There’s nothing new in Amnesty International’s latest report seeking to delegitimize Israel’s existence.
The dogma of anti-Israelism—not criticism of Israel, but opposition to the survival of the Jewish and democratic state—is many decades old. Palestinian leaders violently opposed immigration by the children of Israel to the Land of Israel before the State of Israel even existed. In 1948, the Arab world went to war to prevent a United Nations compromise calling for both a Jewish and an Arab state on the coveted territory. And for decades, the Palestinian national movement has viewed the struggle against Jewish self-determination as, in the words of historian Benny Morris, a “zero-sum game: if the Jews win, we are lost.”
While Middle Eastern fundamentalists continue to issue pithy calls to “wipe Israel off the map,” radical NGOs have taken the longer route, using reams of paper and scores of footnotes to demand the same. Now, even organizations that were once mainstream have radicalized and joined that number.
This drift to radicalism, too, has been years in the making. In 2009, Robert Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch, issued a stunning rebuke of the organization he created, lamenting that it had lost perspective, abandoned its mission and risked undermining its own reputation, largely because of its unjustifiable obsession with Israel.
Long before that, and certainly before Salman Rushdie charged Amnesty International with “moral bankruptcy” in 2010, Amnesty officials expressed similar concerns. In 1970, the group’s U.S. chairman Mark Benenson publicly slammed the organization, charging that its reporting on Israel “reveals the zeal of the prosecutor, convinced of the defendant’s guilt,” and “omits material which would help the defense.”
Two years later, after Amnesty appeared to shrug at the massacre of Israeli Jews by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics, Gidon Gottlieb, Amnesty’s representative to the United Nations, resigned, citing his colleagues’ “moral obtuseness” and the organization’s “climate of tolerance from inhuman acts by ‘the underdog.’”
Anti-Israel extremism and rejectionism have been the consistent background music accompanying conversations about the Jewish state, and before that about Jewish immigration to the Levant. Amnesty might have brought some new tinsel to the party, but the bubbles are flat, the ashtrays full and the phonograph keeps spinning the same, stale tune.
There is nothing new, either, in Amnesty’s technique. As the latest player in a coordinated campaign that over a span of a few months has featured B’tselem, Human Rights Watch, and now Amnesty straining to pin the ugly “apartheid” label on Israel, it acts from an established playbook: If the facts don’t support slurring Israel as an apartheid state, then just make up some facts.
The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) has begun documenting the range of falsehoods in Amnesty’s report elsewhere. This piece, by contrast, will focus on one of Amnesty’s lies, diving downward from there to untangle the web of deceit underpinning the false claim and, in doing so, exposing the depth of the organization’s dishonesty and cynicism.
The Big Lie in Amnesty’s report is that its collection of facts, falsehoods, decontextualized anecdotes and cynical interpretations can be pasted together and, on the judgment of the anti-Israel activists running the organization, labeled “apartheid.” Here we look at a “smaller” lie, that appears in a video the organization released alongside its 280-page report:
“2.5 million Palestinians live in Israel and East Jerusalem, restricted to enclaves that make up 3% of the entire area.”
This claim is meant to evoke the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa. But it’s a flagrant lie. It’s not just that the “3 percent” statistic, while being treated as meaningful—evidence of apartheid, no less!—tells us very little. Most of Israel, after all, is open space. One could just as easily say that Jews, who make up a substantial majority of Israel’s population, live in “enclaves” amounting to a small fraction of the country’s area. It would be true, and it would tell us nothing.
But beyond the manipulative framing, Amnesty’s “fact” is fake. Let’s look first at Israel’s non-rural areas—the cities and medium-sized towns where the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews and Arabs live. Cities and towns with a homogeneous Arab population take up 276 square miles, which amounts to three percent of the country’s area. Arab citizens, though, are hardly “restricted” to these all-Arab communities.
Indeed, there are Arab minorities living in Israel’s most well-known cities (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Eilat) and in lesser-known cities and towns (Nof Hagalil, Ma’alot-Tarshiha, Ramle, Lod, Akko, Metulla). When including these locales, whose mixed populations are documented in demographic data by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (2019), the land area in question increases substantially, from the roughly 276 square miles suggested by Amnesty to 448 square miles.
And there’s more. Past counts and research have documented Arab populations in Carmiel, Nahariya, Tzfat, Hadera, Afula, Kfar Saba, Netanya, Givatayim and Harish. When these cities are added to the above, the land area in question increases to 529 square miles. That’s already 6% of Israel’s area—double Amnesty’s figure. (By way of comparison, Jewish-majority cities and towns take up just about 10% of the land. The small number in each case is because, as noted above, Israel is mostly rural or open spaces.)
In other words, when looking only at these larger locales where roughly 90 percent of Israel’s Jews and Arabs live, we already see Amnesty undercounting by half the area where Arabs live.
That’s not all. Even if most of the population live in relatively urban spaces, Israelis—Arab citizens included—aren’t confined to those towns. They also live in the more rural areas spread across the rest of the country. But more on that later.
First, let’s try to understand the source of Amnesty’s claim. If we look at the long report, two passages jump out as seeming to overlap with the video’s false assertion.
On page 128, Amnesty states:
“7% of land in Israel is owned by private individuals. Jewish Israelis own over half of this, that is, around 3.5% to 4% of the total land. About 80% of Palestinian citizens of Israel are packed into the remaining 3% to 3.5% of the land.”
And on page 146, the organization claims that “about 90% of Palestinian citizens of Israel live in 139 localities that control less than 3% of state land in Israel.”
Neither passage, though, backs up Amnesty’s claim that Arabs are “restricted” to three percent of Israeli land. To the contrary, they both contradict the claim. If 80 percent of Arab Israelis live on privately owned land that takes up three percent of Israel, that means 20 percent live elsewhere, which means, of course, that they’re not confined to where the 80 percent live. Or if 90% of Arabs live in localities that control about three percent of state land, then 10 percent live elsewhere.
The distortions continue to cascade from there.
Note Amnesty’s attempt to convince readers that Israel keeps Arabs in overly dense population centers: “About 80% of Palestinian citizens of Israel are packed into” a small area.
Consistent with its overall practice of stacking the report with endless repetition, Amnesty repeats this theme elsewhere:
• “Some 90% of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship live in 139 densely populated towns and villages … ”
• “Today, about 90% of Palestinian citizens of Israel live in 139 densely populated towns and villages … ”
• “The Judaization policy … seeks to maximize Jewish control over land while effectively restricting Palestinians to living in separate, densely populated enclaves … ”
• “Across Israel and the OPT, millions of Palestinians live in densely populated areas…”
• “Today, about 90% of Palestinian citizens of Israel live in 139 densely populated towns and villages … ”
• “This seeks to maximize Jewish control over land while effectively restricting Palestinians to living in separate, densely populated … ”
• “Across Israel and the OPT, millions of Palestinians live in densely populated areas … ”
So, is there anything unusual about the population density of Arab towns in Israel? If anything, what sets them apart is that, more often than not, they’re less dense than Jewish-majority towns. As CAMERA explained after B’tselem relayed its own version of the same falsehood—it claimed Arabs are “corralled into small, crowded enclaves”—among towns and cities with over 5,000 residents, the densest ones have Jewish majorities, while the least dense are disproportionately Arab towns.
Indeed, when looking at all non-rural towns and cities, where a vast majority of Jews and Arabs live, the average population density of Arab towns is about 5,200 per square mile. The average population density of Jewish towns (and Jewish and mixed towns) is nearly double that.
Admissions Committee Law
To further its charge that Israeli Arabs are confined to certain areas, Amnesty misrepresents and conceals key details about an Israeli law that applies to rural villages in Israel’s northern and southern peripheries.
The report briefly mentions the Israeli Supreme Court’s Ka’adan ruling, in which the court ruled that the state “is not allowed to discriminate directly on the basis of religion or nationality in allocation of state lands.” But instead of reckoning with the fact that this ruling completely undermines so much of what their report claims (and claims, and repeats), Amnesty dismisses the significance of the ruling:
“To circumvent the potential implications of the Ka’adan ruling, the Knesset passed in 2011 the Communities Acceptance Law. This allows ‘admissions committees’ to determine who can be admitted to Jewish communities of fewer than 400 households in the Negev/Naqab and Galilee areas. Under the Law to Amend the Cooperative Societies Ordinance (No. 8), the ‘admissions committees’ can base their selection on a set of vague standards, including the candidate’s ‘social suitability’ or lack of compatibility with the social and cultural fabric” of the community….”
Amnesty continues: “Adalah has shown that the primary objective of the law is to further marginalize Palestinian citizens of Israel and other marginalized groups in Israel, and to maintain segregation in housing and residence based on national identity.”
Adalah is the NGO behind an absurd database of Israeli laws that, it insists, are “discriminatory”—in fact, the innocuous list includes laws describing the design of Israel’s flag and state seal; that encourage vaccination; that reduce state child allowances for large families; that require residents to carry identification cards; that bar trade with enemy states; that hold parliamentarians to account for serious crimes.
A reader seeking to test the claim could follow Amnesty’s footnote. But at the footnoted source, Adalah “shows” nothing about the 2011 law in question. It doesn’t even mention the law! It simply declares, without substantiation, that admissions committees, which existed long before the law was passed, were created to bypass Ka’adan.
This is important because it takes us to a substantive error of omission in Amnesty’s report. The 2011 law, which Amnesty references and characterizes as discriminatory based on a document that doesn’t even refer to the law, explicitly forbids discrimination.
“The admissions committee will not refuse to accept a candidate for reasons of race, religion, gender, nationality, disability, personal status, age, parenthood, sexual orientation, country of origin, political-party opinion or affiliation,” the law states.
For Amnesty to assert that this law is an instrument of discrimination, pointing to its “vague standards” without informing readers that it pointedly bars the type of discrimination Amnesty alleges, is unconscionable, unserious, and an unequivocal example of what Mark Benenson charged his organization with so many years ago: acting as an overzealous prosecutor that “omits material which would help the defense.”
And since Amnesty omits the fact that the law, which it holds up as a prong of apartheid, in fact bars racial, religious and national discrimination, it of course omits, too, that the Supreme Court of Israel has enforced the prohibition on discrimination.
Rakefet and rural villages
After the admissions committee for the small village of Rakefet rejected an application by Ahmed and Fatina Zubeidat, the couple turned to the Supreme Court. And in September 2011, the court sided with them, ordering the town to give a plot of land to the couple (which it did).
It might not be a cause for celebration that the couple had to petition the court. It might underscore that admissions committees are susceptible to abuse, and can be used to illegally exclude those from protected classes, both Arab and Jewish. That’s why the practice is controversial.
But the Rakefet case, nonetheless, is critical evidence that Israeli law bars discrimination, that Israeli courts enforce those laws—and that Amnesty’s kangaroo court, which ignored the law and the case, seeks to conceal this inconvenient information from readers.
Gilead Ini is a senior research analyst at CAMERA. His commentary has appeared in numerous publications, including “The Jerusalem Post,” “The Christian Science Monitor,” “Columbia Journalism Review” and “National Review.”