A furor has enveloped Washington, D.C. as Democrats and Republicans alike scramble to denounce Amnesty International for the report it released this month, which describes Israel as an “apartheid state” and alleges that the human rights abuses committed against Palestinians by the State of Israel constitute crimes against humanity under international law.
In many respects, there is nothing new in the report, as many other human rights organizations, including the UN, have long ago drawn the same conclusions. In fact, many Israelis themselves agree with the assessment of Israel as an apartheid state. Even the late Israeli politician Yossi Sarid, who served as minister of education and the environment back in the late 1990s and through the early 2000s, said the following in 2008 for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “What acts like apartheid, is run like apartheid and harasses like apartheid, is not a duck — it is apartheid.”
Even so, the report provoked an explosion of rage in the United States — most likely among the same group of people who used to object to critiques of South Africa’s system of apartheid and who viewed Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. The same frenzy of rage also surfaced in the U.S. back in 2017, when Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian occupied territories, produced a United Nations report charging Israel with crimes against humanity and labelling it an apartheid state.
In light of Amnesty International’s new report, we asked Richard Falk to share his thoughts on the latest findings about Israeli apartheid and crimes against humanity. Falk is professor emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton University, where he taught for nearly half a century, and chair of Global Law at Queen Mary University London, which has launched a new center for climate crime and justice. He is also the Olaf Palme Visiting Professor in Stockholm and Visiting Distinguished Professor at the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, University of Malta. In 2008, Falk was appointed as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. He is the author of some 50 books, the most recent of which is a memoir titled Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim (2021).
C.J. Polychroniou: 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. But Israel is arguing that the report is full of lies, and some of its strongest allies (the U.S., the U.K. and Germany) are rejecting 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 bipartisan fury in the U.S.?
Richard Falk: I think it is important to assess the Amnesty International report in the wider context of the perception of Israeli apartheid over the course of the last five years, since the issuance of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia’s (ESCWA) “Report on Israeli Practices Towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” in 2017.
In 2021, two comprehensive reports by widely respected human rights organizations added weight to the apartheid allegations. The first one — titled “A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Apartheid” — was published in 2021 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. The second report — titled “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution” — was issued in April 2021 by Human Rights Watch, the flagship human rights civil society organization in the United States with offices around the world.
The Amnesty International report released this February — titled “Israel’s Apartheid Against the Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity” — should be seen as the culmination of a trend validating allegations of Israeli apartheid, at least within international civil society.
To dismiss and denigrate these reports adhering to the highest human rights research standards — as Israeli and American leaders and spokespersons have attempted to do, calling the Amnesty International 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 Amnesty International 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 Amnesty International 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 Amnesty International report 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 Israeli 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 by a milder declaration from Major General Yehuda Fuchs, the military commander in the West Bank, that five of the six organizations listed by Gantz were “unlawful associations” under his authority to issue Emergency Regulations. (The one organization exempted from the list 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 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, with the settler communities on the West Bank 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 created in 1917, the Jewish minority in Palestine was less than 10 percent of the total…