Why and how the City of Amsterdam should be opposing Israel’s apartheid regime

Numerous Palestinian, Israeli, international and UN organizations as well as scholars have called Israel an apartheid and settler-colonial regime. The City of Amsterdam has historically acted against South Africa’s apartheid regime, yet the same is not happening now in relation to Israel’s apartheid regime. At a recent panel discussion on anti-racism, Jeff Handmaker talked to renowned anti-apartheid activists about the role the city could and should play in condemning Israel’s oppressive and racist actions. It is important that Amsterdam affirm its cultural heritage as a space for solidarity anti-racism, he writes.

Since 2005, several discussions, films and solidarity events have been organized globally and annually around the theme ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’. Eighteen years ago, it was a lot more difficult to argue that Israel’s regime should be called racist, apartheid and settler-colonial, even though Palestinian organizations for years had been showing this was the case. At present, owing to years of discussions on the topic, there is greater agreement on the nature and consequences of Israel’s human rights transgressions and forceful oppression of the Palestinian people.

But there is still a long way to go in getting countries and organizations to condemn Israel as it did South Africa. And so, last week, as part of Israeli Apartheid Week activities, I participated in a panel at an anti-racism conference in Amsterdam at Pakhuis De Zwijger to dialogue about the involvement of the City of Amsterdam during the South African anti-apartheid movement back in the 1970s and 1980s and whether it should be doing the same at present in relation to Israel’s apartheid regime.

Together with Layla Katterman, renowned German-Palestinian student activist and founder of Students for Palestine, veteran anti-apartheid activists Corrie Roeper (formerly of the Holland Committee for Southern Africa) and Bart Luirink (formerly of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the Netherlands), as well as veteran Palestinian solidarity activist and writer Robert Soeterik, we reflected on the city of Amsterdam’s stance on apartheid dating back several decades. This stance featured solidarity linkages and concrete projects between the municipality and anti-apartheid groups in South Africa. In reflecting on this history, we hoped to understand the dynamics of the anti-apartheid movement initiated by the city and to contemplate what scope there was for the formation of a similar anti-apartheid movement in respect of Israel’s racist, brutal, and colonial treatment of Palestinians. Here are some thoughts that were shared during the panel discussion.


Dutch and South African resistance movements had different roles

In the first part of the panel, the panellists reflected on the Netherlands’ role in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. I emphasised that black liberation groups led the movement, while others, including white liberal organizations such as lawyers’ groups, student groups and women’s groups supported it.  Eventually, many of these groups came together during the establishment of the United Democratic Front in 1983, led by anti-apartheid activists Yusuf Dadoo, Allan Boesak and others.

Accordingly, white liberal groups in South Africa such as Lawyers for Human Rights, the women’s-led group Black Sash and others, as well as groups from the global anti-apartheid movement, trade unions and others played key roles in helping to liberate South Africa. However, these roles were very different from those of the African National Congress and Pan-African Congress and black consciousness groups (though they were banned and operated underground) and eventually the United Democratic Front.  Black consciousness leader Steve Biko articulated this clearly in 1970:


The South African white community is a homogeneous community. It is a community of people who sit to enjoy a privileged position that they do not deserve, are aware of this, and therefore spend their time trying to justify why they are doing so. Where differences in political opinion exist, they are in the process of trying to justify their position of privilege and their usurpation of power.


Each group must be able to attain its style of existence without encroaching on or being thwarted by another. Out of this mutual respect for each other and complete freedom of self-determination … (there will arise) a true integration.


In other words, white liberal groups needed to understand the perspective of black liberation groups; the possibility for unity existed, although the former needed to learn how to listen. A similar dynamic exists in relation to liberal Israeli groups.


Both Palestinians and South Africans have experienced oppression

As a crucial point of comparison, Palestinians, like black South Africans, have been engaged in a longstanding struggle for self-determination against oppressive regimes. A further comparison to be made is that both in Palestine and in South Africa, there has been considerable fragmentation of the land, of political systems, and of the people themselves. In Israel-Palestine, a so-called “two-state solution”, which has been the official, albeit naïve position of most states to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, is truly an illusion.

Both systems of apartheid have involved layers of racial(ized) and legalized discrimination, undermining one’s access to equal / equitable education, health care, jobs, and livelihoods, as well as access to justice.

Yet, there are also key distinctions to be made; in particular, there is no such thing as Israeli nationality. By contrast, South Africa never imposed different nationalities; it did, however, classify and treat people differently based on racial(ized) legal categories.


The City of Amsterdam hasn’t (yet) declared Israel an apartheid state

We then sought to understand the current partnership between the cities of Amsterdam and Tel Aviv. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the City of Amsterdam explicitly opposed South Africa’s apartheid regime by severing former linkages with South African institutions and supporting anti-apartheid groups, both financially and politically. However, the same is not happening in the case of Israel. Despite Amnesty’s 2022 report, another by the Israeli NGO B’tselem and numerous others, including the most recent by Al Haq all declaring Israel to be an apartheid state, the mayor of Amsterdam and the Dutch government have considered the declaration of Israeli apartheid to be invalid. Moreover, both city and national government officials feel that such a matter should be decided by the court; there thus has been no official recognition by the city administration of Israel’s status as apartheid regime.

However, this is a blatantly incorrect position. The matter has in fact already been decided by several international courts, including the International Court of Justice in 2004 that affirmed Israel was violating international human rights.[1] This was followed by the opening of an international criminal investigation by the International Criminal Court following a decision by the Pre-Trial Chamber in 2021. [2] Thus, as an integral organ of the Dutch state, the municipality of Amsterdam is obliged to act in accordance with international law, including the outcomes of these two courts.


Amsterdam should formally sever its relationship with Tel Aviv

Lastly, we explored what could be done about this dismal situation. It was clear to most in the room that as long as there were not consequences for Israel’s criminal behaviour (as there frequently have been for Palestinians), there would be continued impunity. Consequences for state and individual violations are an essential feature of both state and individual accountability – this indeed is one of the principal reasons why treaties were concluded to establish the Geneva Conventions, the UN and more recently the ICC.

Hence, the speakers on the panel felt it was important to affirm, on the basis of both moral and legal obligations, that the City of Amsterdam is obliged to respect international law and not to assist an illegal situation. Accordingly, we felt it should sever its formal relationship with the city of Tel Aviv. In other words, beyond being a matter of legal obligation, in accordance with both the United Nations Charter and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it is important that Amsterdam affirm its cultural heritage as a space for solidarity anti-racism.

At a broader level, we found that it is crucial to unpack what the role of settler-colonialism has been as a historical force, including how spatial segregation has occurred on the basis of race and ethnicity. In Israel-Palestine, certainly, this has principally been marked by the well-planned and systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.


The latest event taking place on 24 March 2023 at the ISS sought to address how one can legitimately resist this regime. A report of this event is forthcoming.

[1] The International Court of Justice affirmed in its 2004 Advisory Opinion that: (1) there is a Palestinian people with a right to self-determination; (2) the West Bank and Gaza, including E. Jerusalem, are occupied territories under international law, and Israel is an occupying power with legal obligations towards all civilians in the territory (i.e. PRINCIPAL obligations are aimed at Israel); (3) Israeli settlements violate international law and Wall is illegally constructed; (4) Conventions of International Humanitarian Law are fully binding on Israel, and must govern all Israeli actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and (5) Israel’s occupation practices (associated regime) violate both international humanitarian law and human rights.

[2] On 3 March 2021, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced it was opening an investigation into the Situation in the State of Palestine. This followed a decision on 5 February 2021 by the Pre-Trial Chamber of the Court that the ICC could exercise its criminal jurisdiction in the Situation, including alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity (which includes the crime of apartheid).

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Jeff Handmaker is Associate Professor of Legal Sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies and, together with Margarethe Wewerinke-Singh at the University of Amsterdam Law School, a member of the Steering Group of the Legal Mobilization Platform

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