Amnesty International has become the latest human rights organization to accuse Israel of apartheid for its treatment of Palestinians, prompting an angry response from Israel, which has denounced the report as anti-Semitic.
Amnesty’s nearly 300-page report, released Tuesday, details “inhuman or inhumane acts of forcible transfer, administrative detention, torture, unlawful killings and serious injuries, and the denial of basic rights and freedoms or persecution committed against the Palestinian population,” creating “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination over Palestinians.”
“Amnesty International concludes that the State of Israel considers and treats Palestinians as an inferior non-Jewish racial group,” it said.
Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Tuesday that “we call it apartheid because it is apartheid under international law.”
“What we have found is a system, a system of laws, policies, practices, intricate bureaucratic bureaucratized, that are there in order to ensure control and domination of the Palestinian people,” Callamard said.
Like two recent reports focusing on the same issue – from Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, and from New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) – Amnesty’s report examines Israeli policy in both the Palestinian territories, land occupied by Israel since 1967 but never formally annexed, and in Israel.
“Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has pursued an explicit policy of establishing and maintaining a Jewish demographic hegemony and maximizing its control over land to benefit Jewish Israelis,” it said.
Even before the report was formally released, Israel denounced it as “false and biased.”
In an online briefing with journalists held in advance of the report’s publication, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat said that Amnesty was “using double standards and demonization in order to delegitimize the existence of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.”
“These are the exact components from which modern antisemitism is made,” the foreign ministry said in a separate statement.
That response was echoed in a joint statement by several Jewish groups in the United States on Sunday, including the American Israel Israeli Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, which said Amnesty’s document “fuels those anti-Semites around the world who seek to undermine the only Jewish country on earth, while simultaneously cheapening and downplaying the horrific suffering that was a result of apartheid in South Africa.”
Callamard responded to these criticisms by telling CNN that “going after the messenger is one way of ensuring that there is no discussion on the substance, we need to focus on the reality of life for Palestinians. Amnesty stand by its report and stand by its right to critique Israel every time Israel violates international law. That is not anti-Semitic.”
The term apartheid originated in South Africa, where a system of racial segregation and “separate development” was official policy between 1948 and 1994. The system was designed to confine non-Whites to “self-governing Bantustans,” stripping them of their citizenship, with a system of passes and identity papers controlling where non-Whites could travel and work.
Israel has always rejected comparisons with apartheid-era South Africa. Even some staunch Israeli critics of the occupation have argued that discrimination against Palestinians does not amount to intentional or institutional racism and is the result of genuine security fears.
Clash over words
This clash over words – and the efforts to make them stick – have increasingly come to characterize perceptions of the conflict from within the region and abroad.
While the Israeli government response to the previous B’Tselem and HRW reports was critical, Haiat acknowledged concerns that the apartheid narrative is building, prompting a more combative approach this time.
“Of course, there is a concern that people will believe those false accusations,” Haiat said.
He pointed to Israel’s current government, which for the first time includes Arab lawmakers in its ranks as proof of what he termed Israel’s inclusive democracy.
But many Palestinian activists believe those arguments are no longer cutting through, and the see the tide of public opinion turning in their favor.
They point to demonstrations in the United States and around the world last year in support of Palestinian families facing the threat of forced eviction from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
“The world is coming to the conclusion that for human beings that live in the land between the river and the sea, the levels of freedoms and rights are defined by ethnonational identity,” Salem Barahmeh, Executive Director of the Ramallah-based Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy told CNN.
The charge of anti-Semitism by Israel’s defenders has also become a highly contested issue. While research clearly points to rising anti-Semitism around the world, many feel the word is being mis-used and devalued.
Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, was ridiculed recently after accusing actress Emma Watson of anti-Semitism after she posted online a picture of a pro-Palestinian rally alongside the words, “Solidarity is a verb.”
“No joke, we are at the point where merely posting a vague picture referencing solidarity with Palestinians on Instagram gets you labeled as an antisemite,” MSNBC host and former CNN journalist Ayman Mohyeldin tweeted.
At the level of international diplomacy, though, there is little sign so far that the battle over the apartheid label is having much of an impact.
On Tuesday, the US pushed back at the Amnesty report’s characterization of Israel.
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a briefing that the department “(rejects) the view that Israel’s actions constitute apartheid.”
“We certainly reject the label that has been attached to this (report),” Price said, adding: “We think that it is important as the world’s only Jewish state that the Jewish people must not be denied their right to self-determination and we must ensure there isn’t a double standard being applied.”
The report also coincided with the first ever trip by an Israeli head of state to the United Arab Emirates – underscoring Israel’s recent diplomatic achievements.
Read-outs from President Isaac Herzog’s two-day trip to the UAE made no reference to any discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.