|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
As Bold Changes Sweep Middle East, Secretary-General Calls for Release
of Palestinian Political Prisoners, as UN Meeting Opens in Vienna
Committee Chair Says Israeli Military Laws Criminalize Political
Self-Expression, Paint Everything with Broad Brush of Security Offences
(Received from a UN Information Officer.)
VIENNA, 7 March — United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a message delivered this morning by the Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Maxwell Gaylard, said that urgently addressing the plight of Palestinian political prisoners was “very important” to reaching a just and lasting peace, and that he had publicly urged the release of prisoners — numbered in the tens of thousands — last year during a visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel.
The detainees’ release would significantly boost confidence, the Secretary-General’s representative told the opening of the United Nations Meeting designed to raise awareness of the political prisoners’ plight and explore core components for a solution. He pledged at the gathering of nearly 100 representatives of Governments and Parliaments, intergovernmental organizations, lawyers, civil society and United Nations agencies that the Organization would continue to raise the issue with the Israeli leadership.
In the end, however, it was Israel’s responsibility, as an occupying Power, to comply fully with its legal obligations, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, he stressed. Also of concern was the detention of elected Palestinian officials and the more vulnerable among the detainees, such as the approximately 200 minors and 200 individuals held in administrative detention without trial.
The United Nations, he said, opposed measures of forcible transfer and remained engaged on the issue, which had broader implications for the human rights of Palestinian East Jerusalemites. At the same time, he reiterated United Nations calls for humanitarian access to Israeli Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit and for his release.
Settlements were among the main impediments; they were illegal and contrary to the Road Map, and it remained Israel’s obligation to “freeze settlement activity”, he said. Meanwhile, progress was being made by the Palestinian Authority in institution-building and the delivery of public services, and Israelis should be comforted by the emergence of a real partner and neighbour committed to Israel’s right to live in peace and security, opposed to violence and terrorism.
The Chairperson of the Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, Abdou Salam Diallo, said the Meeting was the first such gathering organized by the Committee that was devoted exclusively to the sensitive, crucially important and highly emotional issue of Palestinian political prisoners. However, the matter had always been central to the Committee’s concerns.
The Committee’s first-ever report to the Security Council, in 1975, he recalled, recommended that Israel, pending its withdrawal from the areas occupied in June 1967, should release all Palestinian prisoners. That recommendation remained the “burning question of our time”, and the Palestinian leadership accorded the same importance to that painful matter as to the permanent-status issues.
An estimated 700,000 Palestinians had been arrested by Israel since the beginning of the occupation in 1967, and an estimated 7,000 remained incarcerated today, outside the Occupied Territory, in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, he said.
The Palestinians in the Occupied Territory were living in fear, he said, under arbitrary Israeli military laws that fell far short of minimum international legal standards, criminalizing legitimate protest and political self-expression, painting everything with the broad brush of “security offences”, which had not been clearly defined.
A system of military orders allowed Israeli soldiers to arrest Palestinians without giving justification, he said. Palestinians tried in military courts were often convicted on “secret evidence”, based on confessions extracted under duress or torture, denied access to lawyers, with children tried as adults, in contravention of international law. Many did not even get a trial. They suffered in detention, sometimes for years, not charged with any specific offence.
Prisoners were huddled in overcrowded, unsanitary facilities, he continued, denied access to health services, abused and beaten by the guards, subjected to solitary confinement, with family visits severely restricted. He joined the international community’s calls for Israel to abide by international humanitarian law and halt such grievous practices. The “war on terror” did not excuse gross violations of prisoners’ rights. Neither did the occupation justify attacks against Israeli civilians, which the Committee unequivocally condemned.
Speaking on behalf of Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, Issa Qaraqe, the Authority’s Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs, said he wished to “transfer the file” of the prisoners to today’s Meeting to raise awareness about the situation. The prisoners’ families looked to the conference as a ray of hope and a serious step towards ending the brutal treatment of their family members and towards their release from the “prisons of occupation”.
He said the organization of the conference was pinned on a question central to the permanent-status issues; it was not merely a humanitarian issue, but a basic element of a just peace in the region and a step towards ending the conflict. The Meeting should highlight the miserable conditions of Palestinian detainees and prisoners, and the crimes perpetuated against them by the Israeli occupation authorities.
Palestinian prisoners were prisoners of war, an issue which preoccupied the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, it was a key element of a permanent solution with Israel. He reaffirmed that the end of conflict and realization of peace “will not take place without the settlement of all these matters, including the question of Palestinian prisoners and detainees through their full release from prisons before and during the independence of our State”.
Agreeing that the plight of the prisoners must be placed in the more general context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and peace process, Ann Clwyd, President, Committee on Middle East Questions, Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), said the Union was well placed to contribute to a resolution of the conflict and, in 1987, it had set up the Committee to promote direct contacts between Arab and Israeli parliamentarians and to further parliamentary action in support of peace.
The IPU President had reiterated time and again that continued conflict would get the parties nowhere, she said. The organization tried to bring that message forward in the Committee on Middle East Questions and it was trying to get a process under way for parliamentary dialogue. Meanwhile, the IPU Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians was very actively examining individual human rights cases of members of the Palestinian Legislative Council who were in jail.
Through those cases, the Union had become very much aware of the situation, she continued. Parliamentarians, like other Palestinians, faced the “utter arbitrariness” and contempt of the Israeli authorities for international humanitarian and human rights law obligations. Hopefully, the Vienna Meeting would explore more effective means of ensuring Israeli respect for the human rights of Palestinians, particularly political prisoners languishing in Israeli jails.
The Secretary-General of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean, Sergio Piazzi, said that while the issue of the prisoners was not always highlighted as a key component of the peace process, the Assembly had fully embraced it two years ago as a top item on its agenda at the request of the President of the Lebanese Parliament. Since then, the Assembly had used every opportunity to request the Israeli authorities to be able to visit the prisoners and ensure their proper treatment.
Currently there were some 6,000 Palestinians in detention for political reasons, mainly members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and each had a story to tell, he said. The common narrative thread concerned the fight against occupation and the increase in the number of arrests and detentions with each uprising. Then too, were the human stories of despair, ill treatment and torture, widely documented by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Israel must comply with its international legal responsibilities, he declared, and must fully respect human rights principles, particularly those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Indeed, it was impossible to talk about the prisoner issue without recalling the Fourth Geneva Convention. The right to a fair and public trial was fundamental in a State governed by the rule of law and essential to respecting the detained person. Torture and degradation must be strictly prohibited. The Assembly was strengthening its regional platform on the issue and it would call again for a delegation to visit the Palestinian political prisoners in Israel.
A keynote address by Mr. Qaraqe, Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs, began with a short video clip depicting a scene of a 12 year-old boy seized by Israel Defense Force soldiers from a residential street in front of his family.
The twenty-first century, said Mr. Qaraqe, should be the age of justice, democracy, human rights and rule a law — a time when oppressed peoples rose up against dictatorships and repressive police systems in an effort to live in dignity and freedom without fear, without imprisonment, persecution and terror. Instead, however, a wave of religious and racist trends, and a “call to kill” were growing in Israel. That was evident in newspaper reports calling for the establishment of “extermination camps” for Palestinians; there were many other extremist and provocative statements as well. Even past Israeli leaders had said of Palestinian prisoners — “let them rot in jail; let them die”.
In today’s extremist culture prevailing in Israeli society, soldiers and female recruits took pleasure in the prisoners’ plight, he said. There were pictures of prisoners, handcuffed and blindfolded, in the detention camps, treasured as a kind of “animal trophy”. Israel was becoming a Spartan State, a military State and an intelligence State. Aggression and extremism were spreading throughout its society; claims about their arms and army as being the “most ethical” should be debunked. Peace and the teaching of human rights were “totally absent” in Israeli school curriculums.
It was as if the prisoners were not human, he continued. There were testimonies of torture, beatings with pipes and rifle butts, the use of wild dogs and electric shock, stripping, drinking urine, threatening rape and tightening shackles. A book by an Israeli author entitled Breaking the Silence should be read by everyone in the room, he declared, as it related the conduct of Israeli soldiers towards Palestinian people and prisoners, and described the Israeli army as a “brute”.
He urged the conference to ask the Israeli State and army why it executed prisoners after it arrested and handcuffed them, why it had fired on prisoners who had carried a white flag during the Gaza War and why it had used civilian human shields during those operations, as highlighted in the Goldstone Report. The Israeli State was not satisfied with the arrest of the living, but also retained the corpses of Palestinians within secret military cemeteries, sometimes for as long as 30 years.
The silence and lack of serious intervention by the international community was alarming in light of the ongoing policy of torture against prisoners, young and old, and their deprivation of legal representation, he said, urging that such silence be broken. The United Nations General Assembly should seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legal status of the prisoners, as prisoners of war, struggling against an occupation and for the right to self-determination. Only then, when they were defined as prisoners of war, would laws be applied to protect them and ensure their rights as they endured the long struggle to overthrow the yoke of occupation.
In the ensuing discussion, a representative of the League of Arab States discussed the spike in the number of Palestinian prisoners, which was now at 6,000 in some 25 prisons and detention and arrest facilities. They were subjected to deplorable conditions. Women delivered babies there and minor children were subjected to the unthinkable. The situation described this morning amounted to “silent murder”, perpetrated in a systematic fashion, which sapped the dignity of the prisoners, destroyed their morale and denied their basic human rights. He added his condemnation of the lack of medical assistance, denial of family visits and legal counsel, assassinations and trafficking in organs.
Iran’s representative deplored what he described as the “inaction and silence” of the international community and its ignorance to Palestinian people’s human rights. The Israeli regime continued to violate internationally recognized norms and principles through crimes such as massacres of innocent Palestinians, including women and children; planned assassinations; illegal settlements; destruction of houses and infrastructure; and construction of the “apartheid wall”. The occupying regime was committing such brutal crimes before “the eyes of the world’s people”; one could only imagine the suffering of innocent Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons.
The United Nations International Meeting on the Question of Palestine will meet again at 3 p.m. today in plenary to consider the current situation and condition of imprisonment of Palestinians in Israeli prisons and detention facilities.
* *** *For information media • not an official record