Israel/Occupied Territories: Human Rights Concerns for the 61st Session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights
Every year the Commission on Human Rights adopts several resolutions condemning Israel for abuses against Palestinians. As outlined below, Israel continues to commit serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law which deserve condemnation, notably the dire humanitarian impact of the wall and other forms of closure that amount to collective punishment. However, the Commission traditionally neglects or downplays abuses by Palestinian armed groups. That selectivity should end. The Commission should condemn Palestinian armed groups for their deliberate and indiscriminant attacks on civilians and call on the newly elected Palestinian Authority to undertake all efforts consistent with international human rights standards to curb these attacks
Parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continue to ignore basic standards of human rights law and the laws of war. The current intifada, now in its fifth year, has resulted in the killing of more than 4,200 people and injured tens of thousands of people. The overwhelming majority of casualties were civilians. More than three-quarters of the dead were Palestinian.
The intensity of violence by Israeli security forces and Palestinian armed groups involving harm to civilians varied with political developments. Other Israeli violations such as house demolitions, restrictions on freedom of movement amounting to collective punishment, and illegal settlement expansion continued at a high level.
Impunity of Israeli Security Forces. Israel has failed to investigate numerous cases of suspicious killings of unarmed Palestinian civilians by its security forces. The investigative procedures of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are not independent, impartial, thorough, or timely, as required by international human rights law. They rarely bring wrongdoers to justice, and have had little deterrent effect. Investigators rarely consult Palestinian witnesses, and when investigations do occur, deaths and injuries to Palestinians are treated less seriously than other infractions or violations, and differently from cases where those harmed by the IDF are Jewish Israelis.
The Wall. In July 2004 the International Court of Justice found that the construction of the wall in the Occupied Territories, as opposed to along the 1967 “Green line,” is contrary to international law. Nonetheless, construction of the wall continues and half of the route is built or under construction. The route as released by the Ministry of Defense on February 20, 2005, is 670 km long, more than twice the length of the Green Line. This revised wall route, including the expanded boundaries of East Jerusalem, incorporates approximately 10% of West Bank land where it deviates from the Green Line. The area trapped between the wall and the Green Line (the “Seam Zone”) is in essence a closed military area. Currently the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs projects that 49,416 Palestinians and 170,123 Israeli settlers will be located in this area. If East Jerusalem is included, the numbers for both Palestinians and Israelis increases significantly. Many additional Palestinians are affected when their land is incorporated into the Seam Zone but they reside east of the wall. Israeli settlers or any person of Jewish descent from anywhere in the world can move freely in and out and around the Seam Zone, while Palestinians living or working between the wall and the Green Line must apply for permits to continue living in their homes or to access their means of livelihood.
The wall has aggravated already crippling restrictions on freedom of movement, and imperils essential access to education, work, water, and family life. The barrier’s route reinforces the pernicious human rights consequences of Israel’s illegal settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It threatens to deprive Palestinians further of their land and livelihoods.
The wall clearly has the potential to constitute a permanent change to occupied territory – forbidden by customary international law (1907 Hague Regulations on Land Warfare, Art. 55).
Disengagement. The Israeli government has approved the initial stages of the disengagement plan for removing settlers from the Gaza Strip and four small northern West Bank settlements. Human Rights Watch welcomes steps that will reduce the extent to which Palestinians are subject to day-to-day contact with Israeli troops that are often abusive. However, as currently discussed, Israel’s “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip would not end its occupation of the area in legal terms because of major ongoing restrictions. Although responsibility for security within the Gaza Strip would be handed over to the Palestinian Authority’s forces, Israel would maintain control over: Gaza’s borders, airspace and sea space; all entry and exit points in Gaza; and electricity, water and sewage. These restrictions would greatly impede Palestinians’ efforts to build an economy capable of autonomously satisfying the basic humanitarian needs of the residents of Gaza. Until those restrictions are lifted, Israel will retain its responsibilities under international humanitarian law as an occupying power to provide for the humanitarian welfare of the Palestinian people. Insofar as restrictions are imposed on Palestinian police capacity, Israel may also retain responsibility for the protection of civilians in Gaza.
The disengagement of the Gaza and four northern West Bank settlements, moreover, has not been linked to a broader withdrawal of all settlements located in the Occupied Territories, including in and around East Jerusalem, that have been built in contravention of the International Humanitarian Law prohibitions against transfer of civilian populations and making permanent changes that do not benefit protected persons.
Unlawful Home Demolitions. Israel’s current disengagement plan contemplates continued demolitions of hundreds or perhaps thousands more homes to widen further the “buffer zone” along the Philadelphi corridor running along the Rafah border with Egypt. Since 2000, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has illegally destroyed hundreds of homes to expand the buffer zone south of Rafah, which is now up to 300 meters wide. Sixteen thousand people, more than 10 percent of Rafah’s population, have lost their homes. The majority of these houses were destroyed in violation of international humanitarian law because the destruction was done without clear military necessity. In 2003, the IDF completed construction of an eight-meter-high metal wall in the already cleared zone to protect its troops, and IDF soldiers patrol the border behind this wall. Despite this extra protection, the rate of home demolitions in Rafah tripled in 2003 in comparison with the previous two years.
Human Rights Watch’s detailed investigation of the Rafah border zone, published as a 133-page report in October 2004, found that the IDF has apparently failed to explore well-established methods to detect and destroy tunnels—like seismic sensors, electromagnetic induction and ground-penetrating radar—that have been used effectively on the Mexican-U.S. border and the Korean demilitarized zone. The use of those methods would have allowed destruction of smuggling tunnels without the massive destruction of Palestinian homes.
In a welcomed development, Israel announced in February 2005 that it will end punitive house demolitions (destroying the houses of the families of Palestinian suicide bombers or those deemed to be “ticking bombs”). The announcement made no mention of reparations or compensation for the over 4000 people affected in the last four years by the illegal punitive demolition of 475 homes. The decision to end these punitive home demolitions was made by an internal IDF committee which found that they had not served as an effective deterrent; the decision did not address the fact that this policy is prohibited under international humanitarian law regardless of whether or not it serves a deterrent purpose. The statement also made no mention of less targeted home demolitions, such as those carried out in Rafah.
Need for Addressing Human Rights in Peace Negotiations. Human Rights Watch is concerned about the absence of human rights norms and a dedicated human rights monitoring mechanism in any peace negotiation framework. The “Quartet” roadmap, which was adopted in UN Security Council Resolution 1515 (2003), and the unofficial Geneva Accords which were published in 2003, did not reference human rights standards or monitoring mechanisms. The ceasefire agreement reached in Sharm al-Sheikh in February 2005 was also devoid of human rights content.
Killings by Palestinian Armed Groups. Although the number of attacks declined over the past year, armed Palestinian groups continue to target Israeli civilians through suicide bombings, carrying out eight such attacks inside Israel in 2004 and early 2005. In one attack, in early November, a 16-year-old boy sent by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine killed three Israeli civilians in Tel Aviv. Palestinian armed groups also carried out attacks that cause indiscriminate harm to civilians, such as firing Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip into towns in Israel. Armed Palestinian groups also continued to execute Palestinians summarily for allegedly collaborating with Israeli authorities. In early August, gunmen associated with Hamas’ military wing entered a Palestinian hospital in Gaza City and killed two men who had earlier been wounded in an attack on a jail where they were in custody.
There have been no trials of by the Palestinian Authority of persons suspected of responsibility for such attacks, but under President Abbas, it has strongly opposed attacks on civilians and replaced security officials in the wake of attacks. Palestinian Authority security forces reportedly arrested Islamic Jihad suspects in Tulkarm following a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv in late February 2005 that killed five Israeli civilians.
Commission members, bearing in mind the parties’ obligations as High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions, should:
- Condemn systematic violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by Palestinian armed groups as well as Israel.
- Call on Israel to investigate and hold accountable security forces suspected of unlawful killings of civilians.
- Call on the Palestinian Authority to investigate and hold accountable security forces under its control or armed groups under its jurisdiction who are responsible for carrying out attacks targeting or causing indiscriminate harm to civilians, or perpetrating extrajudicial executions.
- Condemn the harmful impact of the separation barrier’s route on Palestinian rights of access to work, family life, water, education, health, and freedom of movement. Express concern about the barrier’s potential violation of Article 55 of the 1907 Hague Regulations, which prohibits making permanent changes to occupied territory that do not benefit the protected population.
- Urge Israel to end all settlement activity on lands occupied in 1967 as a violation of customary international law, Article 49 (6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and human rights law.
- Call on Israel to cease all house demolitions that do not meet the criteria of absolute military necessity, and to provide full reparations and compensation to owners of unlawfully demolished homes.
- Call for the inclusion of human rights norms and a dedicated human rights monitoring mechanism in all peace negotiation frameworks.