- Paul O'Brienexecutive director of Amnesty International USA.
Amnesty International has become the third major human rights organization to accuse Israel of committing the crime of apartheid against Palestinians in a new report released on Tuesday. Amnesty finds Israel’s system of apartheid dates back to the country’s founding in 1948 and has materialized in abuses including massive seizures of Palestinian land and property, unlawful killings, forcible transfer, drastic movement restrictions, and the denial of nationality and citizenship to Palestinians — all of which constitute apartheid under international law. We speak with Amnesty International USA’s executive director Paul O’Brien, who calls on the United States to “put pressure on the Israeli government to dismantle this system of apartheid,” despite both the Biden administration and the Israeli government rejecting the report’s findings.
AMY GOODMAN: Amnesty International, the world’s largest human rights organization, has for the first time accused Israel of committing “the crime of apartheid against Palestinians.” Amnesty becomes the third major human rights group to decry Israel’s apartheid system over the past year, joining Human Rights Watch and the Israeli group B’Tselem. In its report, Amnesty says the roots of the apartheid system date back to Israel’s founding in 1948. Amnesty unveiled their findings in occupied East Jerusalem on Tuesday. This is Amnesty’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard.
AGNÈS CALLAMARD: We are here today to call on the international community to take resolute action against the crime of humanity being perpetrated in order to maintain the system of apartheid.
AMY GOODMAN: The Biden administration has joined the Israeli government in rejecting Amnesty’s findings. Israel called the report “false and biased.” The U.S. ambassador to Israel called the report “absurd.”
In a moment, we’ll be joined by Paul O’Brien, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, but first we turn to an excerpt of a new video produced by Amnesty.
NARRATOR: When you hear the word “apartheid,” what do you think of? Probably the disturbing images of racial segregation between whites and Blacks in South Africa, where a regime ruled by a racist white minority declared themselves officially superior to the Black majority, then proceeded to dominate them. South Africa’s apartheid system officially ended in the mid-1990s, but that doesn’t mean apartheid can’t happen elsewhere.
Here, in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Palestinians are being forced off their land and out of their homes, separated and segregated by laws, walls and checkpoints. They live in a constant state of fear and insecurity, and deliberately impoverished, while, on the other hand, Israeli authorities have given the Jewish Israeli population privilege over Palestinians in just about every facet of life. The question is: Does this all amount to the crime of apartheid?
First, the definition of “apartheid”: The crime against humanity of apartheid is perpetrated when particular serious human rights violations are committed with the “purpose of establishing and maintaining” a system of “domination by one racial group … over [another] and systematically oppressing them.”
But does this system exist in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories?
PHILIP LUTHER: There’s been a growing debate about whether the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is apartheid. And now is the time for us, as the world’s largest human rights organization, to offer up our analysis. Our findings and criticism are directed not at the Jewish people, but at the Israeli state. It’s the Israeli state that put in place the policies that implement the laws and the practices that oppress Palestinians.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Amnesty International’s Philip Luther. Amnesty’s video goes on to detail a history of the Israeli state, then document how Israel has implemented its apartheid system today.
NARRATOR: One way to understand this segregation and oppression is to look at the ID system. Jewish Israelis have only one ID card, with a status that grants them the rights to live almost anywhere they wish in the country. They can move freely with access to healthcare and vast resources. Palestinians, on the other hand, have four types of ID cards, if any at all. The kind of ID card you are given determines the level of rights you can enjoy and controls where you can go and what you can do.
If you hold a green card, you are subject to military rule. And if you have a green card with a Gaza address, it means you’re trapped in a 365-kilometer-square open-air prison under Israeli military blockade in place since 2007. Israel controls what goes in and what goes out, from children’s toys to medical supplies. Ninety percent of the people have no access to safe drinking water. Forty-seven percent are unemployed. Fifty-six percent live in poverty. Palestinians with a Gaza ID are forbidden from going to Jerusalem and the West Bank even if they have family there. Some people in the West Bank are considered to live there illegally and can be deported immediately to Gaza if found by the army, even if they have been in the West Bank for decades, whereas if you hold a green card which has a West Bank address, then you live here.
This green card means you can live within specific enclaves surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements. And there’s a separation wall and fences built around you since 2002, which Palestinians call the “apartheid wall.” It’s eight meters high in places and 700 kilometers long. That’s twice the height of the Berlin Wall and more than four times its length. Eighty percent of it is built inside the West Bank, occupying even more Palestinian land. There are separate roads for Israelis and Palestinians, hundreds of checkpoints scattered throughout, not to mention the 54 years of occupation which has devastated the lives of millions of Palestinians. Palestinians with a West Bank ID can travel to Gaza or East Jerusalem, but only if they receive a permit from the military to do so.
This blue ID is for Palestinians in East Jerusalem. They can travel to the occupied West Bank, as well as to Israel, but they are not citizens of Israel. They have only been granted a residency status. This means that they cannot vote in Israeli national elections. And if they leave East Jerusalem for too long — for example, to study or work abroad or in other parts of the occupied West Bank — their residency is revoked, so they can’t return. Since 1967, Israel has revoked the residency status of more than 14,600 Palestinians from East Jerusalem.
If this complex ID system wasn’t enough to segregate the Palestinian community, in 2002 Israel introduced a law that prohibits family unification. That’s right, denying Palestinians the right to live with their loved ones if their ID cards are different. And this woman is one of thousands of Palestinians who Israel will not issue any ID card. She can’t travel, can’t hug her family, only see them meters away across the border.
Putting down roots, the family home, these are crucial parts of what make a strong community. To make sure Palestinian communities can’t develop any further, Israel has made it almost impossible to grant building permits for Palestinian homes. So, Palestinians live in a Catch-22 situation: In order to have shelter, to develop their communities, they must build without a permit, and if they do so, Israel can demolish the structures on the basis that it was built without a permit. Right now there are over 150,000 Palestinians currently living under the constant threat of demolition and forced eviction, many of them for the second or third time. In the West Bank, an average of 18 Palestinian structures were demolished every week in 2020, the same year Israel issued 1,094 building permits for Jewish applicants and only one for a Palestinian.
This goes back to the heart of the issue: To maintain the state’s character as Jewish, Israel systematically disadvantages Palestinians while privileging Jewish Israelis. This racist privilege has been enshrined in laws, policies and practices, and it enables Palestinian resources to be taken in order to economically benefit Jewish Israeli citizens.
Amnesty International and other rights organizations have been documenting patterns of human rights violations and international crimes for decades. These are the most visible and violent part of this system. At the end of May 2020, 4,236 Palestinians were held in Israeli prisons. And 352, including two children, were held without charge or trial. Between September 2000 and February 2017, Israeli forces killed 4,868 Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including 1,793 children, outside the context of armed conflict. And Amnesty International is not aware of any case in which an Israeli soldier has been convicted of willfully causing the death of a Palestinian in the Occupied Territories since 1987.
This imbalance of rights, justice and accountability is never more clear than when a Jewish Israeli life appears to have more value than a Palestinian’s. Israel’s apartheid and its cruel and prolonged strategies deliberately disadvantage Palestinians wherever they live. They cannot claim and enjoy equality with Jewish Israelis.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt of a video produced by Amnesty International, released this week along with a major report accusing Israel of committing the crime of apartheid against Palestinians. The Biden administration has rejected Amnesty’s findings. On Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price was questioned by Associated Press journalist Matthew Lee about the Biden administration’s criticism of the Amnesty report.
MATTHEW LEE: Ned, it may be true that you don’t offer public comprehensive evaluations of outside reports, but you certainly cite them quite a bit in your own human rights report. And I went back and looked, and, you know, in terms of — just the last human rights report cited Amnesty International on Ethiopia, on Cuba, on China and Xinjiang, on Iran, on Burma, on Syria, on Cuba. And that — those references are endorsements of what this group, Amnesty, and then other groups, as well, that are cited, have found. Why is it that — without taking a stand or making a judgment about the findings of this particular report, why is it that all criticism of Israel is — from these groups is almost always rejected by the U.S., and yet accepted, welcomed and endorsed when it comes — when it comes out, when the criticism is of other countries, notably countries with which you have significant policy differences?
NED PRICE: Matt, I would make a couple points. Number one, when we include a footnote in something like —
MATTHEW LEE: These aren’t footnotes, Ned. These are —
NED PRICE: When we —
MATTHEW LEE: These are —
NED PRICE: When we —
MATTHEW LEE: These are —
NED PRICE: When we cite —
MATTHEW LEE: — full-on citations, yes.
NED PRICE: When we cite, which it’s a game of semantics, I suppose, but whether you call it a citation or a footnote —
MATTHEW LEE: Well, when it says in the report, Amnesty International found this, X —
NED PRICE: Yes.
MATTHEW LEE: — in Xinjiang with the Uyghurs, and we — and we determine that we think that it’s a genocide, and you guys come out and cite that, and say, “Well, we also agree that it’s a genocide” —
NED PRICE: That is a far cry, Matt, from saying —
MATTHEW LEE: I’m not saying it’s the same thing.
NED PRICE: — from saying that we have —
MATTHEW LEE: But —
NED PRICE: — comprehensive agreement with a third-party report that was produced by an outside group.
MATTHEW LEE: So, it’s just — so, it’s just when — so, it’s just when it’s criticism of Israel that you feel free to disagree? Where have you ever disagreed with an Amnesty report or a human rights report on a country such as Iran or China?
NED PRICE: This is not — Matt, this is not about any outside group. This is about our vehement disagreement with a certain finding in a report by an outside group.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s State Department spokesperson Ned Price being questioned by the AP reporter Matthew Lee.
We’re joined now by Paul O’Brien, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, who’s just recently returned from a trip to Israel and the Occupied Territories.
If you could respond to the U.S. rejection of this report, along with the state of Israel, and also the significance of this multiyear project that Amnesty International has just released?
PAUL O’BRIEN: Thanks, Amy. Thanks for having me on. Thanks for your coverage.
You’re right: It’s taken us four years. The report itself is 280 pages long. And because we are a human rights organization, not a political organization, it focuses on what is the international law now and what is the evidence on the ground. Through hundreds of interviews and looking in depth at laws, policies and practices, is this international legal standard met?
This administration has already said — and these are their precise words — that “Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and democracy.” In our view, as a human rights organization, the only way that Israelis and Palestinians can enjoy precisely what this administration has said is to dismantle the system of oppression and domination that currently exists now. You can’t get there any other way. I think, frankly, that what his administration is responding to is the word and not the legal analysis and not the evidence on the ground.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Paul, explain why Amnesty came to the decision to call it apartheid now.
PAUL O’BRIEN: Well, firstly, why apartheid? People, I think — it is a word that emerges from a particular sociopolitical history, as our video shows. But it also became, in 1965, an international legal standard, enshrined in the Convention of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination — which the United States signed, which Israel signed. It was then defined further in two other documents: the Apartheid Convention and the Rome Statute. It has particular elements.
What we have done is to take a look at that international legal standard, that crime against humanity that is now enshrined in human rights, and compare the evidence that we found on the ground to that, that legal standard. And we found, with respect to every element: Is it a system of oppression and domination? Yes. Are there widespread crimes that are inhumane or inhuman? Yes. Does it lead to one racial group being oppressed and dominated by another? Yes. Is there an intent to maintain that system of domination and oppression? Yes. And so, across all of these areas of rights violations, we found the crime of apartheid to be in place.
Why now? It took us a long time to do the research. We build off the work of so many Palestinian organizations that have been asking for this legal analysis, frankly, for more than a decade. As you said, we build off the work of other human rights organizations. We wanted to get it done as soon as possible, because the fragmentation, the expulsion, the dispossession of land and property, the deprivation of economic and social rights, it’s ongoing, and we need it to stop. And it won’t stop without a serious conversation in these United States around what this country can do to put pressure on the Israeli government to dismantle this system of apartheid.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Paul, how do you respond to those who say, even if it is the case that there is a system of apartheid in place in Israel vis-à-vis Palestinians, that a similar argument could be made with respect to China’s treatment of its Muslim minority, in particular, in Xinjiang? And Amnesty has done a lot of work in China.
PAUL O’BRIEN: We’ve documented extensively structural deprivations of rights in Xinjiang. And we’ve done it elsewhere. We’ve applied the standard of apartheid elsewhere. In 2017, we applied it in Myanmar, because that’s what we found was being experienced by the Rohingya people. It’s an international legal standard. We haven’t applied it everywhere that it could possibly be found. I hope that we will. But based on the calls of Palestinian activists, that have been going on for a decade, on the human rights work of other groups that have already documented it, there is a human rights conversation now going on around whether apartheid exists in Israel, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and we add our human rights voice to that discussion.
AMY GOODMAN: When you put out your report, you took a series of questions. One of them was: Does Amnesty oppose Israel’s military occupation of Palestine? Your response, Paul O’Brien?
PAUL O’BRIEN: We don’t take a position on political issues, Amy. We don’t take a position on the two-state solution, on the one-state solution. We are an organization that maintains our credibility by focusing on human rights standards and the evidence that supports them. Is it the case that the occupation that is ongoing has led to systemic human rights abuses? It is absolutely. I was in Gaza on my last overseas work trip. I witnessed many of the things that you saw. I saw the restriction of movement. I saw the deprivation of economic and social rights and the failure to get even basic services. I’ve been in Hebron a number of times. I was in Ramallah last week. I see the checkpoints that we have to go through when we visit the West Bank. It is absolutely the case that the occupation is leading to systemic human rights violations. That’s where our focus is.
AMY GOODMAN: Paul O’Brien, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of Amnesty International USA. We’ll link to Amnesty’s new report, “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity,” and to the full video that accompanies it.
When we come back, we go to Moscow to look at the crisis in Ukraine. Stay with us.