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Israel’s Human Righs Record

by Jennifer Loewenstein

On Saturday, 15 December 2001, the United States vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have cleared the way for international monitors in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many believe that such monitors would help end the increasingly bloody low-intensity war Israel is waging against Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, as well as the devastating suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

Among the reasons the US gave for its veto was that the United Nations is not the proper forum for resolving Middle East violence. The US prefers to see itself as the sole arbiter in this conflict despite or perhaps because of its marked pro-Israel bias, all the more evident of late in its backing of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s public condemnation of PA President Yasser Arafat, and in its refusal to challenge Israel’s appropriation of the Bush administration’s language regarding America’s “War on Terror.”

We are expected to accept that Israel’s policies and strategy towards the Palestinians are analogous to US policies and strategy towards al-Qa’eda in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Most people in the Arab and Muslim worlds know that this is a standard example of US hypocrisy and support for unjust regimes. The United States Government is well aware of Israel’s poor human rights record both towards the Palestinians living under its 34-year-old occupation and towards Palestinian citizens of Israel itself.

Our politicians and pundits regularly distort the reality of the situation, however, ignoring or overlooking carefully documented records of Israeli human rights abuses. To highlight this point one need not only quote from the extensive reports of Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. The US State Department has yearly, detailed reports of Israeli human rights abuses available for anyone interested.

The State Department’s “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2000: Occupied Territories” (February 2001) states unequivocally that “Israel’s overall human rights record in the occupied territories [is] poor.” It goes on to report that:

Israeli security forces committed numerous serious human rights abuses during the year…. Since the violence began, [September 2000] Israeli security units often used excessive force against Palestinian demonstrators. Israeli security forces sometimes exceeded their rules of engagement, which provide that live fire is only to be used when the lives of soldiers, police, or civilians are in imminent danger. …Israeli security forces abused Palestinians in detention suspected of security offenses. … There were numerous credible allegations that police beat persons in detention. Three Palestinian prisoners died in Israeli custody under ambiguous circumstances during the year. Prison conditions are poor. Prolonged detention, limits on due process, and infringements on privacy rights remained problems. Israeli security forces sometimes impeded the provision of medical assistance to Palestinian civilians. Israeli security forces destroyed Palestinian-owned agricultural land. Israeli authorities censored Palestinian publications, placed limits on freedom of assembly, and restricted freedom of movement for Palestinians.

Often lauded as the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel nevertheless appears to have difficulty applying its high human rights standards to non-Jews. One might plausibly argue that these standards are, out of necessity, suspended in areas under military occupation were it not for the fact that the Jewish settler population in the territories benefits from the same rights and privileges accorded their counterparts within Israel’s internationally recognized borders.

One might also argue that Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are equal participants in the country’s democratic social institutions were it not for certain serious problems such as the fact that nearly 70,000 Arab Israelis live in legal limbo: the more than 100 villages they live in within Israel are unrecognized by the government. As a result these residents pay taxes to the government but are “not eligible for government services….”

“Consequently, such villages have none of the infrastructure, such as electricity, water, and sewers, provided to recognized communities. The lack of basic services has caused difficulties for the villagers in regard to their education, health care, and employment opportunities. New building in the unrecognized villages is considered illegal and subject to demolition.”

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2000 [CRHP 2000]: Israel, US State Department, February 2001.

(The Israeli government has yet to resolve the legal status of these villages and their inhabitants.)

In addition, the report continues, Palestinian citizens of Israel are continually subjected to discrimination in education, housing, and employment and are underrepresented in most of the professions and in government. Arab land ownership remains problematic owing to policies prohibiting the transfer of land to non-Jews.

In 1996 Arab Israelis challenged a state policy known as the “Master Plan for the Northern Areas of Israel” which “listed as priority goals increasing the Galilee’s Jewish population and blocking the territorial contiguity of Arab villages and towns” on the basis that it discriminated against Palestinian citizens of Israel. The government continues to use this document as the basis for its planning in the Galilee.

This is but a small sample of the abuses listed against Arab Israeli citizens. The report documenting Israeli human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories is still more extensive and not limited to Israeli security forces such as the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). The settler population, whose presence in the territories contravenes international law, serves as a daily provocation to Palestinians living under the occupation. “Israeli settlers harass, attack, and occasionally kill Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza,” the report informs us.

“There were credible reports that settlers injured a number of Palestinians during the ‘al-Aqsa Intifada,’ usually by stoning their vehicles, which at times caused fatal accidents, shooting them, or hitting them with moving vehicles. Human rights groups received several dozen reports during the year that Israeli settlers in the West Bank beat Palestinians and destroyed the property of Palestinians living or farming near Israeli settlements. For example, according to Palestinian eyewitnesses, a group of Israeli settlers beat a 75-year-old Palestinian woman in April (i.e., 5 months before the uprising began). …Settlers also attacked and damaged crops, olive trees, greenhouses, and agricultural equipment, causing extensive economic damage to Palestinian-owned agricultural land. The settlers did not act under government orders in the attacks; however, the Israeli Government did not prosecute the settlers for their acts of violence. In general settlers rarely serve prison sentences if convicted of a crime against a Palestinian. According to human rights organizations, settlers sometimes attacked Palestinian ambulances and impeded the provision of medical services to injured Palestinians.”

– CRHRP-2000: Occupied Territories, US State Department, February 2001.

The US State Department report takes note of the fact that “Settlers convicted in Israeli courts of crimes against Palestinians regularly receive lighter punishment than Palestinians convicted in Israeli courts against either Israelis or Palestinians.” It also notes that Palestinians accused of security offenses (defined so broadly as to include almost everything) in the Occupied Territories are tried in Israeli military courts, whereas Jewish settlers accused of security and other offenses are tried in Israeli civil courts.

That this point is noted in a report on the human rights abuses of another country may interest Americans recently informed that non-US citizens accused of terror-related crimes will now be tried by US military tribunals. A US State Department-issued human rights report on the United States could prove highly instructive.

The litany of abuses conducted by the Israeli government, security forces, and civilians against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories goes on for twenty pages of tiny, single-spaced print. The list includes home demolitions; lengthy and damaging military “closures” on Palestinian cities, towns, and villages; the restriction of freedom of worship and of travel; the arbitrary closing of schools and universities; the state-sponsored destruction of olive and citrus orchards; censorship of Palestinian media; restrictions on freedom of assembly; extradition of Palestinian prisoners to prisons in Israel and the difficulty of obtaining proper legal counsel; it takes note of the IDF killings of hundreds of demonstrators and of the policy of assassinating terror suspects without ever attempting to bring them to trial.

The State Department report on the Occupied Territories details the human rights abuses committed by both the Palestinian and Israeli regimes, but makes clear that the international community considers Israel’s authority in these areas not only abusive but also illegal. In the report on Israel we are reminded that “the international community does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over any part of the Occupied Territories,” and any mildly critical glance at the body of international law dealing with this subject, including the 1949 Geneva Convention relating to the Protection of Civilians in Time of War (to which Israel is a signatory), will reveal the full extent of Israeli legal and human rights violations.

According to government documents on US Foreign Military Assistance, Israel will receive $720,000,000 in economic support (allowing it to free up money for military expenditures), and $2,040,000,000 in foreign military aid for fiscal year 2002. Congress approved this aid package on 24 October 2001, eight months after the US State Department published its latest human rights report on Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Because it is no secret that Israel commits serious human rights abuses (indeed, Senator Russ Feingold [D-WI] called the most recent State Department human rights report on Israel “disturbing” in a letter to me dated 31 October 2001) one has to wonder how it is that this public record is virtually unknown to, or ignored by, our major media and intellectual classes.

Could it be that our reasons for supporting Israel have nothing to do with valuing those who believe in “progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom”? (George W. Bush; 20 September 2001) We may need to redefine what “civilized” means. Or perhaps we should simply urge Attorney General Ashcroft to suppress such information in the future.

Jennifer Loewenstein is a human rights activist and faculty associate in Middle East Studies at at Penn State University.  She can be reached at: amadea311@earthlink.net

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