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 2010 when Salman Rushdie charged Amnesty International with “moral bankruptcy,” Amnesty officials expressed similar concerns. In 1970, the group’s US 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 UN, 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 are 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, which over a span of a few months has featured B’tselem, then Human Rights Watch, and now Amnesty strain to pin the ugly “Apartheid” label on Israel, it acts from an established playbook: If the facts don’t support the slur that Israel is an apartheid state, then just make up some facts.
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 judgement of the anti-Israel activists running the organization, labelled “apartheid.” Here we look at the following “smaller” lie:
“2.5 million Palestinians live in Israel and East Jerusalem, restricted to enclaves that make up 3% of the entire area.”
The charge appears in a video the organization released alongside its report, whose purpose, it seems, is to relay the report’s conclusions to an audience that, for unknowable reasons, might not want to read 280 pages of repetitive, convoluted allegations.
Restricted. Enclaves. The claim is meant to evoke the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa. But it’s a flagrant lie.
It’s not just that the “three 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 straightforwardly 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 live1. Cities and towns with a homogeneous Arab population take up 711 sq. km, 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, Acco, 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 711 sq. km suggested by Amnesty to 1,160 sq. km.
And there’s more. Past counts and research by academics have documented Arab populations in Carmiel, Nahariyya, Tzfat, Hadera, Afula, Kfar Sava, Netanya, Givatayim, and Harish. When these cities are added to the above, the land area in question increases to 1,370 sq. km. That’s already six percent of Israel’s area — double what Amnesty falsely claims. (By way of comparison, Jewish-majority cities and towns take up just about 10 percent 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 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 that seeming to overlap with the video’s false assertion.
On page 128, Amnesty states that
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 amount of land.
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…” (again)
• “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…” (again)
Is there something 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 2,000/sq. km. 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 mispresents, and conceals key details about, an Israeli law that applies to tiny 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. One might be skeptical, then, about whether what Adalah “has shown.”
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!2 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 hold up as 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 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 from readers inconvenient information.
In 2017, Adalah uncovered a document from Hiran’s cooperative association’s bylaws that said its “admissions committee” would permit the admittance of individuals to the town “if they meet the following qualifications: a Jewish Israeli citizen or permanent resident of Israel who observes the Torah and commandments according to Orthodox Jewish value.”
Putting aside that this planned guideline discriminates against non-Jews and a majority of Israel’s Jews (who are non-Orthodox), Amnesty again conceals from readers relevant legal history.
Haaretz, a newspaper Amnesty deems credible enough to cite dozens of times in its report, noted in 2017 that such bylaws have been struck down, and so are expected to be struck down again, by the courts.
Based on legal precedent, it seems unlikely that the association’s bylaws will actually dictate the acceptance procedures for Hiran. In 2013, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel petitioned the High Court of Justice over a similar case involving the new town of Carmit, which was also governed by a cooperative association that said members must be “Jewish Israeli citizens or permanent residents who uphold the values of Judaism.” In that case, the state sided unequivocally with the petitioners, saying membership in the association could not be a condition for obtaining land in Carmit.
Rakefet is a village that falls under the purview of a regional council — entities that govern collections of small towns in rural Israel. And the case of the Zubeidat family further underscores Amnesty’s dishonest claim that Arabs are “restricted” or “packed into” a tiny portion of the country.
As noted above, most Arabs and Jews live in cities and larger towns, and such communities take up a fraction of Israel’s area. But Arabs and Jews also live in far-flung parts of the country, in villages that fall under the jurisdiction of regional councils.
It’s not only the Zubeidats in Rakefet. Arab villages can be found in regional councils like al-Kasom, al-Batuf, Bustan al-Marj, Gilboa, Zevulun, Mateh Asher, Mateh Yehuda, Menashe, Merom HaGalil, Misgav, Neve Midbar, Jezreel Valley, and Ramat HaNegev — councils that take up 27 percent of the Israel’s geographic area. And the remaining regional councils, where court precedent has made clear Arabs can live, take up 54 percent of the land.
Do communal bonds, a history of war, socioeconomic divisions, and, yes, discriminatory prejudices contribute to a reality in which Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens largely live in separate areas? Yes. Segregation and ethnic enclaves are a reality in Israel, and across the world. Ethnic groups in Serbia and Slovakia, immigrants in Iceland and Amsterdam, racial groups in Boston and Birmingham, Chinatowns in Vancouver and Victoria are often separated by invisible lines born out of affinity, economics, or hostility.
Israel, of course, is unique in many ways. It’s not every day that a scattered, battered, and disempowered people rises from the ashes of genocide in Europe, breaks the chains of repression in the Arab world, and returns to its ancestral homeland to join the Jewish minority that never left among a majority population of ethnic Arabs. It’s a unique story, one of triumph and suffering, one that leaves room for improvement.
Amnesty International might not like the story. It might prefer a map where the world’s one Jewish-majority country is erased and replaced with a 23rd Arab country. But that’s not an excuse to spread lies, both Big and small.
- Israeli communities are either governed by a municipal council (for individual cities), a local council (for individual, medium-to-large suburban or exurban towns), or a regional council (for groupings of rural towns and the empty spaces surrounding them). This section looks at Israel’s municipal and local councils, which encompass nearly 90 percent of Jews and about 95 percent of Arabs.
- All evidence points to the likelihood that the law wasn’t even enacted at the time Adalah’s document was written, which might explain why it isn’t mentioned. The document is dated March 2011, with no specific date indicated. One of its footnotes, though, references February 2011 as a future date. The bill in question, meanwhile, only became law on March 23.