Is The Amnesty International Report an Israeli ‘Sharpeville Moment?’
[Prefatory Note: The following interview contains some probing questions put to me by C. J. Polychroniou. The interview was published in Truthout on February 9th, following the release on February 1st, of the explosive Amnesty International Report finding Israel to be guilty of committing the continuing crime of apartheid. How much longer can governments, the UN, and liberal Zionist close their eye in face of the mounting consensus in the international human community on the question of Israeli apartheid?]
Is The Amnesty International Report an Israeli ‘Sharpeville Moment?’
Q1. Amnesty International’s new report exposes Israeli abuses against Palestinians. The report shows that Israel imposes a form of domination and oppression against Palestinians under its control that qualifies as a system of apartheid under international law. In this context, it affirms the 2017 United Nations report that you had helped produce and for which you were personally attacked by Nikki Haley at the Security Council. Yet, the report is full of lies, according to Israel, and some of its strongest allies (US, UK, and Germany) reject the description of Israel as an apartheid state. Let’s start with the most basic question of all: Is there anything in the report that is not true? If not, why has it caused such a bipartisanship fury in the US?
I think it is important to assess the AI report in the wider context of the perception of Israeli apartheid over the course of the last five years since the issuance of ESCWA Report in 2017 [Richard Falk & Virginia Tilley, “Report on Israeli Practices Towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” UN ESCWA Report, March 15, 2017]. In 2001 two comprehensive reports by widely respected human rights organizations added weight to the apartheid allegations. The first one by the most established and internationally trusted Israeli NGO devoted to the protection of human rights, B’Tselem. It has developed an outstanding reputation for professionalism over the years. [“A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Apartheid,” B’Tselem, Jan. 12, 2021.] The second report was issued by Human Rights Watch, the flagship human rights civil society organization in the United States with offices around the world. [“A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” Human Rights Watch, April 27, 2001, 312 pp.] The AI Report should be seen as the culmination of a trend validating allegations of Israeli apartheid, at least within international civil society. [“Israel’s Apartheid Against the Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity, Amnesty International, Feb. 1, 278 pp.]
To dismiss and denigrate these reports adhering to the highest human right research standards, as Israeli and American leaders and spokespersons have attempted to do, calling the AI Report full of ‘lies’ and the work of ‘anti-Semites’ is a shameless slander. Such inflammatory language is designed to shift the conversation from the message to the messenger. This interpretation of the tactics of those rejecting the AI Report is strengthened by the absence of any serious effort to refute the substantive charges. So far there has been a bipartisan angry rejection of the AI Report in Congress, and virtual silence in the mainstream TV and print media. How different would be the U.S. reaction to an Amnesty Report summarizing the breakup of Hong Kong demonstrations or damning the Chinese denial of human rights to the Uyghur minority. The inevitable conclusion reached is that international law and human rights function for the U.S. Government as geopolitical tools rather than normative principles.
Another element of context seems highly relevant. This pushback against the AI should be understood in light of a recent Israeli campaign to demonize the protection of human rights in Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories. The most dramatic move of this character was the Executive Order issued on October 19, 2021 by the Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, declaring six of the most respected civil society organizations in the West Bank to be ‘terrorist organizations’ on the basis of secret and undisclosed evidence deemed ‘legally dubious’ even in liberal Israeli media venues such a Haaretz. A large sector of public opinion in North America and Europe, including in liberal Zionist circles, was shocked by Gantz’s crude move, which was followed up by Major General Yehuda Fuchs, the military commander in the West Bank by a milder declaration that five of the six organization listed by Gantz were ‘unlawful associations’ under his authority to issue Emergency Regulations. (one organization exempted from the list because it had previously been earlier so designated). At least, General Fuchs refrained from repeating the more severe condemnation of Gantz, but the intention was the same, to inhibit donors and to neutralize the efforts of civil society to cope with the hardships of prolonged Israeli occupation of the West Bank and attendant violations of international humanitarian law.
A final issue of context results from the Israel’s Knesset in the form of the 2018 Basic Law proclaiming Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish people, who alone have the right of self-determination within Israel’s still unspecified borders, although the settler communities on the West Bank were clearly intended to be incorporated as part of Israel. The importance here is the extraordinary claim of Jewish exclusivity in what had been for centuries the homeland of a majority Palestinian population. When the colonialist Balfour Declaration was declared in 1917 the Jewish minority in Palestine was less than 10% of the total population of Palestine despite feverish efforts of twenty years of the Zionist Movement to settle Palestine with as many Jews as possible.
These issues of context are of help when assessing both the AI Report and the criticisms directed at it. Responding directly to your inquiry about whether there is reason to accord credibility to the Israeli response. In long reports of this nature there are sure to be contradictory ways of interpreting the evidence. The legal profession depends upon the plausibility of such diverse readings of the evidence. Yet. having collaboratively written one report and carefully read the others, I can assure you that there is no ‘lie’ or even irresponsible allegation in any of the four reports. Because of the sensitivity surrounding accusations of apartheid directed at Israel as well as the realistic apprehension that Israel and its most ardent supporters habitually resort to dirty tactics to discredit critics, the AI authors and researchers leaned over backwards to avoid making suspect allegation. They were scrupulous throughout in compiling and interpreting the evidence. I believe any objective reading of the reports would agree that the highest standards of competence and canons of responsible investigation were upheld. Unlike the apartheid leaders of South Africa, Israel’s leaders deny the charges of apartheid altogether while defending their belief in the appropriateness of the practices and policies used to uphold security given the nature of Israel as a state of the Jewish people. Yet rather than substantively defending reliance on apartheid Israeli apologists are irresponsibly attacking the integrity of the report and the supposedly despicable motivations of its authors and sponsoring organization..
You also understandably also ask ‘why the fury?’ if the reports themselves are not mendacious, but serious objective assessments of allegations, then why would Israel not respond in kind with contrary interpretations of the evidence or by a show of evidence that the Israeli system of controlling Palestinians is consistent with a reasonable construction of Israeli security imperatives. After all, Israel has plenty of skilled jurists who always seem ready to go along with the prevailing Israeli policies based on Jewish supremacy. For instance, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the legality of 2018 Basic Law, and its chief judge even had the temerity to assert that the law didn’t alter the democratic character of the Israeli state.
I suppose that at some point an attempt will be made to put forward an argument in defense of Israel’s racial policies, although differing in nature from South Africa’ overt legal, moral, and political defense of apartheid. I believe Israel will never admit to the apartheid allegations but would defend its laws, policies, and practices as reasonable given security threats facing the country. This approach by way of legalism would be quite a stretch given the essentially uncontested evidence that Israel’s policies and practices do satisfy the accepted international definition of apartheid relied upon in international law circles, which rests on systemic racial domination together with the demonstration of a specific intent to impose and maintain system by all necessary means.
I would contend that from time of the 1948 War during which more than 700,000 were uprooted from their homeland mostly becoming refugees in neighboring Arab countries generations ago Israel was administering race relations according to an apartheid ethos. The destruction of several hundred Palestinian villages was an incriminating complement to the wartime coercive departure of Palestinians. Israeli intentions became even clearer by an official blanket denial to Palestinian refugees of thei4 international law right of return. These features accompanying the establishment of Israel lends credence to the view apartheid was integral to Israel’s state-building project from its origins until the present day.
Israel is understandably distressed by this growing civil society consensus that its treatment of the Palestinians amounts to apartheid. To begin with, apartheid is listed as one of the crimes against humanity in Article 7 of the Rome Statute governing the operations of the International Criminal Court. As the AI Report contends, if apartheid exists then there is present an international responsibility to take steps to bring it to an end. Although Israel has refused to govern its behavior by international law standards in relation of other issues, it nevertheless deeply resents being so charged. It is especially reactive to critics and organizations that have positive and generally apolitical reputations, which includes AI, HRW, and B’Tselem.
There is still the puzzle posed by Israel’s long record of defying international law without suffering adverse consequences, a position made possible by the unconditional geopolitical support provided by the United States, which is also often reinforced by its European allies. It is notable that despite the civil society consensus, few governments other that post-apartheid South Africa have been prepared to go along with the apartheid allegation in inter-governmental contexts, presumably fearing a backlash. This reluctance of governments and international institutions to implement the conclusions and recommendations of AI exposes the political weakness of a normative consensus opposed by strong geopolitical forces.
Yet it is admittedly not foolish for Israeli officials and think tank policy experts to be worried. Even though Israel will not waver in its rejection of the apartheid allegation at this time or alter its policies of domination and victimization, it has suffered a serious setback. Symbolic politics have an underappreciated relevance to the long-term resolution of internal and international conflicts ever since 1945. This relevance runs counter to the lingering, anachronistic belief of political realists that the flow of world history reflects relative military capabilities. It should be illuminating to realize that the anti-colonial wars were eventually won by the nationalist side that prevailed on the symbolic battlefields of Legitimacy Wars rather than by prevailing by its military prowess in the combat zones. The U.S. experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan illuminate various facets of this shift in the post-World War II balances of power that derive from the resolute pursuit of legitimate grievances, and the weakening of capabilities that arise from losing the Legitimacy War.
Beyond this, Israel has learned from the South African experience that anti-racism and anti-colonialism have strong mobilizing appeals in contemporary world society that can give rise to powerful global solidarity campaigns that encourages national resistance, and eventually influences the calculations of political leaders. Such concerns help explain Israel’s excessively punitive tactics adopted in reaction to the nonviolent BDS international campaign. South Africa criminalized internal forms of opposition to apartheid, but it never tried to pressure other government to take similar action against supporters of BDS, including in the U.S.
Q2. Let’s talk about the concept of apartheid. There is clearly severe discrimination inside Israel against Palestinians, but one could argue that there are many analogues elsewhere, including in the US. What are the similarities between apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel in terms of the latter’s treatment of Palestinians living inside Israel?
The criminal internationalization of the South African regime of racial supremacy gradually occurred during the period after World War II. This process featured an increasing role of the United Nations in a global campaign of delegitimation of South Africa’s form of racism. The campaign initially concentrated on the former German colony that became under the control of Pretoria after World War I, becoming known as South West Africa and only years later challenging apartheid orientation of the Afrikaner leadership in South Africa itself. This latter development was the most direct encroachment on territorial sovereignty of a UN member in the early experience of the Organization. The campaign succeeded in having apartheid formally declared to be an international crime, initially in the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of Apartheid, and more recently enumerated in Article 7 of the Rome Statute governing the operations of the International Criminal Court.
It is important to understand that although the origins of apartheid as an international crime are entirely bound up with the experience of South Africa its internationalization from the outset was intended to reach any system of overt domination and victimization based on race, without any requirement that the racist regime so accused resemble the racist regime that governed South Africa until the mid-1990s.
The most widely accepted definition of apartheid is contained in Article 2 of the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of Apartheid. Racism, understood as discrimination based on ideas of ethnic superiority and inferiority, does not necessarily imply apartheid. For instance, the Nazi genocidal approach was unconcerned with using the state and its administrative apparatus to keep the races apart as its genocidal intention centered on erasing or exterminating inferior races, especially Jews and Roma. Separation and racial discriminatory policies and practices are crucial components of apartheid forms of control, but by themsleves, lacks the element of specific intent as evidenced and sustained by cruel acts a system of domination with the purpose of keeping the subjugated race under the explicit control of the dominant race. In Israel and Occupied Palestine this has meant domination by Jews as implemented by an array of administrative decrees and nationality laws restricting immigration of non-Jews, and denying Palestinian refugees right of return, which is an international legal entitlement.
Even the sort of systemic racism that exists in the United States is embedded in the socio-economic-culture of the society rather than existing as an expression of the overt ideology and practices of the state. To be sure sub-national political entities are complicit to varying degrees in carrying out racist policies, which is often exhibited by allowing racist civil society sentiments to shape the behavior of public institutions. The United States with impacts from its notorious past that included the implemention of a genocidal approach to Native American indigenous communities and a labor system in agriculture based on generations of slavery. This dubious legacy is illustrated by the continuing disposition in the American South of trial juries to convict whites accused of murdering blacks, while rushing to guilty verdicts however scant the evidence if the case involves the prosecution of a black defendant accused of murdering a white woman. Also, double standards in policing expose the deep roots of anti-black racism in the U.S. as giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and the complex, contradictory societal reactions to the police homicide of George Floyd in May of 2020 in the Northern city of Minneapolis.
The similarities between Israeli and South African apartheid relate to the historical and ideological narratives of both countries in which European settlers displaced, subjugated, and exploited the resources of the indigenous population, and claimed rights of ethnic supremacy based on race. In both South Africa and Israel, native claims to homeland were overridden, and the settlers took over control of all aspects of governance with the intention of keeping the natives permanently under strict control, using law and lawmaking as a principal tool of control and exploitation by the state and its favored settler ethnicity.
The dissimilarities between Israel and South Africa derive from fundamental demographic, economic, and ideological considerations. The fact that the white minority was never more than 25% of the South African population meant that inclusive democracy could not be entertained as a legitimating option, while for Israel political democracy was a fundamental aspiration of the Zionist Project of establishing and legitimating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This undertaking relied on biblical and historical connections to the land of Palestine (eretz Israel) that went back for hundreds of years. Israel’s first and most illustrious president, David Ben Gurion, put aside his secularized Judaism, famously declaring ‘the Bible shall be our weapon,’ by which he presumably meant that Zionism would mobilize support from Jews and others by insisting that Jews had a sacred right to return to the biblically promised land.
A further fundamental dissimilarity related to the economic role of blacks in South Africa and Palestinians in Israel. South African wealth was derived mainly from extractive industries involving mining, which depended on a large source of cheap labor. In contrast, Palestinian cheap labor undercut a well-organized labor movement at the core of the Zionist movement, and was considered inessential to the growth and development of Israel. The Israeli economy came increasingly to emphasize high technologies, including armaments, in part to avoid any future dependence on Palestinian labor.
In this regard, many on the Israeli right even now favor ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to achieve racial purity in Israel and to complete the work of de facto annexation of the West Bank. These concerns reference the so-called ‘demographic bomb’ that is seen as posing a future threat to the presently solid Jewish majority in Israel, and hence to political control. This threat arises partly from the higher Palestinian fertility rate, which if Israeli annexation plans become fully realized would lead to a 50:50 division of the combined population of fourteen million living in Israel and Occupied Palestine, which would mean a circumstance of demographic equality, which would weaken the case for considering Israel to be a Jewish state, and for that reason alone is regarded by most Israelis as intolerable, portending worse to come.
Q3. I raised the previous question about the relevance of the comparison between apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel because when it comes to the occupied territories, the situation is far worse than apartheid. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out to me in some personal exchange, which I believe to be correct, “South Africa needed its Black population, and catered to them at least to a limited extent. Israel had no need of the Palestinians in the occupied territories and is making life unlivable for them.” Can you comment on this as I think it really raises questions about the broad use of the term “apartheid” when it comes to describing the Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
In my understanding, Chomsky’s essential insight is correct and significant, but I do not agree that South Africa catered to the black population more than Israel do to the Palestinian. Because Israel rests its claims on being ‘democratic’ it caters to the Palestinian minority of 20% in a variety of ways to sustain its international image of political legitimacy. The South Africans drew strict color lines that deprived blacks of any civil or political rights, while Palestinians in Israel proper can vote and even form their own political parties and serve in the government.
The greater harshness of Israeli apartheid arises from the Israeli ambition to control a relatively limited territory as compared to the South African ability to rely on African townships and bantustans for purposes of segregation, security, and control in a rather sparsely populated country. In effect, the proximity and demographic vitality of the Palestinians, ‘the dangerous neighborhood’ of hostile Arab countries, the historical legacies of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, and the character of Palestinian armed resistance led Israel to be more engaged in violent repressive activities than were the South Africans, especially in Gaza. Also, Israeli concerns with demographic implications of a diminished Jewish majority led both to its adoption of a politics of fragmentation involving the dispersal of Palestinians beyond Israel’s borders and to the exclusion of Palestinians seeking fulfillment of their right of return. South Africa, as devising apartheid from the perspective of a racial minority, never had to cope with these specific to Israel concerns.