Immediately after Amnesty International held a press conference in Jerusalem’s Bab A-Zahara neighborhood on Tuesday, The Times of Israel sat down with the group’s secretary general, Agnes Callamard, and Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy director, Philip Luther, to discuss the 278-page report they had released accusing Israel of apartheid.
The Amnesty International report alleged that Israel has maintained “a system of oppression and domination” over the Palestinians going all the way back to the establishment of the state in 1948, and it meets the international definition of apartheid. The accusation was leveled against Israel both within its borders and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In addition to demanding an end to arms sales to the Jewish state, Amnesty called on Israel’s allies in the West and in the Arab world to “use all political and diplomatic tools to ensure Israeli authorities implement the recommendations outlined in this report and review any cooperation and activities with Israel to ensure that these do not contribute to maintaining the system of apartheid.”
Ahead of the report’s release, Israel called it “false, biased, and antisemitic” and accused the organization of endangering the safety of Jews around the world. “Come on, this is absurd,” US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides tweeted in response to the report.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Callamard had to leave early in the conversation.
Times of Israel: There are multiple Palestinian polls that find that a clear majority of Palestinians admire Israeli democracy, including this one from 2016 that put the figure at 68%. How do you square that with allegations that Israeli democracy is an apartheid regime? Can you imagine any other apartheid regime where the majority of the oppressed group would say they admire that democracy?
Agnes Callamard: How can I comment on a poll? I am commenting on international human rights law. I mean it’s good: We’re glad that the Palestinian people, 68% of them, feel that way. Under international law, what we have found is that the laws, policies, and practices that are currently in place amount to a system of apartheid.
We are not engaging in subjective analysis of what people feel. We are looking at international human rights law. We are looking at what apartheid amounts to under international human rights law. And we are making a determination as to whether that definition is applicable and we found that it is. Whether or not people feel otherwise, it doesn’t matter.
These laws that you define as apartheid are supported by a wide spectrum of Jewish Israeli society. Does that mean that Jewish Israelis want to dominate and oppress Palestinians?
Callamard: It certainly means that they are supporting laws and policies that oppress. And hopefully through this report, and other reports of this nature, there will be more debate as to what the meaning of those laws are from the standpoint of the Palestinians. If you look at the most recent adoption of the [Israeli 2018 nation-state] law that distinguishes between citizenship and nationality, I do not know how you can rule out the support for that law, and not see the inherent discrimination in it. Now if people want to support it, so be it; I will engage with them, and I will say, how can you support a law that makes a distinction between citizenship and nationality on the basis of your race? It’s mind-boggling to me.
Philip Luther: It is such a complicated system, and it’s a dizzying array of laws, policies, and practices that interweave with each other. Now, any one component of those may mask the reality behind it, or may have what appears to be an innocent and legitimate aim. So the idea that you would dismantle construction that has no building permit seems logical, and you can see why anyone who’s not looking at the broader context would feel, well, that’s just a normal thing you do under the rule of law. So I can see you would have some situations like that. Now, the problem is it’s the way all these things work together.
You include a very specific number in the report – exactly 225,178 Jewish Israeli settlers living illegally in East Jerusalem. Where is the line on the ground between a Jewish Israeli living legitimately in Jerusalem, and illegitimately?
Luther: Well, what we’re talking about are settlements that are illegal under international law, and that are on occupied Palestinian territory.
So where is that? What is the dividing line?
Luther: The [pre-1967] green line.
So a Jew living in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City is counted here [in your report] and is living in an illegal settlement?
Luther: The specific figures I’d have to go to… they’re all footnoted…
On principle, a Jew living in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem…
Luther: No, in Jewish settlements. Illegal settlements in the sense that they have been moved in there, those constructions have been built in order to facilitate settlers on occupied Palestinian land.
Does that include the Jewish Quarter?
Luther: The Jewish Quarter, as you know, there are many Jews who have been there for generations.
Also in Hebron. The Jewish Quarter is over the Green Line, and I’m trying to understand if this figure, this very specific figure that you put in the report, includes the Jewish Quarter of East Jerusalem.
Luther: I need to get back to you on exactly what it includes because I don’t know that level of detail in terms of what that footnote referred to. But what we are referring to in terms of what we are considering problematic is the establishment of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and that is referred to as East Jerusalem and the West Bank. I don’t want to get drawn in terms of what exactly that figure is because I don’t know off the top of my head.
But you gave a very specific figure.
Luther: No, I know we have a specific figure. But it’s in the report in terms of why.
But it’s conceivable that Jews living in the Jewish Quarter are considered by the report [to be] illegally living there?
Luther: The reality in terms of what is considered occupied Palestinian territory is that, yes, the Old City is in East Jerusalem. Where do we have a problem, and this is something we put up, is where, for instance, Palestinians in the Old City have been evicted from their homes and, through the support of settler communities, you’ve managed to have a settlement inside a house that was previously a Palestinian house. Yes, that is an example…
It’s about the transfer. Within international law, it’s about the transfer, that is what you have to determine. Whether people, one, are being forcibly evicted from their homes, and then there’s transfer of the occupying country’s population in there.
This number is very specific. Have you checked every single one of those people, how they came about their homes?
Luther: We are referring to reliable figures that other organizations, whether they be UN agencies, or Israeli human rights organizations… Those are Peace Now’s figures that we are referring to, and we refer a lot to them.
If I go anywhere over the Green Line and I buy a house, am I now a settler living illegally in East Jerusalem?
Who transferred me?
Luther: The state has facilitated you doing it.
Luther: By constructing housing there.
I’m buying a house that is 300 years old.
Luther: Now we’re getting into really fine detail. I know you think it’s instructive — it’s not instructive. There are expectations, I totally agree you may find that situation. Let’s talk about the 99% of the situation of settlers who live in the Palestinian territories. You can’t deflect from that… It’s a red herring. It’s a complete red herring.
Do you think apartheid began with the creation of Israel?
Luther: No, we’re very clear….We are commenting on what the situation is now. You can do historical research and you can come to a judgment on when within the past you might have been able to say that a system of apartheid was already in place. That’s not what we’ve tried to do here… We mention  indeed in the report not because we think that is when apartheid started, but I need to be very clear on this, because even at that time there were very serious violations that took place in the context of a conflict… What then happened, in terms of the rules that were put in place, those were choices that were made.
How do you account for the fact that you found that two countries [Israel and Myanmar] maintain systems of apartheid, while for countries like China, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, you have not found that?
Luther: Well, I wouldn’t say we have not found.
You said at the press conference that you have dedicated a very significant amount of resources looking at China, but you have not found that they maintain a system of apartheid.
Luther: We have not found that to date, in terms of the work, because we would have to do a somewhat different type of work. The recent work that we did was specifically on Xinjiang, and we came to our conclusions on the crimes against humanity there, which we didn’t describe as apartheid.
Israel is much more democratic and has far greater respect for human rights than China, especially when you look at their treatment of the Uighurs. How is this apartheid [in Israel], but China and their treatment of the Uighurs is not?
Luther: We haven’t said that. We haven’t come to that conclusion yet. The point is, we haven’t used that framework on China.
Luther: This is a very recent policy that we have, just to be clear. It was adopted four years ago, and for every different country, you’re making choices about the particular research you’re doing, and what you’re concentrating on at a different time, and what may be the framework that would be most applicable, most useful, to try to effect change.
In terms of the resources that it took in order to get the level and type of information that we had in the Xinjiang report, it was massive. And that is absolutely right, partly because China is completely intransparent. So you cannot do research on the ground. And it is incredibly difficult for people then to get information out of. We are very clear that we are able to come to Israel. We can’t go to Gaza because the Israeli authorities won’t let us.
You have these countries that are obviously much greater violators of human rights, and have less regard for international law, than Israel. The determination about China, you said, was because it wouldn’t effect change.
Luther: I cannot tell you the strategic reasons in terms of the focus [on Israeli apartheid]. I can just give you in generic terms.
Don’t you think it’s relevant? The first thing Israelis will say is, “You have real problems in the world, there’s actual concentration camps in China, and we’re the apartheid state?”
Luther: But the thing is, everyone thinks they’re special. In the sense that everyone says the same thing. When we go and do a report on racial discrimination in the US, gun violence there, the American government goes, Hey, we’re the best democracy in the world. Why aren’t you doing stuff in Syria? Why don’t you do something on China? When we go to Morocco and expose torture in Morocco, they say, Hey guys, why aren’t you spending more time in Algeria? Every single country does that. Every single national authority does that. It’s a baseless argument, because every single national authority does that. Everyone points to someone else and says, Well, why aren’t you doing more. Everyone says, That’s a worse situation there.
Your organization has been in China. It’s spent a lot of resources. They come out with no determination on apartheid after you’ve been there.
Luther: You’ve got to go in with that particular; we can’t even go into China.
That strengthens the case for Chinese apartheid.
Luther: Yes, and maybe we’ll get there. I don’t know. I’m not a China expert. The question is, as I’ve said, whether you’re doing work on institutionalized discrimination more broadly, and then whether you are tackling the big issues that amount to – because apartheid is only one – I’m not trying to diminish it, that’s the opposite of what we’re trying to do – it’s one type of crime against humanity. I know it has a resonance, of course, because it has a particular applicability in the sense that it is difficult to describe certain things in another way. That is what it is.
On Syria, I’ve been working on the Middle East and North Africa for twenty years, I’ve spent huge amounts of my time working on crimes against humanity in Syria, and you will find report after report after report on that. We’ve been talking about crimes against humanity in Iran, we’ve spent huge resources on that. It is even more difficult because yes, in Syria you can’t go into what were rebel-held areas. In Iran they don’t allow us in. In Saudi Arabia they don’t allow us in. But these things are clear. We say that. We then describe them on the basis of the information, what it is possible to say. Because you have less access to information does not somehow mean that you don’t have to then redouble the resources, and perhaps there is something you don’t know enough about.
But you went in [to China] ahead of time not even looking at the question of apartheid?
Luther: I don’t know whether we were looking at the question of apartheid or not. That report has been years in the making as well. You’ve got to then be able to get enough information to make your case on any issue.
Which are the countries that you went into attempting to determine whether there is apartheid or not?
Luther: So far, we have applied the framework for Israel/Palestine on the one hand, and Myanmar. Now part of the reason for that on Israel/Palestine is because there is a growing debate on the subject. We thought it was absolutely right and proper that we brought up….
A growing debate where?
Luther: On Israel/Palestine. That’s one of the considerations. When you’re looking at the question of whether you’re going to be looking at any particular place, well, is there a debate on it? There are external factors, that’s part of the strategic landscape. It’s, Do we have something to say on it, is it something that we might have a contribution.
Ok, let’s talk about the fact that there is a debate on it. Israel is under greater scrutiny than other countries…
Luther: I disagree but OK. I mean, arguably, it’s managed to shut down scrutiny using the power of its relationships.
You can look at UN resolutions.
Luther: You can look at UN resolutions, but you can look at UN inaction. Because [Israel] has influence over powerful allies who then manage to stop it, stop the scrutiny. I just totally disagree with you on that.
But you were talking about the debate. We’re not talking about action right now. The debate on Israel is disproportionate. You think when you have 17 resolutions against Israel and 1 against Syria at the UN…
Luther: I think there should be more on Syria.
Right. So it’s currently disproportionate. We can have 17 against Israel and 100 against Syria. But your report is guided by the debate. Don’t you think that debate is sometimes influenced by antisemitism? It didn’t just disappear from the world.
Luther: Just to agree on that point, antisemitism is a big problem.
So it must influence the debate. There are highly antisemitic countries that are deeply involved in this debate.
Luther: There’s a legitimate debate, and there is a debate that is fomented by a far right, and then that of course is completely antithetical to the human rights community. But this is a debate by Israeli organizations, let’s be clear.
So the debate you’re referring to is an internal debate?
Luther: It’s both internal and external. Let’s be clear. It’s internal in the sense that you’ve had Palestinian human rights organizations using the framework for some time, and then you’ve had Israeli human rights organizations ask themselves the question and they’ve come up with their contributions on the subject. So it is a growing debate. Let’s put the parameters around it. The growing debate within the human rights community – the UN special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories.
That’s exactly the point. To defer to an unmethodological, not rigorous way of defining the “debate”…
Luther: No, I have to push back.
OK, how do you determine whether there is more debate around country X vs country Y, and say, OK, therefore we are going to go into that country…
Luther: It’s one factor, by the way. Again, this is not scientific judgment: Is the noise level up to here or up to here. The point is, I don’t think there’s a question about whether there is a debate about it. There is a debate, and it is by serious actors, in the sense that it is by Israeli organizations that have a history of doing work on human rights for decades. That is what I mean by the fact that there is a debate on the subject.
So the fact that Israel has a robust human rights network that is willing to self-criticize is a factor.
So for a country like China, doesn’t that seem like a faulty metric?
Luther: You’re wrong, I’m sorry, but there is a huge debate among Chinese activists, whether they’re inside or outside the country, about what are the most serious crimes that have been committed inside China. And the little I know, they are pointing at particular crimes within Xinjiang, and so there was a very specific debate on what Xinjiang represented.
But that wasn’t enough to…
Luther: Again, you’re trying to draw me on China which I don’t know enough about. But to my knowledge, the Chinese activists are not currently using the [apartheid] term. I might be wrong. But this is not about whether the Chinese government has allowed them to use or discuss that framework as useful, I have no idea.
I’m still utterly lost as to what your metric is for deciding to investigate if a country is an apartheid country.
Luther: But you’re looking for a metric that…
If you’re saying no, it’s rigorous, it’s objective…
Luther: No no, there’s two things. First, the research and legal analysis, that’s what you see in the report. Another question is, strategically, which is not a metric in the sense of, if there’s not this level of debate, you don’t do it. It’s that there are a range of factors that relate then to how you hope to then effect change, which is partly determined by what the debate is within the human rights community in or working on that country.
And I’m trying to understand why the range of factors comes together and puts you in a situation where you say Israel is going to be examined in this apartheid lens, but 193 other countries are not.
Luther: But you’re assuming that we will not be looking at this question through this lens.
In the next year, are you going to look at another country through this lens?
Luther: We are, but we are not going to say what.
How many countries?
Luther: I don’t know, and that’s not my remit. But we are exploring it on several other countries at the moment. Whether we will end up with that conclusion, I don’t know.
In 2017, when you started the investigation into Israel, were there other countries besides Israel and Myanmar under that lens of investigation – apartheid?
Luther: Under that lens of investigation, no. But there were discussions about where [else] we might start to do it. But we haven’t started.
That’s my point. Why does Israel…?
What would you like us to be working on?
I would like you to be working on Syria,…
Luther: No, no, no, no. What would you like us to be working on in Israel/Palestine?
If you want to talk about laws here, great. As long as there’s the same sort of analysis within the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Iraq.
Luther: Do you think we’re not working on Syria?
I see no apartheid investigation.
Luther: That’s a crazy metric. Sorry for putting it so bluntly. You’re saying, if you’re not using the apartheid framework, that means you don’t think there are the most serious crimes under international law being committed somewhere, and that we’re not putting huge amounts of resources into it.
Do you describe an “intentional systematic campaign to…”
Luther: You think we’re not working on Syria? Do you think we’re not working on Iran? Do you think we’re not working on Saudi? When you say not to the same level, what do you mean?
For some reason, the apartheid label doesn’t get applied to them.
Luther: If your metric is…
It’s a metric, an important metric.
Luther: Yeah, ok. I don’t see it that way.
It’s in your report. You clearly describe it as an important metric. It’s in the headline of your report.
Luther: Of course it’s important. It’s important because we haven’t said it, applied it, in this context before. It’s important that we talk about crimes against humanity and war crimes in Syria, in Saudi Arabia, in Iran.
Fine, moving away from the apartheid label. Do you describe an intentional and systematic attempt to dominate in Syria?
Luther: Well, who against who?
Luther: The point is, what we do talk about in Syria is crimes against humanity, which has in its very definition the fact that it applies to a planned attack against a civilian population. That is its intention; there’s an intention behind that. And then we go through the very different — and the figures speak for themselves — the number of people who have been killed in the context of those crimes against humanity. We talk about the number of people who have been tortured.
Do you talk about a regime intentionally trying to oppress and dominate another race?
Luther: No we don’t.
Why? It seems quite clear in all these countries that there is that element.
Do you think that’s not true? In Turkey — Turkey and the Kurds. It seems so obvious that there is a systematic attempt to dominate and oppress another racial group. Is that the language Amnesty would use in that situation – without using the word apartheid for some reason – with Turkey and the Kurds?
Luther: Maybe we’ll get there. I don’t know. Again, I don’t know enough about Turkey to be able to comment on the details of the differences.
Isn’t it curious that you haven’t gotten there yet?
Luther: With respect, you’re hung up on this idea that, somehow, when one’s doing one thing in one place and one thing in another, that is somehow so important. I just disagree with you…
So Amnesty International, for whatever internal reasons, comes and investigates Israel first with this very harsh…
Luther: Not first, Myanmar was first.
…OK, second, with this apartheid lens. You just happened to. Maybe you’ll get to others. At the same time, you look across human rights organizations, they also are putting particular emphasis, it just happens to be on Israel. You go the UN, it happens to be that there are permanent….
Luther: I have to push back. You’re now trying to construct an, I don’t know, a web of conspiracy — that there’s some form of, I don’t know what.
Can you explain it, as someone from inside the human rights community?
Luther: Again, I’m not sure what the problem is.
You don’t see a problem that Israel is focused on ahead of other countries, consistently…?
Luther: I don’t think there’s evidence for that. I can only speak for Amnesty. You’re presenting this view that we’re ahead of others. But a lot of other people are saying to us, why are you so late with this? Why haven’t you done it years ago?
I still can’t understand why Israel gets the apartheid investigation, and you haven’t found any other country besides Myanmar within four years that deserves it. It seems not to bother you – maybe it does bother you – that the UN, which is not your organization, that every year there are permanent and recurring condemnations automatically, and not [against] other countries in the same way, not even close. That would seem to me to be…
Luther: How many other countries have a fifty-year occupation?
Is that the only human rights violation?
Luther: No, I’m saying that it’s a metric. You’re saying, is there not something very specific about the Israeli and Palestinian situation? If people ask about the singularity of the situation, that is singular.
There are other things singular about Israel too. It’s singular that you have other countries calling for its destruction at the UN. It’s singular that it’s the only Jewish state.
So these are singular things which might explain the obsessive focus on Israel. You say it’s the occupation that is the most pressing issue for UN human rights bodies.
Luther: No, no, it’s not the most pressing, but the thing is, it is a singular issue. Normally, when people go to the UN, they’re reporting on violations that they’re committing within their recognized borders. That is very particular, and therefore you will see mechanisms that will be set up in order to deal with that. And that, I would suggest in terms of the report, its intention, in terms of the Israeli state, is the complexity of laws, policies and practices that is difficult to disentangle.
Therefore, to go back to your question on resources, it is the Israeli state that forces everyone to spend time disentangling it. The Syrian regime is absolutely abhorrent, in all its ways, and you will see far more reports over recent years on Syria and the crimes against humanity there. And it’s chillingly simple. It’s massacres. It’s bombs being dropped on residential areas.
Now that takes less time to disentangle. You still need to get the evidence, but it explains partly why. It’s because the Israeli state has made it so difficult to penetrate. They have tried to create a smokescreen around, and of course there is a democratic system, and there are judicial institutions that of course then call the state to account, or at least challenge their decisions. But that’s what makes it so challenging in some ways then to disentangle them when you put it all together.
So I would put it back on the Israeli state. In some ways, it ends up being a driver of complexity and a driver of resources unnecessarily spent on investigations by anybody, because it’s made so damn complicated.
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