OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Amnesty International’s Big Lie about Israel

Because the organization is determined to denigrate and delegitimize the Jewish state, its only choice is to misrepresent facts, laws and definitions.

The logo of Amnesty International. Source: Facebook.
The logo of Amnesty International. Source: Facebook.
Alex Safian
Alex Safian

Amnesty International has a long history of leveling maliciously false charges against Israel (e.g.  hereherehere and here), and its leader, Agnès Callamard, had to apologize after her bizarre anti-Israel tweets were publicized. So it’s only fitting that in its latest report (which won’t be publicly released until Feb. 1), alleging Israel is an apartheid and illegitimate state, the very first line is a blatant and malicious lie.

It contains a quotation of Benjamin Netanyahu, mangled so that it seems to support such charges: “Israel is not a state of all its citizens… [but rather] the nation-state of the Jewish people and only them.”

“Message posted online in March 2019 by Israel’s then prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu,” says the report. Amnesty repeats this claim on page 51, citing an Instagram post by Netanyahu.

Why is Amnesty’s quotation a lie? Because this is what the then-premier actually said about the nation-state issue, responding to a post by Israeli actress and model Rotem Sela:

“Dear Rotem, an important correction: Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the Nation-State Law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People—and them alone. As you wrote, there’s no problem with the Arab citizens of Israel—they have the same rights as us all and the Likud government has invested in the Arab sector more than any other government” (emphasis added).

That is, to indict Israel as apartheid, Amnesty must omit the next line of Netanyahu’s post, in which he makes it clear Israel is not apartheid, and that Arab citizens can and do have equal rights. Like the professional propagandists that they are, they simply omitted what was inconvenient.

If—in the first line of their reportAmnesty International can’t even quote a short statement correctly and in context, how can anyone trust them on more arcane or involved issues, turning on critical points of fact or law?

The short answer is that on Israel, Amnesty International can’t be trusted, on issues large or small.

And Amnesty’s entire report is like this—making up some new false charges and recycling a huge number of old, debunked propaganda.

Before going into the details of the report, it’s important to look at the report’s context, not just what it includes but what it omits. Shockingly, there is no mention of the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. And searching for the words “terror” or “bombing” or “suicide” or “stab” or “stabbing” reveals that in the entire 211-page report there is not a single mention of any particular Palestinian terrorist attack against Israelis, just a throwaway sentence the purpose of which is to set up criticism of Israel’s efforts to defend its civilians against terrorist attacks.

For example, Amnesty neglects to mention the horrific Passover bombing on May 27, 2002, in which 30 people were killed and 140 were wounded by a Palestinian suicide bomber. Also omitted is the suicide bombing of the Sbarro Pizzeria in Jerusalem on Aug. 9, 2001, in which 15 people were killed, including seven children. Also omitted is the attack on Dec. 1, 2001 at the Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, in which 11 people were killed and 180 wounded. Also omitted is the attack on a passenger bus the next day in Haifa, killing 15 and wounding 40. (For a partial list of such bombings see “Suicide and Other Bombing Attacks in Israel Since the Declaration of Principles.”)

These attacks, and many more just like them, were the reason for the construction of the security barrier and other security measures that Amnesty uses to malign Israel as apartheid, but for some reason the group does not see fit to even allude to them. It is simply amazing that an organization ostensibly devoted to “human rights” would work so hard to dehumanize these victims of Palestinian terrorism, in effect to bury them a second time.

Passing now to the specifics of Amnesty’s numerous charges, it should be clear that only some of the main points can be covered, and that if a specific charge is not refuted here, that doesn’t mean it is true and can’t be refuted—indeed, many more details refuting the apartheid charge against Israel can be found in “Deconstructing ‘Israeli Apartheid'” and in the site Apartheid Week.

Finally, Amnesty should forthrightly apologize for all its report’s numerous errors and false charges, and in each case should correct the record.

Now for the details:

In the section “Dispossession Of Land And Property,” Amnesty claims:

“In 1948, Jewish individuals and institutions owned around 6.5% of mandate Palestine, while Palestinians owned about 90% of the privately owned land there. Within just over 70 years the situation has been reversed” (p 14).

First, let’s note Amnesty’s rhetorical trick here of referring to “mandate Palestine.” This seems intended to lead the uninitiated to believe there was a country of Palestine, rather than the usual and correct historical usage which would be “Mandate Palestine,” or the “Palestine Mandate,” or the “British Mandate of Palestine.”

And in a further trick, this time of arithmetic, Amnesty cites Palestinian land ownership as the percentage of private land in the Palestine Mandate, but Jewish ownership as the percentage of land in the Palestine Mandate. This will obviously magnify Palestinian ownership to the detriment of the Jews.

Again, Amnesty’s professional propagandists spare no effort to tilt against the Jews.

Contrary to Amnesty’s portrayal, about half of the land that became Israel in 1948 was the Negev desert, and in Mandate Palestine, and before that under Ottoman Turkish rule—and in most countries today, including the United States—deserts belong to the government. For example, in Nevada the U.S. government alone owns 84.9 percent of the land, not counting the additional land owned by the state and local governments. Even in California, Federal lands total 45.8 percent.

As in Nevada, under the Ottoman Land Code desert areas were classified as Mewat (“dead land”) and were the property of the Sultan. The Ottoman Land Code was maintained by the British when they established the British Mandate of Palestine in 1922, with the role of the Sultan passing to the British government in the person of the High Commissioner.

What about land outside the desert? Did the Arabs own whatever the Jews didn’t own there? Again, no—most of that land was agricultural land, and under the Ottoman Land Code was almost entirely Miri land, or the land of the Emir (the ruler). The farmers who worked this land did not own it, they merely got the right to use it (usufruct) from the state in return for paying taxes on what they produced from it. As long as they were using that land productively and paying taxes, no one else could use it.

So that takes care of the desert and most agricultural land—what about the rest? The land use records from the British Mandate authorities reveal that Arabs owned, at most, 14% of the remaining land (and probably quite a bit less since this figure still includes some Miri land used by Arab farmers), while Jews privately owned 8.6% (not counting Miri land).

So most of the land that Amnesty charges Israel took from Palestinians was never private Palestinian land in the first place, and could not have been taken from anyone because it was state land. (For more details see herehere and here.)

As for Amnesty’s claim that the land ownership situation has been “reversed,” on the contrary: today Israeli Arabs own a disproportionately large 50% of the private land in Israel, despite being just 20% of the population.

Amnesty claims further Israeli land discrimination:

“Parallel to direct land expropriation by the Israeli government, all pre-1948 Jewish properties in annexed East Jerusalem held by the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property were transferred to the Israeli Custodian General under an amendment to the 1970 Legal and Administrative Matters Law. The law allowed the original Jewish owner, or their lawful heirs, to request the Custodian General to release such properties back to them. It applies only to Jewish property owners, not to Palestinians whose properties in West Jerusalem were confiscated after 1948, and is a clearly discriminatory compensation scheme” (p 14).

Contrary to Amnesty’s charges about absentee property, there is nothing unusual about abandoned property passing into state ownership. Israel inherited the relevant laws, and the office of the Custodian of Absentee Property, from the British Mandate, as did Jordan, which called its version the Custodian of Enemy Property.

Since the absent Palestinian owners were mostly residing in enemy states, they couldn’t, for example, pay property taxes (certainly the Arab states would not have permitted them to send any money to Israel). So they would have lost the property for non-payment of taxes. Instead of simply taking the property in this way, Israel protected the Palestinian owner’s interest by turning the property over to the Israeli Custodian, who, if he sold the property, held the value of the property in trust for the registered owner (with adjustments for inflation and interest).

Contrary to Amnesty, Arabs who lost property in Israel are eligible to file for compensation from Israel’s Custodian. Palestinians were pressured not to make claims, lest that legitimize Israel’s existence and sovereignty. Still, over the years at least 14,692 claims have been filed, claims have been settled with respect to more than 200,000 dunams (approx. 50,000 acres) of land, more than 10,000,000 shekels ($3.2 million) has been paid in compensation, and more than 54,000 dunams (approx. 12.4 acres) of replacement land in Israel has been given in compensation.

Israel has followed this generous policy despite the fact that not a single penny of compensation has ever been paid to any of the more than 500,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries, who were forced by the Arab governments to abandon their homes, businesses and savings.

Finally, it is interesting to note that after 1948 the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property allocated Jewish-owned land for construction of Palestinian refugee camps near Dheisheh, and in Anata and Qalandia (“Arab Building in Jerusalem: 1967—1997,” Israel Kimhi, p48-49, and also, from the leaked Palestine papers, “NSU Draft Memo Re: Rights of Jews Within the OPT Acquired pre-1967”).

Again, contrary to Amnesty, none of this Jewish-owned land taken by the Jordanian Custodian and used to build refugee camps can be returned to the original Jewish owners.

To sum this up, Jewish property in Jerusalem taken and held by the Jordanian Custodian after 1948 can be returned to the original Jewish owners, and property owned by Arab residents of Jerusalem and held by the Israeli Custodian can be returned to the original Arab owners. If the land was transferred by the Custodian to new owners, the value of the land is held by the Custodian in trust for the original owners, and the original Palestinian owners can file to receive that compensation. If the land was used for farming, equivalent land can be given instead, as detailed above.

West Bank Palestinians are not eligible to file with Israel for property they lost after 1948, but neither are Israeli Jews eligible to file for property they lost in the West Bank (excluding eastern Jerusalem) after 1948. This has been the position of the Israeli government and was confirmed in the so-called Valero decision by Israel’s Supreme Court. Settlement of such claims awaits a final peace agreement.

In other words, Amnesty is once again completely wrong about the facts and the details underlying the very serious charges it is so eager to direct at Israel.

Amnesty also levels charges about Israeli-Arab access to state land in Israel:

“State land in Israel is largely used to develop Jewish towns and localities; Palestinian citizens of Israel are effectively blocked from leasing land on 80% of state land. Jewish national bodies generally do not lease land to non-Jews and do not accept them in the housing projects and/or communities they establish on state lands that have been developed specifically for new Jewish immigrants. About 13% of state land in Israel, or over 2.5 million dunams, is owned and administered solely through the Jewish National Fund for exclusive use by Jews” (p 15).

Amnesty seems a bit confused here—is it 80% of the land that Israeli-Arabs can’t access or 13%? Or is the 13% included in the 80% (if so, why mention it separately)?

In fact, neither of Amnesty’s numbers is correct. Amnesty is also confused in that the JNF hasn’t administered its land since the passage in 1960 of the Basic Law: Israel Lands, which created the Israel Lands Administration (ILA), and also established that JNF-owned land and government-owned land would together be defined as “Israel lands” and would be administered by the ILA. The principle was laid down that such land would be leased by the ILA, rather than sold. The JNF retained ownership, but not administrative responsibility.

How can Amnesty draw detailed and extreme conclusions about Israeli policies if it can’t even get the basics about those policies correct?

And contrary to Amnesty, Israeli Arabs and other non-Jewish Israeli citizens absolutely can and do lease land from the ILA. To cite just one example, the city now known as Nof HaGalil (formerly Upper Nazareth) was built entirely on state land in 1957 and as of 2020 it’s more than 30 percent Arab (in “Search Locality” enter “Nof HaGalil”). How can this be if state land is restricted to Jews only?

The answer is it can’t, and Amnesty is once again wrong.

Now let’s turn to the so-called Palestinian “Right of Return.” According to Amnesty, in the section “Citizenship and Right to Return Denied”:

“As stated above, Israel continues to deny Palestinian refugees—displaced in the 1947-49 and 1967 conflicts—and their descendants their right to gain Israeli citizenship or residency status in Israel or the OPT. By doing so, it denies them their right to return to their former places of residence and property—a right, which has been widely recognized under international human rights law. The right to return to one’s own country is guaranteed under international human rights law. The right to return applies not just to those who were directly expelled and their immediate families, but also to those of their descendants who have maintained ‘close and enduring connections’ with the area” (p. 72).

So Amnesty International claims that Palestinian refugees and all their descendants have a “right to return” to Israel, and that Israel’s refusal to accept this is a grave violation of international human rights law which contributes to its standing as an apartheid state.

Amnesty’s claim is arrant nonsense. The main source it cites is U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, which says nothing of the sort, and in any event as a General Assembly Resolution is nonbinding.

The key point ignored by Amnesty is that the central provision of the resolution called for the creation of a Conciliation Commission and “establishment of contact between the parties themselves and the Commission at the earliest possible date … to seek agreement by negotiations [and thereby reach] a final settlement of all questions between them” (paragraphs four and five).

That commission was duly formed and met in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the Arabs refused even to meet with the Israelis, much less to negotiate peace, a stance that was maintained through many years and multiple costly wars. The only clause of Resolution 194 the Arab side ever acknowledged was paragraph 11, which suggests (it could not “require,” since it was a General Assembly rather than a Security Council resolution) that:

“[R]efugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date … [R]epatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of refugees and payment of compensation [should be facilitated]” (emphasis added).

Even if this were a Security Council resolution, because it only recommends that refugees be permitted to return, it can hardly be characterized as creating a “right.” Moreover, the requirement that returnees first accept living “at peace with their neighbors” meant that Palestinian returnees would have to accept Israel’s right to exist, something that very few of them, even today, seem truly willing to do. Further, it did not even hint at any return rights for descendants of refugees.

All the Arab states voted against Resolution 194, precisely because it did not establish a “right of return,” and because it implicitly recognized Israel. It is disingenuous, at best, for those same Arab states (and Palestinian representatives) to see today in Resolution 194 the right of return they formerly claimed did not exist.

Additionally, even if Resolution 194 had been legally binding in 1948, it would have lost any such weight under the fundamental legal principle of estoppel, under which a party who materially violates a contract or agreement is barred from asking other parties to live up to their obligations under the same contract. The Arab side, having rejected and violated Resolution 194 from the day of its inception, cannot now come to Israel and say “Implement Paragraph 11.”

Amnesty’s citation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as supporting a Palestinian right of return is also false, because the clause in question actually establishes an individual’s right to leave his country, rather than a collective right to return to a country, and because the UDHR is not binding international law, as even Amnesty admits elsewhere:

“Although it is not legally binding, the protection of the rights and freedoms set out in the Declaration has been incorporated into many national constitutions and domestic legal frameworks.”

For more details with further references see here and here.

In its section on “Unequal and Separate Citizenship Structure in Israel,” Amnesty claims that Israel’s Law of Return discriminates against Israeli Arabs:

“The requirements to become an Israeli citizen are set out in the Nationality Law of 1952, which covers Jewish people and non-Jewish people. Article 2(a) of the law grants automatic citizenship rights to every Jewish immigrant under the Law of Return of 1950. As outlined above (see section 5.1 “Intent to oppress and dominate the Palestinian people”), the Law of Return is effectively a nationality law that grants every Jew, regardless of where they reside in the world, the distinct right to settle in Israel with full legal and political rights. An amendment to the law, which was added in 1970, defined a Jew as a ‘person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.’

“By contrast, Palestinian citizens of Israel are granted citizenship rights based on residence in Israel…. This unequal and separate citizenship structure has resulted in stark discrimination against Palestinian citizens in several ways” (p. 64).

Israel’s Law of Return allows for people with some Jewish heritage to emigrate to Israel and receive expedited citizenship, and contrary to Amnesty’s ominous portrayal, is neither racist nor peculiarly Israeli. Similar laws have been in effect in many democracies, especially those with large diasporas, such as Mexico, Ireland, Finland, Greece, Poland, Germany, Italy, Denmark, etc.

Furthermore, such laws are expressly permitted by, for example, the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965). According to Article 1(3) of this convention, nations are permitted to favor certain groups for citizenship provided there is no discrimination targeting any particular group.

Moreover, Article 1(4) provides for “affirmative action.” That is, a state may employ a preference in granting citizenship to undo the effects of prior discrimination. In the case of Israel such prior episodes of discrimination are clear: the British decision in 1939, for example, to bar Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine, thereby consigning millions of Jews to deaths in the crematoria of Europe. To an exceedingly small degree, the Law of Return helps to mitigate this wrong.

As stated above, other democracies have similar laws. For example, in Ireland the appropriate minister can waive the usual requirements for citizenship under various conditions. These include where the person is of Irish descent or of Irish associations, or is a parent or guardian applying on behalf of a minor child of Irish descent or Irish associations.

The full text of the law makes clear just how widely the concept of descent or associations is defined:

“Section 16 of the Principal Act is amended by the insertion of the following subsection: (2) For the purposes of this section a person is of Irish associations if (a) he or she is related by blood, affinity or adoption to a person who is an Irish citizen or entitled to be an Irish citizen, or (b) he or she was related by blood, affinity or adoption to a person who is deceased and who, at the time of his or her death, was an Irish citizen or entitled to be an Irish citizen.”

The Irish “law of return” is therefore even more expansive than Israel’s, as it does not cut off at the level of the grandparent.

Has Amnesty ever charged that Mexico, Ireland, Finland, Greece, Poland, Germany, Italy and Denmark are apartheid states?

Finally, negating Israel’s Law of Return is also an assault on the ability of Jews around the world to find haven in Israel when faced with growing anti-Semitism. Many French Jews have emigrated to Israel in recent years for just this reason. Why does Amnesty condemn anything Israel can do to prevent terror attacks against Israeli Jews, and why does it also condemn the only route to safety for threatened Jews outside of Israel?

Amnesty also bizarrely portrays Israel’s decision not to conscript Israeli Arabs into the army as discriminatory:

“The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that ‘Arab Israelis are citizens of … Israel with equal rights’ and the ‘only legal distinction between Arab and Jewish citizens is … civic duty,’ because Palestinian citizens are exempt from military service. Military service is mandatory for Jewish Israeli men and women, as well as the men of the Druze and Circassian minorities. Whilst Palestinians largely refuse to join the Israeli army for national and political reasons, the exemption of Palestinian citizens of Israel from military service has resulted in their discriminatory exclusion from substantial economic benefits and opportunities guaranteed under Israeli law to those who have completed military service.”

So according to Amnesty, Palestinians (i.e. Israeli Arabs) missing out on veterans’ benefits because they largely refuse to join the Israel Defense Forces is discriminatory.

It’s hard to take such criticism seriously. And imagine what Amnesty would say if Israel did force Israeli Arabs to join the army!

As a comparison, one should also note that during World War I the United States eventually allowed Japanese Americans (who had shamefully been interned) to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, but only in the European theater, not in the Pacific, where they would face Japanese forces. Despite the mistreatment of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government, these soldiers served with great honor and distinction.

Amnesty also charges—of course—Israeli with political discrimination against its Arab citizens:

In the section titled “Restrictions on Right to Political Participation and Popular Resistance,” the report states:

“As a result of their citizenship status, Palestinian citizens of Israel are the only group of Palestinians living under Israel’s rule who can vote in its national and municipal elections and be elected as members of the Knesset. However, while Israeli laws and policies define the state as democratic, the fragmentation of the Palestinian people ensures that Israel’s version of democracy overwhelmingly privileges political participation by Jewish Israelis. In addition, the representation of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the decision-making process, primarily in the Knesset, has been restricted and undermined by an array of Israeli laws and policies.”

So Israeli Arabs are not involved in the decision-making process? Did Amnesty miss the fact that the current Israeli government includes the United Arab List, an Islamist Arab party led by Mansour Abbas, that Abbas serves as Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and that he also sits in the Cabinet as Deputy Minister for Arab Affairs?

Because Abbas’s and his party’s membership in the governing coalition demolishes Amnesty’s case against Israel, he is simply ignored. (He is mentioned only once, tangentially, in the report.)

But there’s a broader way to look at the apartheid charge. Consider, for example, that in the supposedly apartheid state of Israel, when President Moshe Katsav was charged with serious crimes against female aides, he was convicted by a three-judge panel headed by an Israeli Arab judge (Israel doesn’t have jury trials). When he appealed to the Supreme Court the charges were upheld by a three-judge panel that included a different Israeli Arab judge, Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran.

So the Jewish state practices a unique and previously unknown form of apartheid, where the Israeli Jewish president can be thrown in jail by Israeli Arab judges. And Katsav didn’t receive a slap on the wrist, either—he was in jail for five years.

And that’s what Amnesty can’t admit—no definition of apartheid can possibly include Israel. And because they are determined to denigrate and delegitimize Israel with the apartheid label, their only choice is to misrepresent facts, laws and definitions.

In plain terms, to engage in the “Big Lie,” a term made famous by Nazi leaders. Is it just a coincidence that the original proponents of the big lie had the same target as Amnesty International?

Alex Safian is associate director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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