Dismantle What? Amnesty’s Conflicted Messaging on Israeli Apartheid
February 15 2022

On February 1, Amnesty International published its long-awaited report on Israeli apartheid. Amnesty is not the first human rights group to recognize the system of apartheid imposed on all Palestinians. However, the latest report makes a conscious effort to examine how apartheid impacts the lives of Palestinians wherever they reside, including Palestinians in 1948 lands and Palestinian refugees in exile.

We recognize the importance of such reports for global campaigning and advocacy efforts. However, there are issues with this report, just like the ones previously published by international and Israeli organizations. Amnesty’s report fails to recognize apartheid as a tool of Zionist settler colonialism and fails to consider the role of Zionist ideology and institutions in establishing and maintaining this system. It also refrains from recognizing the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. Thus, the report does not break away from the limitations imposed on Palestinians’ discourse, nor does it confront the nature of the Zionist project as both racist and settler colonial.

Amnesty’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard chose to open the organization’s press conference in Jerusalem by asserting “the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.” She then stressed: “We are not criticizing the fact that there is a Jewish state... What we are calling for is on the Jewish state to recognize the rights of all people living under their control and on their territories.” Amnesty echoed this position in a press release published on its website that day, which stated that it “does not challenge Israel’s desire to be a home for Jews” nor does it “consider that Israel labelling itself a ‘Jewish state’ in itself indicates an intention to oppress and dominate.”

These statements convey disregard for the fact that Israel defining itself as a “Jewish state” is not a merely symbolic gesture, but rather, the very manifestation of Zionist settler colonial domination over the Palestinian people. This is the foundation of Israel’s apartheid regime. As Palestinian scholar Fayez Sayegh wrote in 1965, Zionism demands “racial exclusiveness... [and] necessarily rejects the coexistence of Jews and non-Jews in the land of Jewish regrouping.” Should we then understand Amnesty’s statements as an endorsement of Zionist racial ideology?

Following Amnesty’s press conference, the organization’s messaging became even more conflicted. Amnesty USA took to Twitter to state that Amnesty takes no position against Israel’s prolonged occupation. A careful reading of the 280-page report shows that Amnesty does not call for an end to Israeli military occupation since 1967, even while it calls for an end to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and the dismantlement of Israel’s apartheid system more broadly. The absence of a call to end the Israeli occupation is even more perplexing, given the report’s finding that Israeli military rule between 1948-1966 (inside the Green Line) and since 1967 (in the occupied Palestinian territory) is “a key tool to establish its system of oppression and domination over Palestinians.”

Between the Legal and the Political

In its report, Amnesty argues that it “does not take a position on international political or legal arrangements” on self-determination. On this basis, it does not recognize the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, even though this right is legally recognized and has repeatedly been reaffirmed in the context of Palestine.

The argument is even more incoherent in that Amnesty does take a political stance in the next sentence, when it accepts UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (II) of 1947 (the UN partition resolution) as the basis of its analysis. This is in addition to the statement by Amnesty’s Secretary General asserting “the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.” These clear political choices suggest that what is at stake is not Amnesty’s need to be “legal.”

We recognize that the human rights and international law frameworks are limited, and that these may not be the arenas where Palestinians attain liberation. In fact, over-reliance on legal frameworks has had a harmful effect of confining and limiting the Palestinian struggle and Palestinian political imagination. This has also negatively impacted the work of Palestinian civil society and human rights organizations.

Despite these limitations, international law can provide space for a more expansive discourse than the one advanced by Amnesty and other international and Israeli groups to date. The adoption of conflicted and decidedly political language has the effect of setting the boundaries of legitimate discourse, while at the same time side-lining Palestinian voices who, for decades, have been calling for systematic change within the human rights movement. Thus, it reflects an unwillingness to challenge the power dynamics at play, while failing to center Palestinians’ lived experiences and agency, including the experiences and analytical framings put forward by those involved in the struggle on the ground.

Who Sets the Limits of Legitimate Discourse?

Most of Amnesty’s recent comments are not embodied in the report itself, nor in the evidence-based research conducted by its team. This additional material, published on Amnesty’s website and shared on social media, seems more preoccupied with addressing political accusations than discussing the contents of the report itself. This reflects the political pressure exerted on Amnesty in the lead up to the report’s launch.

These dangerous positions are hidden in the celebratory applause declaring Amnesty’s latest report an achievement for acknowledging what Palestinians have been saying for decades. We believe that some of the strengths of Amnesty’s report lie precisely in the contributions of Amnesty’s Palestinian researchers to the documentation and drafting process during four years of desk and field research, and their conscious effort to reframe the discourse on Palestinian oppression. These voices should have been given agency in the articulation of the narrative around the report, ensuring consistency between the findings and subsequent advocacy.

The conflicted nature of Amnesty’s messaging reflects a contrast between efforts led by Palestinian researchers within international human rights organizations and the official messaging of these groups’ centers of power in their attempt to tone down radical discourse. Yet, with the contradictory messaging from Amnesty’s management, the fear is that the strengths of the report may be overshadowed.

Having worked for the Palestinian human rights organizations Adalah and Al-Haq, we sat for years in advocacy meetings with diplomats, UN bodies, donors, and civil society, and were forced to fit our reality into fragmented frameworks that they would be willing to recognize and deem “strategic.” We were well aware of the limitations of the human rights system, but even when advocating within its frameworks, we, like many Palestinian advocates and human rights organizations, were delegitimized and deemed not credible enough to reflect our own lived reality as Palestinians. In turn, as the recent recognition of the Tantura massacre of 1948 shows, the perpetrator seems to be “automatically endowed with the authority to narrate.”

In a context of systematic silencing and delegitimization of Palestinian voices and experiences, Amnesty’s meticulous documentation evidencing Palestinian oppression since 1948 is particularly welcome, as well as its acknowledgement of Palestinians’ decades-long contributions to advancing the apartheid framework. Because of this, we believe it is dangerous to overlook some of the warning signs around Amnesty’s recent messaging.

The Absence of Zionist Settler Colonialism

Amnesty’s report examines in excruciating detail the mechanisms of Israeli control and transfer of the Palestinian people. It recognizes the mass expulsion of the Palestinian people in 1948 as “ethnic cleansing.” The report further shows that Palestinians owned most of the land in historic Palestine prior to 1948, and highlights transfer as the initial and ongoing crime of the Nakba—the reason for which Palestinian refugees and those displaced continue to be denied their right of return.

Simultaneously, the report refrains from identifying Zionist settler colonialism and Zionist ideology as the root of Israel’s apartheid system and the ethos of the Israeli state. To suggest that apartheid in South Africa and occupied Namibia was devoid of racial ideology would be absurd today. Yet, this is exactly what some practitioners are saying about Israeli apartheid. A reading of apartheid without recognition of settler colonialism means advocating for “liberal equality” without decolonization.

International law recognizes the applicability of multiple frameworks in Palestine, where apartheid does not displace the reality of Israeli occupation nor the wider context of settler colonialism. Used in isolation, the occupation framework was once presented as a temporary milestone in advancing Palestinian rights through its criminalization of certain practices of the Israeli occupation. As a result, decades of “legitimate” discourse have fragmented the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 from the experience of the rest of the Palestinian people. The danger is that over-reliance on fragmented frameworks sets the limits of Palestinian political imagination and the terms of the struggle on the ground.

As such, shifting the focus from the Israeli occupation since 1967 to the apartheid framework over the Palestinian people as a whole must include a recognition of the colonization of historic Palestine as an ongoing process. A failure to recognize apartheid within the context of settler colonialism is not only an inaccurate description of the situation on the ground, but also disregards the root cause of the denial of Palestinian rights for over century.

Dismantle What?

Without recognition of settler colonialism or a call to end Israeli occupation, one is left with the question: what, exactly, according to Amnesty, is to be dismantled?

The Q&A series published on Amnesty’s website leaves us with more questions than answers. On what is to be dismantled, Amnesty states: “We do not ever call for ‘regime change;’ we instead provide recommendations on how governments can bring their actions in line with international law.” This reflects a clear dissonance since apartheid is a prohibited regime under international law. So, how can one call for the dismantlement of apartheid without dismantling the regime itself?

The Q&A goes further, adding: “This report is a call for the Israeli government to undertake reforms necessary for Israel to comply with its obligations under international law... [which] does not prohibit Israel from encouraging Jewish immigration,” so long as it does not discriminate against Palestinians, including in the exercise of their right of return. Human Rights Watch takes a similar position on the latter point, stating that it is Israel’s prerogative to determine its “immigration policies” (a euphemism for Zionist settler colonization), while stating that the right of refugees to return is subject to “legitimate security concerns”.

The call to implement “reforms” is at odds with Amnesty’s recommendation to dismantle Israel’s apartheid system. At the same time, the acceptance of Israel’s “Jewish immigration” policy is an acceptance of Zionist ideology itself, which is the foundation of Israeli apartheid. Thus, rescinding the 1950 Law of Return, which is one of the most obvious manifestations of the existence of a superior “Jewish nationality” status under Israeli law, is not included in the recommendations made by either Amnesty or Human Rights Watch.

During the Unity Intifada in May 2021, we reclaimed our political will and agency in the streets of Palestine. We eloquently spoke of our lived reality and the forces that shape it. This is the voice that must be centered and emphasized—the voice of Palestinian organizers on the ground. What Palestinians want is not “reforms” to our living conditions under the reign of  Zionism, but the dismantlement of its very foundations. We do not want “liberal equality”—we want decolonization, liberation, justice, and dignity.

About The Author: 

Soheir Asaad is a political and feminist Palestinian organizer and human rights advocate. She holds a Master's degree in international human rights law from the University of Notre Dame (US). Soheir is currently an advocacy and communications team member at Rawa, and the coordinator of the Palestine Feminist Anti-Violence Movement pilot of Global Fund for Women. She is also a former international advocacy coordinator with the Palestinian human rights organization Adalah.


Rania Muhareb is an Irish Research Council and Hardiman PhD scholar at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She is a Policy Member of Al-Shabaka – The Palestinian Policy Network and a former legal researcher and advocacy officer with the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq.

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