Why doesn’t Amnesty say “colonialism”?
Last week, Amnesty International published a report acknowledging that Israel “perpetrated the international wrong of apartheid”, becoming the third major human rights organization to do so after B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch. In 280 pages, Amnesty determines that Israel has developed a system of domination and segregation in which it exercises control over the Palestinian people through policies, legislation and other practices.
The report covers historic Palestine – from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea – and observes that apartheid “was born with the creation of Israel in May 1948 and was built and maintained for decades by successive Israeli governments in all territories they have controlled, regardless of their status”. the ruling political party. Most notably, the report recognizes that Palestinians have unequal access to land, property and resources, and that Israel’s denial of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return illustrates policies of apartheid that are not just confined in space, but which exist against the Palestinian people wherever they are. geographically located.
Amnesty’s report, which builds on decades of work by Palestinian organizations like Al Haq Organization and Al Mezan Center, shows how Overton’s window shifted. While Palestinian activists have most often found themselves ostracized, arrested and persecuted for campaigning against apartheid, Israel’s attempts to forcibly displace Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem last year have sparked a new demonstration of global solidarity with Palestine. For the first time, Palestinians were widely invited to address mainstream international media, which in turn changed the narrative and introduced concepts such as apartheid, occupation and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) into the mainstream.
The publication of a report like this by the world’s largest human rights organization that condemns Israeli apartheid by appealing to international law is undoubtedly important to continue popularizing the anti-apartheid struggle. , win international allies and secure victories. Indeed, the importance of the report is evident in the immediate reaction of the Israeli state. The framework used by Amnesty to condemn apartheid is no less severely limited.
“Apartheid” as a concept has a much broader and more radical history than the definition attributed to it by the report. The term originated in the South African context and was popularized at a time when transnational solidarity across the Third World – including Palestine’s solidarity movement with South Africa – was the main arena for struggles. of liberation. In his seminal work “Zionist Colonialism in Palestine” (1965), the Palestinian intellectual Fayez Sayegh first compared racial modes of domination between South Africa and Palestine, and later in his diplomatic career pushed the UN to admit that Zionism was a settler colonial project. Like Lana Tatour argues in his work on colonialism in Palestine, this is the context in which apartheid must be understood: as a form of domination within a colonial project.
With the increasing co-optation of radical cadres and the technocratization of rights discourse after the decline of Third Worldism and the rise of neoliberalism, the term apartheid was severed from its anti-colonial and anti-racist roots in the work of intellectuals like Sayegh and Edouard Said. In the Palestinian context, it has become a question of inequality between Israelis and Palestinians rather than a question of the anti-colonial struggle for national liberation.
In line with this shift, Amnesty’s report reorients apartheid as a liberal issue – as a problem of inequality rather than colonialism (not mentioned at all in the report) to be solved through Palestinian citizenship and electoral democracy. Apartheid in this context is seen not as a form of domination within a settler colonial project, but as a floating event, condemned by all but impossible to understand or repair. In truth, the Palestinian liberation struggle is an anti-colonial struggle for national liberation. But within the framework of Amnesty, this struggle is limited to a question of civil rights, obscuring Palestinian intellectual history and restricting the imagination of what emancipation might look like.
Amnesty claims that it does not take political positions, priding itself on being neutral, impartial and independent. However, it is precisely these values that are both the great danger of the discourse on rights and its defining element. In fact, neither Amnesty’s warnings stating that the organization does not take a position on the occupation or its condemnation of acts of Palestinian resistance – tweeted to “balance” the publication of the report – should be surprising. Both fall squarely within the mandate of the organization and are indicative of the limitations of the rights framework.
If one does not assume that Israel is a violent colonial project with a range of violent methods of domination, then one will see the violence of colonialism and resistance to it as equally reprehensible. Even within the discourse of rights, if Amnesty took a position on the occupation, it would be forced to admit that violence is structural and precedes any resistance to it. It would not be see Palestinian resistance as a “war crime”, as the Palestinians’ right to resist is guaranteed by the Fourth Geneva Convention, which would consider Palestinians to have a legally protected right to resist under occupation. But this is a conclusion that the report neither aims nor wishes to reach.
It is not an unknown story. In 1977, Amnesty received the Nobel Peace Prize for its “Year of Prisoners of Conscience”, which included reporting on human rights violations in Chile. But nowhere in his report did he link these abuses to the restructuring of the Chilean economy under Augusto Pinochet, who in 1973 overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in a military coup. This new economic model was deeply unpopular with the Chilean people, who resisted its implementation and were therefore met with state violence. Yet Amnesty’s report did not mention the rising levels of poverty in Chile, nor the inversion of the distribution of wealth that had taken place. In fact, it didn’t affect the economy at all.
Amnesty succeeds in raising awareness of state violence, but also succeeds in separating these crimes from their root causes. In the case of Chile, the neoliberal economic model remained unanswered. In the case of Amnesty International’s most recent report, Israel’s colonization of Palestine remains unscathed. This does not mean that the situations in Chile and Palestine are similar, of course. But it reveals the limits of a discourse on rights which is only exploratory, never really explanatory. By stripping the crime of its root cause, any possibility of real structural change is destroyed. There is no emancipation beyond this point. Instead, the “solutions” are limited to pressuring the Israeli government to do better – something Mezna Qato and Kareem Rabie call “a better colonialism rather than the end of colonialism”.
Although raising awareness can lead to quick wins, it will never lead to political and social emancipation. For this to be won in Palestine, the struggle must go beyond the level of ideas and move towards real material decolonization and return. It is up to the Palestinian people to decide what form this decolonization takes – and to support their allies.
Nihal El Aasar is an Egyptian researcher living in London.