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Amnesty Is Right: Israel Is an Apartheid State

Today, Amnesty International becomes the third major human rights organisation to describe Israel as an apartheid state – a sign that international sentiment is turning against its oppression of Palestinians.

Israeli police detain a Palestinian protester ahead of the court hearing on the eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem in May 2021. (Reuters)

Last week, British Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi declared the popular chant ‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free’ antisemitic. He further implied that chanting it should be considered a criminal offence.

The chant, far from being racist, articulates an aspiration of complete Palestinian liberation. Criminalising such an aspiration is not only draconian but fundamentally anti-Palestinian.

But Zahawi’s comments are not surprising—they were made in a climate of increasing crackdown from the British government on activism supporting Palestinian fundamental rights and liberation, including increased efforts to criminalise the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS). Zahawi’s comments and the latest manoeuvres by the British government come at a time when the human rights community is ramping up its support for the Palestinian struggle.

A new report published by Amnesty International condemning the Israeli regime for committing the crime of apartheid from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea was published this morning. Customary international law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines apartheid as ‘inhumane acts… committed in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.’ Although many associate apartheid with South Africa, the definition is universally applicable and is a system that can adopt various characteristics and manifest itself in various ways.

Building on decades of research, including Palestinian lived experiences, the Amnesty report explains in intricate detail how Palestinians are resisting a singular system of domination that operates varying mechanisms and levels of control depending on where Palestinians live. Indeed, it addresses Palestinians in their entirety from the West Bank, Gaza, the ’48 territories, and those in exile. It is this singular system, that seeks to maintain Israeli Jewish hegemony at the expense of the non-Jewish population, that the Amnesty report identifies as apartheid.

As well as looking at each geographic component of the Palestinian people, it also looks at the manifestations of apartheid through various themes—for example, the denial of the right to equal nationality and status. While Palestinians in the territories occupied in 1948 (i.e., Israel) are granted citizenship, they are denied a nationality which in effect establishes a legal differentiation from Jewish Israelis. Palestinians in the territories occupied in 1967 (i.e., the West Bank and Gaza) are not granted citizenship, even though the Israeli regime controls every aspect of their lives, and are considered stateless.

In Jerusalem, Palestinians are given the precarious status of ‘permanent residency’, meaning that should they leave the city they can have their residency revoked from them. Palestinian refugees, meanwhile, are denied the right to return to their homeland.

Another theme the report addresses is the expropriation of land and resources. The report explains that ‘the definition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and the commitment to Jewish settlement of the land has precluded any possibility of Palestinians enjoying equality in access to land, property and resources, with disastrous consequences for their enjoyment of social and economic rights.’

This report is not the first of its kind. Last year, Human Rights Watch came out with a report of their own, condemning Israel for practicing apartheid. Meanwhile, Palestinian scholars and activists have for decades argued that the oppression they face stems from an intricate and complicated form of apartheid. Further, they argue that this is a direct result of the Zionist settler colonial project which began a century ago in Palestine.

It is this particular context—of settler colonialism—that is often missed out by human rights organisations working within a framework of international law. Indeed there are limited provisions for addressing colonialism and settler colonialism within international law. This is why many Palestinians argue for a more holistic understanding of the situation in Palestine—one that isn’t solely reliant on international law.

The context of settler colonialism is even more crucial when thinking about the end game. The danger is that calls to end apartheid become solely about a liberal framing of equality, rather than one that is intertwined with justice and decolonisaiton.

Nonetheless, the significance of an organisation such as Amnesty International cementing Israeli apartheid within its organisational lexicon is big. It is the world’s largest grassroots human rights organisation, with a membership of millions, working across the globe for, in its own words, ‘justice, truth, freedom and dignity’. Its campaigns include fighting climate change and supporting the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, and it is well respected in progressive and liberal crowds. That’s why this report is bound to make noise—because it is precisely within these crowds where we see an inconsistency in politics through the failure to stand up for Palestinian fundamental rights and aspirations for liberation. This report will certainly challenge those inconsistencies.

As a conclusion, the report offers ‘legal remedies’ and policy recommendations for third parties to pursue. Apartheid is already enshrined within international law as a crime against humanity, paving the way for a plethora of legal actions. Specifically, Amnesty calls on countries like the UK, who have close ties with the Israeli regime, to pursue various actions, including the ending of weapons sales and exercising universal jurisdiction against those within their jurisdiction who have committed crimes against humanity.

Yet it would be far-fetched to expect any kind of immediate policy change from countries like the UK  in light of this report’s conclusions. The British government has deep and complicit ties with the Israeli regime, from trade agreements to weapons sales. British defence contractors sell record quantities of arms to Israel, which are used in turn to commit war crimes against Palestinians—most predominantly in Gaza. To add salt to the wound, the British government consistently blocks Palestinian attempts to hold Israel accountable. Last year, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson publicly announced his opposition to the ongoing International Criminal Court investigation into Israeli war crimes.

This cosy relationship and the British government’s refusal to challenge Israeli apartheid is of no surprise. Thatcher and her government were vocally in support of the South African apartheid regime, and famously branded the ANC a terrorist organisation. Not so coincidently, at the same time, the Israeli regime was helping the South African apartheid regime build its arms industry. While the British government eventually ended its public support for the apartheid South African regime after immense grassroots and international pressure, many in the government still supported it. Thatcher even lobbied for and successfully achieved fighting off harsher sanctions on the apartheid regime.

So while Amnesty’s report is likely to be a useful tool in calling out the Israeli regime for what it is, seismic shifts are still needed in the higher echelons of global political establishments, including in the UK, in order for us to edge closer towards Palestinian liberation. Such shifts can only be achieved with massive grassroots mobilisation that rejects ongoing settler colonialism and apartheid in all its manifestations, and calls not only for equality, but also for justice and decolonisation.