organization, able to mobilize its ten million supporters around the world to fight for the goal of ending Israeli apartheid.

Defining apartheid: When, where, and against whom?

The official definition of the crime of apartheid is pretty straightforward. The Amnesty report describes it occurring “when serious human rights violations are committed in the context, and with the specific intent, of maintaining a regime or system of prolonged and cruel discriminatory control of one or more racial groups by another.”

Its conclusions as to how, where, when, and against whom Israel’s crime of apartheid is being committed, are expansive. Amnesty recognizes that as a crime against humanity, apartheid is ultimately a crime against people, so its applicability comprises but extends beyond Israeli-controlled territory (including all of Israel and all of the OPT) to include Palestinian refugees scattered around the world in the far-flung Palestinian diaspora, whom Israel prevents from realizing their right to return home. Amnesty also identifies the origins of Israeli apartheid before the 1967 occupation, and even before the 1949 armistice whose ceasefire lines set the earliest Israeli borders. Apartheid, they show, began with the initial declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, when the state of the Jews, not a state for all its citizens, was declared.

Jewish Israelis up, Palestinians down

It is important that the Amnesty report places a special focus on demography—recognizing that the intention of Israel and its institutions from the beginning was to ensure a permanent Jewish majority, regardless of the levels of oppression and violence required to make that happen. That meant the “demography of the newly created state was to be changed to the benefit of Jewish Israelis, while Palestinians—whether inside Israel or, later on, in the OPT—were perceived as a threat to establishing and maintaining a Jewish majority, and as a result were to be expelled, fragmented, segregated, controlled, dispossessed of their land and property and deprived of their economic and social rights.”

The report makes clear that “the racial discrimination against and segregation of Palestinians is the result of deliberate government policy. The regular violations of Palestinians’ rights are not accidental repetitions of offenses, but part of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination.”

The report notes that in 2018 those longstanding apartheid practices became permanent Israeli law, with the passage of the nation-state law as an amendment to Israel’s Basic Law, which serves as its legal foundation or constitution. The law states explicitly that “Israel is the nation State of the Jewish people,” not the state of all its citizens (20% of whom are Palestinian), and that “the exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.”

The report provides extensive examples of the range of Israel’s serious human rights violations whose systemic nature leads to the legal conclusion of apartheid. In discussing Israel’s official goal of creating and maintaining a Jewish majority, one example starts directly with the status of Jerusalem. “Since the 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem,” it says, “Israeli governments have set targets for the demographic ratio of Jews to Palestinians in Jerusalem as a whole and have made it clear through public statements that the denial of economic and social rights to Palestinians in East Jerusalem is an intentional policy to coerce them into leaving the city.  Israel’s withdrawal of its settlers from Gaza, while it maintained control over the people in the territory in other ways, was also expressly linked to demographic questions, and a realization that a Jewish majority could not be achieved there. Finally, public materials published by the Israeli government make it obvious that Israel’s long-standing policy to deprive millions of Palestinian refugees of their right to return to their homes is also guided by demographic considerations.”

Accountability

One of the most important consequences of the Amnesty report is its insistence on holding accountable all those responsible for Israel’s apartheid policies. It starts by making clear that “almost all of Israel’s civilian administration and military authorities, as well as governmental and quasi-governmental institutions, are involved in the enforcement of the system of apartheid against Palestinians across Israel and the OPT and against Palestinian refugees and their descendants outside the territory.”

And while holding Israeli officials and institutions responsible, Amnesty also recognizes that “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. The numerous UN Security Council resolutions adopted over the years have remained unimplemented with Israel facing no repercussions for actions that have violated international law.”

By refusing to hold Israel accountable, it goes on, “the international community has contributed to undermining the international legal order and has emboldened Israel to continue perpetrating crimes with impunity. In fact, some states have actively supported Israel’s violations by supplying it with arms, equipment and other tools to perpetrate crimes under international law and by providing diplomatic cover, including at the UN Security Council, to shield it from accountability.” Those states have, therefore, “completely failed the Palestinian people and have only exacerbated Palestinians’ lived experience as people with lesser rights and inferior status to Jewish Israelis.”

So what to do now?

One of the reasons that Amnesty’s report is so important is that it is a global campaigning organization, with 10 million supporters worldwide. That means it has an enormous potential capacity to mobilize serious campaigns challenging Israeli apartheid, involving both social movements and governments, as well as the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. In the United States, Amnesty chapters are working at over 600 colleges and high schools—in all of which Israeli apartheid and Palestinian rights will now become a regular component of the broad human rights agenda the young activists take up. If Palestinian rights activists partner with anti-racist and immigrant rights campaigners and others to join local Amnesty chapters on campuses and in communities, it will both strengthen those chapters and broaden the ties of solidarity among human rights and other progressive movements.

Amnesty’s report outlines a set of urgent recommendations to Israel, to the US and other governments, to the UN—all aimed at ending Israeli apartheid practices and holding accountable those responsible for them. It calls on Israel to end the practice of apartheid as well as cease discrimination against and persecution of Palestinians (as Human Rights Watch and others do as well). Amnesty then adds a host of specifics about what such a move would require, including recognizing the refugees’ right to return to “homes where they or their families once lived in Israel or the OPT, and to receive restitution and compensation … for the loss of their land and property.”

Amnesty calls for ending Israel’s international access to arms, urging all allied governments, specifically including the United States, “to immediately suspend the direct and indirect supply, sale or transfer of all weapons, munitions and other military and security equipment, including the provision of training and other military and security assistance” to Israel.  It calls on the UN Security Council to impose a “comprehensive arms embargo on Israel. The embargo should cover the direct and indirect supply, sale or transfer, including transit and trans-shipment of all weapons, munitions and other military and security equipment, including the provision of training and other military and security assistance.” The Security Council is also urged to either refer the crimes against humanity and other human rights violations against the Palestinians for investigation by the International Criminal Court or to establish “an international tribunal to try alleged perpetrators of international crimes.”

Finally, in a major step, Amnesty also demands that the UN General Assembly re-establish the Special Committee Against Apartheid. The Committee, originally opened in 1962, created the UN Centre Against Apartheid which played a major role in helping to coordinate and provide educational resources for the global anti-apartheid movement throughout the 1970s and 80s. Its mandate would not be limited to Israeli apartheid, but rather would be charged with mobilizing international challenges to all examples of contemporary apartheid; other peoples sometimes described as suffering under apartheid include the Rohingya in Myanmar (whom Amnesty identified as living in conditions of apartheid), the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara, and perhaps others. Numerous Palestinian and international civil society advocates have been pushing for the re-opening of the Committee; that would represent a major step forward in strengthening and providing new credibility and influence for the global anti-apartheid movement, including (though not limited to) the movement for Palestinian rights.

Looking back, looking forward

In the 1980s the great Palestinian intellectual Dr. Naseer Aruri, based in the US, joined the board of Amnesty International USA, with the goal of getting the organization to recognize Palestinian prisoners of conscience and, more broadly, to mobilize against Israel’s ongoing violations of human rights. It took six years. In a statement issued after his death in 2015, the board chair of Amnesty USA recognized Naseer as “a champion for human rights, and never afraid to express a minority view. …[H]is contributions left an important mark on the work we are doing today.” The group’s executive director added, “Naseer will be sorely missed, but his connection to this organization will live on.”

Amnesty International’s new report represents a major step in a rising global campaign to expose the crime of apartheid being committed against the Palestinian people, and to hold Israel accountable for its violations. The report closes the circle of major human rights organizations finally prepared to take this step. It was not a quick or an easy decision for any of them—and the attacks on their credibility and legitimacy, including through the weaponization of false accusations of anti-semitism, show why.

The expanding story of this new position of human rights principles is a huge victory.  It is a story, too, of the role that movements and activists play in moving history forward.

The Amnesty report declares that its research was “guided by a global policy on the human rights violation and crime of apartheid adopted by Amnesty International in July 2017, following recognition that the organization had given insufficient attention to situations of systematic discrimination and oppression around the world.”  That is no doubt true. But achieving that shift in priorities, raising the willingness of Amnesty and the other international human rights organizations to name and unequivocally challenge Israeli apartheid, took years of work within and outside Amnesty (and other similar human rights organizations).

Naseer Aruri’s work starting almost 40 years ago played a huge role, as does the work today of Amnesty’s extraordinary team of researchers, writers, lawyers, and others responsible for producing the report. That work too stands on the shoulders of the Palestinian advocates and activists across the global movement for Palestinian rights—and it’s that movement that is now charged with teaching the conclusions, building the new coalitions, and fighting for implementation of the recommendations Amnesty calls for.

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Fellow Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at IPS. She is also a fellow of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. She has been a writer, analyst, and activist on Middle East and UN issues for many years. In 2001 she helped found and remains on the steering committee of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation. She works closely with the United for Peace and Justice anti-war coalition, co-chairs the UN-based International Coordinating Network on Palestine, and since 2002 has played an active role in the growing global peace movement. She continues to serve as an adviser to several top UN officials on Middle East and UN democratization issues.

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