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Amnesty becomes latest rights group to call Israel an 'apartheid state'

Human rights powerhouse says Israel's 'institutionalised segregation and discrimination against Palestinians' constitutes a system of apartheid
A Palestinian woman stands at the fence of her house in al-Shuhada street, which is largely closed to Palestinians, in Hebron on 9 November 2021.
A Palestinian woman stands at the fence of her house on al-Shuhada Street, which is largely closed to Palestinians, in Hebron on 9 November 2021 (AFP)

Amnesty International on Tuesday released a report that labels Israel as an apartheid state, becoming the latest organisation to join a cadre of human rights groups that have used the term to describe Israel's discriminatory treatment of Palestinians.

The 280-page-report, based upon research conducted from 2017 to 2021, said that since 1948 Israel has pursued policies that "benefit Jewish Israelis while restricting the rights of Palestinians".

"Israel’s system of institutionalised segregation and discrimination against Palestinians, as a racial group, in all areas under its control amounts to a system of apartheid, and a serious violation of Israel’s human rights obligations," Amnesty said.

"The segregation is conducted in a systematic and highly institutionalised manner through laws, policies and practices, all of which are intended to prevent Palestinians from claiming and enjoying equal rights with Jewish Israelis." This is the case both for Palestinian citizens of Israel, which make up 20 percent of the country's population, and the five million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

'Israel's system of institutionalised segregation and discrimination against Palestinians ... amounts to a system of apartheid'

- Amnesty International

Apartheid is a legal term defined by international law that refers to systematic oppression by one racial group over another.

In its report, Amnesty called on the United Nations Security Council to "impose targeted sanctions, such as asset freezes, against Israeli officials most implicated in the crime of apartheid, and 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 report said.

Prior to the report's release, Israel on Monday urged the rights group against publishing the study and accused the conclusions as being "false, biased and antisemitic".

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Amnesty "is just another radical organisation which echoes propaganda, without seriously checking the facts", accusing it of echoing "the same lies shared by terrorist organisations".

"Israel isn’t perfect, but we are a democracy committed to international law, open to criticism, with a free press and a strong and independent judicial system," Lapid said in a statement.

It was also attacked by a number of pro-Israel groups including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), which said the report was a "misguided and backward-looking effort to vilify Israel".

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Speaking at a press conference in occupied East Jerusalem on Tuesday, Agnes Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary-general, said: “Our report reveals the true extent of Israel’s apartheid regime. Whether they live in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, or Israel itself, Palestinians are treated as an inferior racial group and systematically deprived of their rights.

“It is the cruelty of the system, the intricate evolving administration of control, dispossession, and inequality [and] the incredible detailed bureaucratisation upon which that system is predicated,” she said.

“Its sheer banality and, at times, absurdity has taken my breath away."

Callamard also said that "a critique of the practice of the State of Israel is absolutely not a form of anti-Semitism".

B'Tselem, Israel's leading human rights group, said the report marked a "new consensus, recognising the fact that Israel employs a regime of Jewish supremacy between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea," and an "essential step in the struggle to change this reality".

Broader recognition of Israel's apartheid

The report is the latest amongst a number of rights groups, both Israeli and international, that have similarly accused Israel of apartheid.

In January 2021, B'Tselem labelled the country as an "apartheid" state, saying Israel has adopted a policy to “divide, separate and rule” over the Palestinians, who have rights “inferior” to those afforded to its Jewish citizens.

Then later in April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report saying that Israel's dual policies, which are codified in its laws, privilege Jewish Israelis while repressing Palestinians, and had "crossed the threshold" into apartheid.

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"Over time, research conducted by Palestinian human rights organisations, and more recently some Israeli human rights groups, has contributed to broader international recognition of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as apartheid," Amnesty's report said.

Dozens of Hollywood stars have also recently cited HRW's report and taken stances in support of Palestinian rights.

Despite the increasing number of rights groups labelling Israeli policies as amounting to apartheid, the United States and Israel's other western allies have refrained from making any such declarations.

On Tuesday, the US State Department said it rejected the labelling of Israel's actions against Palestinians as apartheid, with spokesperson Ned Price telling reporters that "the department's own reports have never used such terminology".

Price added 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".

"States, particularly Israel’s western allies, have been reluctant to heed these calls, and have refused to take any meaningful action against Israel," Amnesty's report said.

An ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) is currently looking at all alleged violations that Israel has committed against Palestinians, as well as those said to have been done by Palestinian militant groups. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) agreed to launch the probe following Israel's May 2021 offensive on Gaza that killed at least 248 Palestinians, including more than 60 children. Twelve were killed on the Israeli side by Palestinian rocket fire.

Amnesty called on the ICC to continue its probe and also consider whether apartheid is a part of the crimes that Israel is guilty of.

The rights group also called on Israel to either repeal or amend its nation-state law, which passed despite fierce protest from Palestinian citizens and other critics. The law states that Israel is "the national home of the Jewish people" and the "right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people".

Home demolitions and 'systematic' killing

Amnesty bases its findings on the ICC's Rome Statute, which defines apartheid as "an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group".

The organisation highlighted the crimes Israel has committed that fall under this definition, such as the forcible transfer of Palestinians; Israel's destruction of homes and land owned by Palestinians; the imprisonment of thousands of Palestinians "without charge or trial"; and the killing and injuring of thousands of Palestinian civilians, often in circumstances "suggesting that the killings were systematic".

The report comes amid ongoing campaigns across the occupied Palestinian territories to expel Palestinian residents and make way for Israeli settlers.

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Earlier this month, Israeli settlers seized a plot of land and Israeli forces demolished the house of the Palestinian Salhiya family in occupied East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, which has become a simmering flashpoint over the past year amid the ongoing campaign to displace Palestinian families.

Settler violence has been on the rise in recent months, with the United Nations reporting that 370 settler attacks led to property damage in 2021 and another 126 assaults resulted in casualties.

Israel has also come under renewed pressure after an 80-year-old Palestinian American was killed shortly after being in Israeli custody.

An autopsy reportedly showed that he had bruises on his head as a result of traumatic brain injuries, and there was internal bleeding in his eyelids from being blindfolded tightly.

"Amnesty International is not aware of any case in which an Israeli army soldier or member of another security force has been convicted of willfully causing the death of a Palestinian in the [occupied Palestinian territories] since 1987," the report said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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