On February 1, Amnesty International issued a report called “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians.” Before the report was released to the public, Israel’s Foreign Ministry was already crying antisemitism. Amnesty International and the Foreign Ministry each were pursuing a hidden political agenda, both of which should be rejected.
Amnesty International chose its title for its report very carefully. It knew that using the A word would focus attention on its chosen agenda, an agenda built more around the title than the facts. To sort all this out, we will need to look at what the 280-page AI report actually said. And what it didn’t say.
To understand AI’s agenda, you must recognize that the report is not focused only on current Israeli administration policies but reaches back to the moment of Israel’s creation. It does so selectively, however, in order to portray the birth of the Jewish state as original sin. So, let’s start by adding what the report left out.
Immediately after the United Nation’s vote, in November 1947, to end the British mandate in Palestine and establish in its stead two states, one for Jews and one for Palestinians, armed Palestinians and other irregulars launched a violent campaign, the point of which was to cleanse Mandatory Palestine of Jews. Six months before Israel even declared its independence, attacks against Jewish settlements were widespread throughout the territory.
The fighting was most intense in the corridor leading to Jerusalem. Palestinian forces laid siege to the city. This was not an attack against the still undeclared Jewish state; under the UN approved partition plan, Jerusalem was to be a “corpus separatum,” designated for international control. The point of the Palestinian siege was to starve out the Jews.
On the fifth of Iyar — May 15, 1948 — when the British Mandate expired, the State of Israel was declared, recognizing the U.N. partition plan boundaries as the designated borders of the new Jewish state.
The next day, Israel was attacked by the armies of neighboring Arab states, with the express purpose of destroying it and expelling Jews. Everywhere those armies advanced, Jews were murdered or expelled, without exception. Upon overrunning the Old City of Jerusalem, the Jordanian commander celebrated the fact that for the first time in 1,000 years, there was not a single Jew in the Jewish Quarter. Synagogues and other buildings were destroyed to discourage return. Even the Jewish settlement of Tel Or, across the Jordan river in Transjordan and therefore not a part of Mandatory Palestine at all, was attacked. The Jews there were expelled by the army from the country of which they were citizens.
This war, and the acts of ethnic cleansing waged against Jews, was not initiated because of religious differences. The Jews weren’t attacked because of their worship of God, or because of kashrut or Shabbat. They were targeted because of their ethnicity. The Amnesty International report ignores what was a backhanded recognition of Jewish peoplehood. Thousands of Jews died in the war of ethnic cleansing initiated and waged against them.
The reason none of this was mentioned in the report is that it complicates the political narrative Amnesty International wants to push. What the AI report accurately details is the expulsion by armed Jews of large numbers of Palestinians from their homes during that war. Roughly 80% of the non-Jewish population inside what became the de facto borders of Israel fled or was expelled. There were many places where Palestinians were brutally evicted and were kept from returning on pain of death. There were times when the destruction of Palestinian villages by Jews was a military necessity, because they were being used as launching sites for attacks against Jews. But in many places, this was simply not the case. The fact that Jews had been targeted for that very fate in a war initiated against them and had well-founded fears helps us understand what happened, but it is not a justification for the death and displacement of Palestinian non-combatants, just as there was no justification for the attacks against Jews.
The AI report is eager to speak about one side, but it is silent about the other.
Not that we needed the AI report to reveal the facts about the attacks and expulsions of Palestinian non-combatants. In Israel, you can find well-documented histories readily available in Hebrew and in English, although it took a long time for Israeli historians to face the topic. In 2008, Benny Morris, then a professor of history in the Middle East studies department of Ben Gurion University, published a book, “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War.” He became the first of what came to be called “the new historians,” who together successfully reshaped the understanding of Israel’s War of Independence in Israel.
Some 800,00 Palestinians lost their land and homes as an outcome of a war that was waged in their name, even though many of them had no part in it and some of them had even disavowed it.
The AI report is accurate to state that was a terrible tragedy, the legacy of which continues to weigh in the region. When the 1948 war stopped and armistice lines were drawn, the new map no longer reflected the U.N. partition plan. Israel claimed new territory, including a portion of Jerusalem. Where Arab armies conquered territory, that land was absorbed into the conquering Arab country. The Palestinian state envisioned in the UN partition plan was stillborn but not because of Israel. Nowhere is that fact mentioned in the AI recitation of history.
What followed in the immediate aftermath of the war was another tragedy to which the AI devotes not a word. In the Arab states of North Africa and the Middle East, a wave of persecution, show trials, executions, and confiscations of property against Jewish citizens led to a mass exodus. Many of these Jews found shelter and were able to rebuild their lives in Israel, through the agency of the Jewish state. In the wake of further persecutions after the wars of 1956 and 1967, almost all the 800,000 Jews living in the Arab states of North Africa and the Middle East had left their homes. We cannot understand this as a simple exchange of populations, as if this was a voluntary movement of Palestinians and Jews. But we can’t understand our current conditions without acknowledging the whole of history and what that meant and means, not only for Palestinians but for Jews as well.
It is not an accident the Amnesty International emphasizes the word apartheid. It wishes to push a narrative that Israel is a settler-state, a colonizer comparable to South Africa, which it isn’t. The report recognizes and asserts Palestinian national identity and speaks specifically of a Palestinian people, which is accurate and appropriate, but does not grant that very same quality to the Jews. Its silence effectively denies Jewish peoplehood.
This approach is consistent with the language, political perspective, and program of the BDS movement, and of those supporting a single secular state in what once was Mandatory Palestine. The dissolution of the Jewish state seems to be the essential program and political agenda of the Amnesty International report. And where history and facts intrude, these are glossed over or ignored.
What also shouldn’t be ignored is that the Amnesty International report is accurate in presenting a list of policies and actions within Israel that do discriminate against Palestinian Israeli citizens, as well as Israeli government policies that support a permanent occupation and military rule imposed upon Palestinians, particularly in the West Bank, an ongoing situation that generates displacement, abuse, and suffering among the Palestinian population there.
Within Israel, discrimination and abuse of power is rampant in the onerous processes of obtaining permits for construction of new buildings. It is difficult or at times impossible for non-Jewish citizens to build needed residential structures legally. Those built without permits typically are demolished, at their owner’s expense. While structures built improperly by Jewish owners are retroactively legalized, Palestinian Israeli citizens do not enjoy such lenience.
The abuse of the planning and permit system is particularly acute among the Negev Bedouin, where many communities are unrecognized by the authorities. Because they are unrecognized, they are not connected to any municipal services, including power and water, and they are subject to destruction, often without warning. Amnesty International cites the case of Al Araqeeb, an historical Bedouin settlement marked on maps dating back to the Mandate period. The local cemetery dates back more than 100 years. During the 1948 war and its aftermath, Bedouin were forced out of the area. The land was then claimed by the Israel Land Authority as abandoned. Bedouin returned without permission to reestablish their community. For more than 20 years, the site has been contested in courtrooms and on the ground. In 2010, 1300 police officers demolished 46 structures and uprooted more than 800 trees. After successive evictions and demolitions, the villagers continue to return to reestablish their settlement. This cycle of demolition and reconstruction has been repeated nearly 200 times. In the meantime, settlements for Jewish residents throughout the Negev have been planned and approved.
The AI report correctly notes inequities in the allocations of budgets for education and municipal services. In general, Israeli Jews benefit from greater resources relative to non-Jewish citizens. These have been acknowledged in official sources, particularly the government appointed Or Commission, named after its chairman, which was appointed to investigate the deaths of 13 Palestinians in demonstrations against inequality that erupted in Israel in October 2000. Despite the inequities, it remains a fact that according to government statistics, proportionally, the most highly educated segment of the Israeli population is not Israeli Jews but Israeli Christian Palestinians. You won’t find this fact in the AI report, because it contradicts the narrative of apartheid the report is pushing.
Non-Jewish citizens of Israel have the right to vote and to organize politically. Parties devoted specifically to the interests of Palestinian Israeli citizens have participated in elections and regularly win representation in Israel’s Knesset. Palestinian Israeli citizens have held minister and deputy minster positions in Israel. The current Israeli government is a coalition that includes an Israeli-Palestinian political party. None of this is consistent with the claim of apartheid.
Just because it isn’t apartheid does not mean the very real inequities impacting Israel’s non-Jewish citizens aren’t wrong. Israel’s Declaration of Independence speaks of a state that would work for the benefit of all its citizens But that was aspirational. Sadly, it has no force in law.
In the absence of a constitution, Israel created (and continues to add to) a collection of Basic Laws. Initially, these foundational laws were used to define and establish the authority of various governmental bodies, and later they guaranteed individual rights as well. In 1992, the Basic Law of Human Liberty and Dignity established fundamental rights of life, dignity, privacy, and entry to and exit from the country. That and the 1994 Basic Law on Freedom of Occupation, dealing with rights to employment and profession, provided, for the first time in Israel, the legal foundation for judicial review. Through these laws, Israeli courts are empowered to determine whether enacted laws conflict with rights assured in the Basic Laws. In 2018, Israel’s Knesset enacted the Nation State Law defining Israel as a nation-state of the Jewish people. It set the state and its purposes in exclusively Jewish terms and prioritized Jewish settlement and the Hebrew language.
The law is controversial because it can be interpreted as an acceptance, in law, of institutional and operational inequality in contradiction to the aspirations of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which envisioned a state for all its citizens in full equality. “… [The State of Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions…]”
It is to those aspirations that Israel should adhere.
The most depressing descriptions in the AI report are those describing the conditions of occupation on the West Bank and the highly constricted life of the people of Gaza. Israel has imposed a system of permits on these residents that are required for many basic aspects of life. These are often denied not on a case-by-case basis but as a mechanism of population control and economic constriction. Beyond these is a program of discriminatory land use, expropriation, and displacement meant to facilitate Jewish settlement in the West Bank and to squeeze the existing Palestinian residents into small, separated, and confined urban centers.
Law in the West Bank is discriminatory, and its enforcement is arbitrary. Military law is applied to Palestinians, but Israeli law is applied on an extraterritorial basis to Jewish settlers (if it is enforced at all). Unauthorized, Illegal Jewish settlements, sometimes on private Palestinian land, are allowed and regularly made legal after the fact. Expropriations are performed, sometimes on the flimsiest of justifications. In the last five years, Palestinians in the West Bank have successfully secured 33 building permits. In the same five years, Jewish settlers in the West Bank have received 16,500 permits to build.
Violence committed by Jewish settlers against Palestinian people and property is tolerated so extensively that it can be understood only as a policy tool. Palestinian political expression is tightly confined and largely suppressed. None of this is justifiable on security grounds. On the contrary high ranking, Israeli security personnel have long expressed deep concern that these conditions are creating explosive security risks.
The de facto goal of these policies is to promote a condition of permanent occupation, deny Palestinians to any right to political self-realization, expression, or control, and establish a sufficient Jewish population in enough areas to create an appearance of extensive Jewish residence sufficient to argue for the preclusion of a Palestinian state. Despite these policies, however, the demographics are moving in the opposite direction. Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, the population of non-Jews continues to grow. Today the division is about 50-50. This program of permanent occupation, so abusive to Palestinian residents, is at the same time an ongoing conduit of corruption into and of Israeli society. It is a direct threat to the future of Israel as a democratic Jewish state.
When Israel’s foreign ministry issued its response to the AI report, it was all too ready to focus on the apartheid claim,; a claim to which it responded with its own charge of antisemitism against AI. But it was not ready to discuss the particulars of the AI report that correctly detail discrimination within Israel and abuses involved in the Israeli administration’s reckless program of permanent occupation and tacit annexation of the West Bank.
We don’t have to be consumed in an argument about whether or not permanent occupation is apartheid. Those arguments already are a waste of words. We need to evaluate the facts. From these, we know enough to know that the policy is wrong, unjust, disconnected from and counterproductive to security and to a creative future for both Jews and Palestinians.
An alternative path, one involving the mutual recognition of national rights to self-determination in mutual security, human rights, civil rights, and peace, is the subject of another article.
Dr. Mark Gold of Teaneck holds a Ph.D. in economics from NYU. He is on the executive board of Partners for Progressive Israel, a member organization of the American Zionist Movement and an affiliate of the World Union of Meretz.
Hiam Simon of Englewood is the past chief operating officer of Ameinu, the leading progressive Zionist membership organization in the United States. He lived in Israel for many years, where he was the dean of students at what is now the Alexander Muss High School, and he served in the IDF as a noncommissioned officer in the artillery.