Amnesty International and Israel


Any organization fighting torture and other human rights abuses deserves our support. A recognized leader in this fight is Amnesty International (AI), helping people escape with their lives or avoid torture for decades. Given AI’s track record and its role as a human rights monitor, one must be careful leveling criticism against it. But one can no longer be silent about AI’s stance regarding Israel and Palestine. This article analyzes Amnesty’s entire public record and stance during the current intifada (Sep. 2000 thru Sep. 2002). It is an analysis of a meager record of 83 press releases and six reports . It reveals the following shortcomings and questions about its stance.

1. Trivializing Israeli violence

One immediate conclusion is that AI’s public record greatly diminishes Israeli violence against Palestinians. The reports only refer to a small fraction of the massive scale of oppression and dispossession perpetrated by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF). Occupation is a series of measures meant to make life unbearable for millions, a reality barely mentioned in AI’s reports . For example, there are tens of thousands of Palestinians severely wounded or maimed by the IOF, yet the scale of this catastrophe or its deliberate nature aren’t part of its reports . AI refers to “closures” of most Palestinian cities, but its reports don’t convey the scale of these policies–hundreds of thousands under curfew, the siege of cities, and the increase in acute and chronic malnutrition amongst Palestinian children . There is only one press release describing the prison-like conditions of the Gaza strip–hundreds of thousands of Palestinians corralled in the most densely populated area in the world.

Some examples

Item: The July 23, 2002 F16 bombing of Gaza where a one-ton bomb killed 17 people elicited a bland statement . The extent of its admonishment was: “This attack was disproportionate and is utterly unacceptable,” and one is left wondering what AI would consider a proportionate response. The remainder of the statement calls on the Palestinians to stop their resistance and calls on the international community to ” step up its efforts to assist the Palestinian Authority in improving the effectiveness of its criminal justice system and its compliance with international human rights standards.” Perhaps AI can explain the relevance of this statement when commenting on the Gaza bombing.

Not even in the darkest days of Apartheid South Africa did the air force bomb the townships, thus it is surprising to find that this was the first AI press release about an aerial bombardment, although there were 42 preceding ones with varying numbers of casualties.

Item: AI recently issued a press release condemning the ‘deportation’ of the family members of alleged suicide bombers to Gaza, and it went so far as to call this a war crime. On the face of it, this seems clear, but the press release reveals some serious flaws. The seriousness of the crime is reduced because it doesn’t refer to the house demolitions accompanying the expulsion legal proceedings. There was no legal appeal procedure to prevent the house demolitions, and in one instance, the explosion of one home wrecked ten adjacent houses. Furthermore, there is scant reference to the arbitrary nature of the punishment and collective aspects of the expulsions. Finally, it passes the proceedings of as merely a legal maneuver that has been abused. The result is that the extent and seriousness of the Israeli crimes have been reduced .

Item: On October 7, 2002, after Israeli tanks had pulled out of Khan Yunis, Israeli helicopters bombed the crowded streets; they also fired a missile at a hospital. The initial casualty toll amounted to at least 14 Palestinians dead and 80 wounded. Given that Sharon termed this operation a “great success,” one would have expected some response, but AI will not issue a statement. AI’s main problem is omission–failing to mention the great majority of the events on the ground.

Item: On October 21, 2002, a suicide bomb in Hadera killed 14 Israelis, most of them military, and wounded about 50, again, most of them military. AI issued a press release the next day condemning the attack. Note the difference in the response between this incident, and the Khan Yunis bombing.

2. Why is there violence at all?

Reading AI’s reports doesn’t reveal why there is a conflict in the area in the first place. The portrayal of violence is stripped of its context, and historical references are minimal. The fact that Palestinians have endured occupation, expulsion, and dispossession for many decades, the explanation of why the conflict persists, is nowhere highlighted in its reports. This posture eliminates the possibility of taking sides, and AI doesn’t automatically side with the oppressed victims; instead, it assumes a warped sense of balance. It qualitatively equates the violence perpetrated by the IOF with Palestinian resistance. In attempting to be impartial, AI is oblivious to the history of ethnic cleansing that is the root cause. Israeli violence is qualitatively different than Palestinian violence; it is different than that found in other conflicts because it aims to expel the native population.

AI refers often to the ‘cycle of violence’. As John Pilger has said: “It suggests, at best, two equal sides, never that the Palestinians are resisting violent oppression with violence.” The ‘cycle of violence’ portrays the conflict as something we can’t explain, and let alone, do much about. Furthermore, the pernicious element of this term is that AI doesn’t accept Palestinian justifications for violence, and the Israelis are always portrayed as responding.

3. The human rights mantra–apolitical fence sitting

AI’s exclusive focus on human rights may be acceptable when dealing with a single individual languishing in jail for no apparent reason; in this case, its “apolitical” stance also may be suitable. However, this approach is inappropriate when dealing with a situation where abuses are perpetrated on an unprecedented scale. Mass human rights violations are central to the Israeli policy in Palestine, a key point that AI ignores. Even in this case, AI utters increasingly tiresome calls to respect human rights on “both sides” and calls to make human rights “central to any negotiations.” This is almost comical.

The problems with AI’s reports start with the mantra it recites obsessively without regard to the people in question. On the surface, this simple and neutral premise seems sound enough, but it introduces serious problems if AI is to function as an effective human rights advocate. One cannot equate the violations of the rights of Palestinians, the oppressed people, with the violations against Israelis, the oppressor. It also is hard to imagine how criticizing the violent aspects of state power can ever be non-political.

One thing is to have an “apolitical stance,” which may be acceptable, but the other is to use this as an excuse to neuter criticism of any regime. It is clear that AI hasn’t carefully analyzed this aspect of its stance, and hence, in the case of Israel/Palestine, the stated non-political stance amounts to an avoidance of critical language or the leveling of severe accusations. In the process, it also has lost its critical edge, and its reports are trite recitation of some abuses. Sharon hardly cowers over AI’s reports.

4. Transfer.

Israeli government officials openly discuss the notion of “transfer”–mass expulsion of the Palestinian population. This discussion also takes place within Israeli society to the extent that it is now a centrist political position. Given the seriousness of the situation and the political acceptability of this impending mass crime, it would seem to dictate immediate action to impede it and to make clear to the Israeli government that this would unambiguously constitute a plethora of serious crimes. However, no such call or warning has been issued by AI. A possible explanation is that AI specializes in retail human rights abuses, and it is up to the UN and the international community to mobilize against wholesale crimes. AI and other human rights organizations appear to deal only with abuses that have taken place, and do not work to prevent mass abuses.

5. An astonishing report.

Even more disturbing is a recent Amnesty report , Without Distinction July 2002, which de-legitimizes in one fell swoop Palestinian violence against Israelis. AI accomplishes this in three steps. First, it projects that Palestinians are subject to some international statutes as other states — which is remarkable since Palestine isn’t a state, but a people under occupation. Israel has violated all but one of the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention , as well as numerous other international legal conventions including those on torture. It is remarkable then that AI holds Palestinians accountable to international laws that have lent them no protection whatsoever. Second, it removes the legitimacy conferred by the UN to people fighting occupation or oppression. It therefore equates Palestinian violence to that of the Israeli occupier. Third, it prohibits resistance against settlers. This is an odd statement given that a significant fraction of the settlers are armed, violently dispossess the native population, act with impunity, and with acquiescence and protection of the Israeli army . It states without any qualification that settlers are civilians, and thus should not be targeted. Finally, it also prohibits any violence against civilians within Israel proper. Possibly the only legitimate violence accorded to the Palestinian struggle is to confront one of the most powerful armies in the world–but even this right is not clarified in its report. Finally, it levels the clearest accusation of various serious crimes, including war crimes, against Palestinians themselves. This is a shameful report.

6. Evident bias

Even the language used in AI’s reports exhibits a bias. Since the beginning of the second intifada AI has seldom outright condemned Israeli violence, the word “condemn” was used primarily when referring to Palestinian violence . Furthermore, emotive adjectives used to describe violent acts, like “horrific” or “shocking”, were only used when describing Palestinian violence; in the case of the Israeli acts, the terms used were almost inert — in this case AI has a proclivity to use the “alleged” adjective. The very first paragraph of a report on Palestinian violence uses words like “deliberately killed” –although this is not entirely clear; reports referring to Israeli violence rarely attribute intention. It is mostly Palestinian violence that has elicited forthright accusations, e.g., war crimes. Despite the preponderance of violence on the Israeli side, AI seldom has leveled such clear accusations against Israeli actions during the same period; Israeli actions are mostly reported to breach certain legal provisions, to breach standards, to be disproportionate, or elicit calls to respect human rights, but the accusation of “war crimes” has been made only thrice . An important word to describe the conflict is ‘occupation’. Now, leaving aside the name ‘occupied territories’, there has been scant reference to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. In no report was the meaning or the implications occupation made clear. Again, this sanitizing of language is troubling.

7. Adopting Israeli-centric language

AI uncritically uses Israeli terms to describe the conflict. The Israeli army likes to refer to itself as the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)–so does AI; a more neutral name like the “Israeli army” would be more appropriate. It is curious that AI refers to some occupation forces’ actions by their operation name, e.g., “Defensive Wall”. Names of military operations are part of the PR campaign; AI’s adoption of such terms serves Israeli propaganda. It is also disconcerting to find that AI accepts the rationale given by the IOF for its campaigns–invariably it is ‘retaliation’ or ‘response’. For example, the very first page of its extensive report, Broken Lives, uses the Israeli ‘response’ justification for its violence. In general, AI uses terms coined by the occupation forces, e.g., “administrative detention” which conveys the impression of a legal process; in reality it refers to arbitrary imprisonment without charges, trial, appeal, often without legal representation, for undefined terms, and frequently at the notorious Ansar concentration camp.

Without exception, AI uses quotation marks around the word ‘collaborators.’ The IOF regularly uses collaborators to inform on other Palestinians–it is evident in most towns, and the men who were severely beaten because they refused attest to its pervasiveness. Do the quotation marks refer to the alleged accusation, or to AI’s unwillingness to accept collaboration with the IOF as a crime? The use of “alleged” instead of the quotation marks would make its meaning clear.

In contrast, AI refers to the persons killed in Israeli extra judicial assassinations as wanted men, or as men validly accused for violent acts. AI is taking the Israeli statements about these men at face value–no quotes needed around ‘wanted’ or ‘accused’. A different standard is applied to either justification for assassination.

AI uses the term ‘deportation’ for the expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories. Deportation implies a legal procedure that Israelis would have a right to implement . However, given the fact that the victims of this procedure are Palestinian natives this should be termed an expulsion, but preferably an exile. Sending a resident of the West Bank to Gaza should perhaps be termed imprisonment–given that Gaza resembles today a giant prison. The term deportation also hides the arbitrary nature of the action, e.g., expelling family members of an alleged attacker, and the collective punishment of the act accompanied by demolishing their houses.

8. The harmful

David Holley, an AI military adviser, uttered statements diminishing the events in Jenin . Given that the statements were made before a UN fact-finding team was instituted, such statements were detrimental in the attempt to establish the UN investigation — an investigation that ultimately never occurred. Because of that, we may never know what happened at Jenin. Given that no detailed investigation ever took place, his statements were sheer speculation. His statements helped whitewash whatever occurred on the ground. Finally, Mr. Holley concurred with an Israeli demand to include military experts, erstwhile seen as a ploy to mollify the investigation team, further delay, and undermine the UN team. AI has not sought to clarify Mr. Holley’s remarks. AI should also explain why it employs military experts; military justifications for destruction or killings should not play a role in human rights abuse investigations.

9. The Absurd

AI has called on several Israeli governments to set up tribunals to prosecute and punish Israeli perpetrators of crimes against Palestinians. AI is requesting a government, led by someone who essentially is a war criminal, to prosecute Israeli soldiers. One can only imagine Sharon’s hoots of laughter upon hearing this recommendation. Had AI called its colleagues at B’tselem in Jerusalem it would have found that the Israeli soldiers act with impunity against Palestinians. The few cases investigated for abuses were dismissed or have been shelved forever. Should anyone be actually convicted one can only expect suspended sentences or minor sentences in open prisons.

10. The questions

AI has admitted in a press release that its officers ” have had meetings with Israeli officials or members of Israeli diplomatic missions in many countries.” It would be nice to know who instigated those meetings. If it is the Israeli side, then their interests must be no doubt to change the language in the reports or to engage in damage control. If AI was the instigator of the meetings, then one would like to know what was the result of these meetings. A singular lack of improvement in Israeli observance of human rights should have dictated cessation of its dealings with such “embassy” officials long ago. Furthermore, one can understand meetings with Israeli officials in London, AI’s headquarters, or in Israel proper, but they occurred “in many countries”–why? Second, AI insists that those involved in report writing not be connected to the area to sustain impartiality and objectivity. In the case of Israel/Palestine AI enforces an exclusion of Palestinian and Israeli rapporteurs. However, it doesn’t implement exclusion based on ethnic-origin. In the name of objectivity, there is a case to be made to exclude Jewish and Muslim rapporteurs.

Finally, the AI university campus chapters in the US have become suspect. That is, many of the students attend meetings mostly to deal with questions pertaining Israel. If so, it behooves AI to enforce ethical conduct rules in these chapters.

11. The semi-useful

AI is primarily effective by using moral suasion with the governments involved in human rights abuses, and it exerts pressure by directing letter-writing campaigns–or its modern online equivalent. Its reports used to shame and embarrass the odd dictator. Today’s petition drives take the human rights activist to website where one can pick from a menu of victims. Some description of the condition of the hapless victim is given, and one can then press a button to register one’s concern.

Presto! Liberals will feel much better, their guilty conscience assuaged. No matter what AI does with the petition lists, this amounts to a means to dissipate anger and not to redirect it into productive action. Could AI please describe the reception of the petition list by Israeli embassy staff? AI repeatedly calls for the introduction of ‘unarmed’ observers. The experience of the unarmed Norwegian observers in Hebron proves that this measure is grossly inadequate. Settler violence and threats forced the evacuation of the observers, and they weren’t able to provide any protection to the Palestinian population. AI’s call for human rights observers assumes that it is helping two parties desiring a peaceful solution to the conflict. However, given the history of human rights violations by the Israelis, any further calls for the introduction of unarmed observers is at best disingenuous. Furthermore, AI’s stance on this issue ignores the repeated calls by Palestinians for armed protection. It is essential that armed military enforcers be brought in to protect the Palestinians, as only this measure will likely create conditions to resume meaningful negotiations.

Photo Musa Alshaer, 2002

If AI is serious about motivating human rights campaigners around the world, then a deeper understanding is needed of why there are conflicts. At present, its reports are seriously flawed, and of limited use to educate human rights activists. An informed activist with a firm grasp of the issues will be more effective than one who is only expected to press a few buttons on the website.

12. Sharon

Ariel Sharon has blood on his hands — dating back many decades. Thousands of people have been his victims and vast swathes of cities have been demolished by him. The Sabra and Shatila massacre is among the bloody chapters, one for which even an Israeli commission attributed blame.

Up to now, AI has only piggybacked on the attempts to indict Sharon in Brussels–an action instigated by others. And that case deals only with the Sabra & Shatila massacre.

Given what is happening now in the Occupied Territories, e.g., Jenin, the repeated bombing “successes”, gross violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention, etc., it would seem that calling unambiguously for a war crimes tribunal would be a constructive step. One thing is certain: Sharon, Peres, Elieser are afraid of war crimes indictments. A credible threat thereof would stop them from further escalation. What stops AI from issuing a call for a war crimes tribunal now?

13. Israeli propaganda compliant

The website of The National Interest, a pro-Israeli rightwing foreign affairs journal , reveals in the “Other Links Page” a list of the usual rightwing organizations, e.g., Heritage Foundation, CATO, Milken Institute and among them is AI . It strikes one that AI is amongst odd company. Perhaps it is a case that AI’s reports are so sanitized and without any critical edge that they don’t offend such dubious journals. Israel and its propagandists may not like it when AI accuses it of war crimes, but in general, they will be pleased with the lame nature of Amnesty’s stance and its reports. Here is why:

(1) It diminishes the nature and extent of Israeli crimes against the Palestinians, partly whitewashing Israeli actions.

(2) It equates the nature of violence of the oppressor and oppressed. AI refuses to hold Israel up to a different standard. Although it accuses Israel of war crimes, it also levels the same accusation against Palestinians.

(3) AI remarkably accepts Israeli justifications for its violence, e.g., ‘response,’ but accepts no justification for Palestinian violence.

(4) AI doesn’t issue strong condemnations against Israeli actions. There have only been three clear war crime accusations, and all the other accusations are lame breaches of policing standards, etc.

(5) AI doesn’t call for any measures that would curtail Israeli actions. Calling for unarmed observers is a woefully inadequate measure given the need to protect the population.

AI’s approach will please the Israeli government and its supporters. AI’s current stance not only doesn’t offend pro-Israeli organizations, it doesn’t call for effective action putting it on a collision course.


Human rights organizations have taken on a responsibility to stand up against the injustices perpetrated by state power. In the case of Amnesty International, its public record indicates that its stance is ineffective and dubious when it comes to defending Palestinian human rights. It is not a question of desiring more, but demanding the very minimum.

PAUL de ROOIJ is an economist living in London, and is an ex-supporter of Amnesty. He would like to thank Donatella Rovera, AI’s researcher on Israel/Palestine, for the long discussion held with her–unfortunately, many questions remain. He would like to thank the 20+ academics, human rights professionals, and lawyers who reviewed this article. It is odd to put one name as an author to a document towards which so many people contributed.


PAUL de ROOIJ is a writer living in London. He can be reached at (NB: all emails with attachments will be automatically deleted.)