Why Won’t Amnesty Say ‘Colonialism’?

Calling out Israeli apartheid isn't enough.

by Nihal El Aasar

8 February 2022

Israeli police detain a Palestinian protester in Jerusalem.
Israeli police detain a Palestinian protester outside the compound housing al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem, March 2019. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

Last week, Amnesty International published a report recognising that Israel has “perpetrated the international wrong of apartheid”, becoming the third major human rights organisation 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 by way of policies, legislation and other practices.

The report covers historic Palestine – from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea – and observes that apartheid “originated with the creation of Israel in May 1948 and has been built and maintained over decades by successive Israeli governments across all territories they have controlled, regardless of the political party in power”. Most notably, the report recognises that Palestinians have an unequal access to land, property and resources, and that Israel’s refusal of the right of return to Palestinian refugees exemplifies apartheid policies that are not only spatially confined, but exist against the Palestinian people wherever they are geographically located.

Amnesty’s report, which builds on decades of work by Palestinian organisations like Al Haq Organisation and Al Mezan Center, shows how the Overton window has shifted. Whereas Palestinian activists have more often than not found themselves ostracised, arrested and persecuted for campaigning against apartheid, Israel’s attempts to forcibly displace Palestinians from the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem last year kickstarted a renewed showing of global solidarity with Palestine. For the first time, Palestinians were widely invited to speak to international mainstream media outlets, which in turn shifted the discourse and brought concepts like apartheid, occupation and the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement into the mainstream.

The publication of a report like this by the world’s largest grassroots human rights organisation which condemns Israeli apartheid by way of appeals to international law is no doubt important for continuing to popularise the anti-apartheid struggle, win international allies and secure victories. Indeed, the report’s significance is evident in the immediate backlash from the Israeli state. The framework Amnesty uses to condemn apartheid, however, is nonetheless severely limited.

‘Apartheid’ as a concept has a history that is much broader and more radical than the definition ascribed to it by the report. The term originates in the South African context, and was popularised at a time when transnational solidarity across the Third World – including Palestine’s solidarity movement with South Africa – was the main arena for liberation struggles. In his seminal work ‘Zionist Colonialism in Palestine’ (1965), Palestinian intellectual Fayez Sayegh first made the comparison between racial modes of domination between South Africa and Palestine, and later on in his diplomatic career pushed the UN to concede that Zionism was a settler colonial project. As Lana Tatour argues in her work on settler colonialism in Palestine, this is the context in which apartheid should be understood: as one form of domination within a settler colonial project.

With the increasing cooption of radical frameworks and the technocratisation of the rights discourse after the decline of Third-Worldism and the advent of neoliberalism, the term apartheid was severed from its anti-colonial and anti-racist roots in the work of intellectuals like Sayegh and Edward Said. In the Palestinian context, it became a question of the lack of equality between Israelis and Palestinians rather than a question of anti-colonial struggle for national liberation.

In keeping with this shift, Amnesty’s report repurposes apartheid as a liberal question – as a problem of inequality rather than of settler colonialism (not mentioned at all in the report) to be solved by way of Palestinian citizenship and electoral democracy. Apartheid in this context is seen not as one form of domination within a settler colonial project, but as a free-floating event, to be condemned by everyone but impossible to understand or redress. In truth, the Palestinian liberation struggle is an anti-colonial struggle for national liberation. But within Amnesty’s framework, this struggle becomes confined to a question of civil rights, obscuring Palestinian intellectual history and restricting imagination about what emancipation could look like.

Amnesty claims it doesn’t take political positions, priding itself on being neutral, impartial and independent. However, it is precisely these values that are both the big danger of the rights discourse and its defining element. In fact, neither Amnesty’s caveats clarifying that the organisation takes no position on the occupation nor its condemnation of acts of Palestinian resistance – tweeted to ‘balance’ the release of the report – should be surprising. Both fall exactly within the organisation’s mandate, and are indicative of the limitations of the rights framework.

If one doesn’t start from the premise that Israel is a violent settler colonial project with a range of violent methods of domination, then one will see the violence of settler colonialism and resistance to said settler colonialism as equally condemnable. Even within the rights discourse, if Amnesty took a stance on the occupation, it would be forced to admit that the violence is structural and precedes any resistance to it. It wouldn’t view Palestinian resistance as a “war crime”, as Palestinians’ right to resist is guaranteed by the Fourth Geneva Convention, which would deem Palestinians to have a legally-protected right of resistance under occupation. But this is a conclusion that the report doesn’t aim or wish to reach.

This isn’t an unfamiliar story. In 1977, Amnesty received the Nobel Peace Prize for its ‘Prisoners of Conscience Year’, which included reporting on human rights abuses in Chile. But nowhere in its report were links drawn between these abuses and the restructuring of the Chilean economy under Augusto Pinochet, who in 1973 overthrew Salvador Allende’s democratically-elected socialist government in a military coup. This new economic model was deeply unpopular with the Chilean people, who resisted its implementation and consequently were met with state violence. Yet Amnesty’s report didn’t mention Chile’s rising poverty levels, nor the reversal of wealth distribution that had taken place. In fact, it didn’t touch on 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 unaddressed. In the case of Amnesty’s most recent report, Israel’s colonisation of Palestine remains unscathed. This isn’t to say that the situations in Chile and Palestine are similar, of course. But it is indicative of the limits of a rights discourse that is only exploratory, never truly explanatory. By stripping the crime from its root cause, any chance of real structural change is crushed. There is no emancipation beyond this point. Instead, ‘solutions’ are limited to pressuring the Israeli government to do better – something Mezna Qato and Kareem Rabie refer to as “a better colonialism rather than the end of colonialism”. 

While awareness-raising might lead to quick gains, it will never amount to political and social emancipation. In order for that to be won in Palestine, the struggle must go beyond the level of ideas and move towards actual material decolonisation and return. What shape this decolonisation takes is for the Palestinian people to decide – and their allies to support.

Nihal El Aasar is an Egyptian researcher living in London.


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