The human rights organization Amnesty International issued a billowing report this week charging Israel with carrying out a crime against humanity by enacting an apartheid system intended to systematically discriminate against Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. The release of the report has created what is effectively a political campaign on both sides, with Amnesty’s defenders rushing to defend its conclusions and the organization’s detractors rushing to discredit them. Much of the analysis and commentary are centered on the accuracy of the evidence that Amnesty has compiled, whether its claims about Israel match the requisite definitions of the alleged crimes under international law, and why Israel’s actions are being singled out to such an extent rather than those of other states.
There are many others who are more qualified and better suited than I to address these questions. I am also not particularly interested in debating whether Amnesty and its report are antisemitic, not because the answer is irrelevant but because it obscures the policy issue that I’d rather focus on, which is how to mitigate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and arrive at a viable solution for doing so that is acceptable to both sides. Describing the entire Israeli system as apartheid and as a crime against humanity makes resolving the conflict harder to achieve, not easier. There are obvious reasons for why this is so, chief among them that it polarizes the issue even further as everyone retreats to their respective bunkers and girds for rhetorical battle. But there are two other important reasons that render the charge one that creates problems rather than paves the way to a solution.
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and treatment of Palestinians are problematic enough in their own right. It is not a natural state of affairs to rule over a territory containing millions of people who do not have citizenship, who cannot come and go without worrying about losing their status on official population registers, who are subject to a military rather than civilian justice system, and whose ambitions for their own state have remained unfulfilled. Doing this for decades is unmanageable, unjust to the Palestinians who are the occupation’s subjects and unfair to the Israelis who are the occupation’s enforcers. This is all complicated by the fact that the Palestinians are not passive and blameless observers, and the enormous power imbalance does not erase Palestinian responsibility for terrorism, violence, or political and ideological rejectionism.
Israel’s occupation and settlement project are difficult and objectionable. They deserve to be described as they are, contemplated and tackled as they are, fixed and ultimately ended. Blowing them up beyond all sense of proportion by comparing them to non-analogous situations and using harsh terms that function as rhetorical shortcuts to evil does not make it quicker or easier to end the occupation and achieve rights for Palestinians. It instead cheapens and obscures all of the language involved for sensationalist purposes. Like any extreme claim that becomes dubious upon closer examination, the charges of crime against humanity and apartheid become quickly and appropriately discredited. This makes it easier to deny the specific problems of Israel’s occupation as well, by casting aspersions on the very idea that Israeli policies and actions need to be changed. It also creates a strong sense among Israelis and many American Jews that all criticism of Israel originates in antisemitism, which is an understandable response to an increasingly loud critique that inherently discredits Zionism and its real-world manifestation in Israel as opposed to focusing on specific and easily identifiable Israeli actions.
Beyond the sensationalism of using terms like apartheid and crime against humanity as effective clickbait, this lens betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of why what is taking place is indeed taking place. The apartheid charge—applied across the board to every place where there is direct or indirect Israeli control without territorial distinction—rests squarely on the concept of racial domination. The Israeli system is described as apartheid for allegedly imposing domination and oppression of one racial group by another, so in this reading Israel seeks to oppress and dominate Palestinians due to their race, wherever they are found.
The glaringly obvious problem with this is that if you think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about race, you will never understand it nor figure out how it will eventually be resolved. This is not a racial conflict, but a national conflict. It is not about racial control, but about territorial control. Both sides are fighting for their own nationalisms and national identities, and the tragedy is that they are doing this in the same small plot of land. The control and domination here—actual and aspirational—are literally about who will control the land, not about who will control another people or group. This is elementary stuff, and to look at the situation in Israel and Palestine and see a conflict over race is just about the most egregious possible example of missing the forest for the trees.
If you need a simple way of understanding this, look at how Israel approaches different groups of Palestinians depending on the status of Israel’s control over the territory on which they live. Some self-identified Palestinians are Israeli citizens because they live inside the Green Line or in Jerusalem, and thus have full political and civil rights. Other Palestinians are residents of Jerusalem but not citizens—though they have the right and ability to apply for Israeli citizenship and only do so in minutely small numbers so as not to grant legitimacy to Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem—and enjoy civil rights but not the full political rights granted to citizens. Other Palestinians live under the limited autonomy of the Palestinian Authority or under Israeli military control depending on where they reside in the West Bank, and deal with the daily restrictions and curtailed rights of military occupation. And over two million Palestinians in Gaza are in yet another different category, where Israel tightly controls their movement and the movement of goods in and out of the territory but has no role in administering what takes place inside of Gaza’s borders. If Israel were exercising a system of domination and oppression based on racial classification, none of these distinctions would exist or make any sense. That is not to suggest that Arab citizens of Israel face no discrimination, or that Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are not subject to barriers and harassment. But that does not magically make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a racial one rather than a national one.
Positing that Israeli actions are about race also does not make the situation easier to rectify. The fact that it is a national conflict and that Israel is motivated by its own nationalism and a desire to control territory makes the conflict even more intractable and inflammatory rather than less. Nationalism is a powerfully binding force and a powerfully destructive force equaled perhaps only by religion, and the first step in figuring out how to get security and justice for both sides is to recognize that each side needs its national aspirations satisfied and legitimated. Once you have decided that what is at stake here is racial control rather than territory and that the answer is dismantling a supposed system of apartheid, you are down a rabbit hole that leads far away from solving the problem on the ground.
The apartheid charge is conceptually wrong, and to concede that is not to minimize the actual wrong or harm taking place. To instead insist on that charge’s unerring accuracy places that very wrong and harm in a badly misread context. It may make sense in a world in which racial identity politics are viewed as the explanatory variable behind every power imbalance and misdeed, but it makes little sense in the world in which Israelis and Palestinians actually live.