The executive director of Amnesty International Israel has sharply criticized the umbrella international organization over its report earlier this month that accused Israel of practicing apartheid against the Palestinians, saying the document is not helping the situation, and may even be making things worse.
In an interview with Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, Molly Malekar aired her grievances over the report, which was rejected by Israel and has also divided her own organization.
She described the accusation that Israel engages in apartheid, as well as other elements of the Amnesty report, as a “punch to the gut.”
According to Malekar, many others who campaign for Palestinian rights, both in Israel and in the West Bank, feel the same way.
Amnesty’s report, released February 1 at a press conference in Jerusalem’s Bab A-Zahara neighborhood, found that Israel applies a form of apartheid against Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and around the world, and, most significantly and controversially, against Arab Israelis.
Malekar said that what bothered her most was not the claim that Israel engages in apartheid according to international law, about which, she said, there is a “serious debate.” Rather, she said, Amnesty, as an organization whose goal is to promote human rights, shouldn’t be concerning itself with theoretical definitions.
When Amnesty publishes a paper, “the only important question is what are you trying to achieve by it,” she said.
Malekar said she had stressed to Amnesty administrators and branches in other countries that within Israel there was a struggle between “nationalist forces and humanitarian forces.”
But the report used broad strokes to paint the entire country in one color rather than going into detail on what needs to change and what is being done correctly, she said. As a result, she said, the report obfuscates the work by humanitarian activists in the country who are deserving of recognition, and prevents dialogue.
Malekar also criticized Amnesty’s attitude toward Arab Israelis who identify as Palestinian.
“They are treated as perpetual, passive victims of apartheid, devoid of any rights and agency,” she said. “They [Amnesty] turn them into victims, into an object. This is neither true nor helpful.
“There is discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, but they have rights, some in key positions; they are campaigning and influencing, and this should be recognized, appreciated and encouraged.”
However, Malekar rejected the idea that Amnesty was biased against Israel, noting that the group has published hundreds of reports on human rights abuses in Arab countries, including in the territories claimed by the Palestinians for a future state and in Iran.
In addition, a significant portion of the report on Israel and the West Bank dealt with Palestinian human rights abuses against Israel, such as terror attacks and rocket fire, that Amnesty defines as war crimes.
Nonetheless, Malekar said she understands the anger at the way Amnesty framed the situation in Israel and acknowledged that in the recent report, “it stands out, it has been exaggerated.”
She also refuted what she called “demagogic” allegations that Amnesty was antisemitic, asserting that criticism of Israel, even if it is wrong, is not antisemitism.
Still, Malekar said, she took issue with how Amnesty International relates to antisemitism, saying the main organization doesn’t do enough to fight it. “I also have a problem with Amnesty International’s approach on antisemitism,” she said. “Amnesty is supposed to fight antisemitism. It does, but not enough, and sometimes I feel that it needs to be pressured into action (on the issue).
She speculated that Amnesty International shies away from addressing antisemitism because it is concerned it will then be perceived as pro-Israel.
“This is completely wrong,” she said. “Israel and world Jewry are not one and the same.”
Malekar said she had chosen to express her views on the report openly “because dialogue with Israeli society is important to me, because I am part of it, because it is an open society that has a variety of opinions and positions and not an opaque monolith, and it can be influenced.”
Her criticism of the report has found a mixed reception within Amnesty itself, she said.
“In the head office (in the UK), I felt that the approach was legalistic and rigid and that it was difficult to conduct dialogue. The [international] branches had a sympathetic ear,” she said.
As Amnesty compiled its report over the past four years, there were heated arguments between the local Israeli branch and the head office in London, as well as with Israeli activists who supported the report.
An Amnesty Israel activist told Zman Yisrael that the report has divided the group.
“There is profound and serious controversy over the content,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “Since we began working on the report it has become a nightmare. The week that the report came out, I did not sleep well. ”
Three of Amnesty Israel’s staff of 10 are Arab Israelis, as are two of its board members. One of those two, Amal Orabi, told Zman Yisrael that he supported the report as an important step because, whereas previous Amnesty reports differentiated between Arab Israelis and Palestinians beyond the Green Line, the latest document saw them as “one collective.”
“We, too, still live here in a completely different way from the Jews. The law ostensibly does not distinguish between Jews and Arabs. But this is simply a more sophisticated system of discrimination,” he said.
The Amnesty International report was heavily criticized by Israel, with the accusation of “apartheid” also rejected by MK Mansour Abbas, an Arab Israeli party leader who is part of the government coalition and by Esawi Frej, an Arab Israeli and Meretz party member who serves as minister for regional coordination.
Immediately after its release, the group’s secretary general, Agnes Callamard, and Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy director, Philip Luther, spoke with The Times of Israel to discuss the 278-page report, which 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 that it meets the international definition 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.
The US, UK, and other countries also rejected the report. “Come on, this is absurd,” US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides tweeted in response to the report.