Middle East Roundtable /
Edition 4 Volume 1
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rights and the conflict
First end the conflict
by Yossi Alpher
If there is no occupation at all, Israelis won't be
violating Palestinian human rights and Palestinian terrorism will
Recognize the nation
by Ghassan Khatib
Israel must recognize Palestinians as a nation and their
An uneasy symbiosis
by Jessica Montell
We learned from Oslo that a peace process that ignores
human rights violations is vulnerable at its core.
an interview with Khalida Jarrar
Security considerations are hindering the implementation of
human rights law.
Military occupation and armed conflict breed human rights violations. So
does non-democratic and corrupt government. Inevitably, the very nature of
occupation, conflict and governmental corruption renders it difficult to
address and rectify the violations.
There are many highly dedicated and skilled individuals and organizations
on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and among concerned third
parties, who seek to remedy these human rights violations and to educate to
prevent them. Obviously, they deserve our support. From a strategic
standpoint - one that deals not directly with human rights but rather with
the entirety of the conflict - the question is: what is the best way to do
this? Where should resources and efforts be concentrated in order to bring
about a truly radical improvement in the human rights situation in the
This question begs another: whose human rights? Through the good works of
Israeli, Palestinian and international organizations and journalists we are
familiar with the state of human rights violations perpetrated by Israelis
against Palestinians: problems of detention, house demolitions, excesses by
Israeli forces at roadblocks and elsewhere, health and education
deprivation, restrictions on freedom of movement, etc. Incidentally, all
Israeli governments have also to one extent or another violated the rights
of Palestinian citizens of Israel, an area that is clearly conflict related.
Then there are the settlers who claim that the government's intention of
dismantling their settlements violates their human rights and constitutes
"transfer". Many Israelis and all Palestinians are not impressed with this
argument, even though the settlers, many of whom acted in good faith in
accepting government incentives to live in the territories, deserve fair
treatment and compensation unless they opt for violence.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are the Israeli civilian victims
of indiscriminate Palestinian suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism.
Obviously, their human rights too were violated. Few Palestinians have
focused on this issue in human rights terms, even though it has been a
moving force in Israeli policy decisions, like building the fence, that in
turn have seriously affected Palestinian human rights. And then there are
the wholesale violations of human rights of Palestinian citizens by their
own government, a reflection of the dismal rights situation throughout the
Arab world, but also, in our case, of the complex social and political
history of modern Palestine. Finally, in the Palestinian context, the
suicide bombings themselves, with their aura of heroism among Palestinian
youth lining up to put on explosive vests, turn the entire issue on its
head: what is the relevance of human rights when members of one camp glorify
their own suicides among a crowd of! civilians from the other?
Obviously, the optimal approach to human rights in this conflict is a
comprehensive one that seeks to deal with all the violated rights of all
concerned on both sides. Essentially, the human rights advocates argue that
ways must be found for Israelis and Palestinians to wage a cleaner war, one
that deprives fewer non-combatants of their basic human rights. A lot of
human and financial resources are devoted toward this end, with considerable
But is this the best allocation of these resources? A number of active
participants in the international aid effort to provide basic Palestinian
needs in terms of nourishment, medication and education under harsh
conditions of combat and occupation argue that in so doing they are filling
a function that international law actually demands of Israel; hence they are
merely prolonging the Israeli occupation. Cease the international donor
effort, they propose: in the short term many Palestinians will suffer more;
but Israel, when confronted with international pressure to feed hundreds of
thousands of Palestinians on its own, will end the occupation that much
This is a problematic proposition. A boycott by the international aid
community might just as easily oblige Israel, with its overriding security
concerns, to renew full occupation in areas "A" that it has hitherto
generally entered only fleetingly. This will hardly enhance Palestinians'
human rights. But the intellectual exercise of considering this option does
highlight the centrality of the conflict in the human rights equation.
Indeed, it brings us full circle, back to the broad strategic level. Is
it not conceivable that, given the option of deploying diplomatic and other
resources in one direction or another, the appropriate approach would be to
devote resources toward ending the occupation and the conflict rather than
toward mitigating human rights violations under conditions of conflict? If
there is no occupation at all, Israelis won't be violating Palestinian human
rights and Palestinian terrorism against Israelis will at least decrease, if
This formulation may sound simplistic, but it is an important statement
of priorities for this writer and like-minded people. It means that even a
comprehensive unilateral withdrawal that falls short of peace constitutes a
huge step toward improving human rights on both sides. - Published
2/8/2004 (c) bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and
bitterlemons-international.org. He is a former director of the Jaffee Center
for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to
PM Ehud Barak.
Human rights were always one of the main battlegrounds in the
ongoing struggle between the Palestinian people and the Israeli occupation.
Firstly, this is because throughout the occupation there have always been
consistent and systematic violations of Palestinian human rights. Secondly,
Palestinians have used these violations to attract sympathy on the
international level and in order to convince the international community
that Israel's military occupation is not only illegal but belligerent.
There are different levels of dealing with the issue of human rights from
a Palestinian perspective. The first and most obvious is the use of the
criteria of the relevant international laws, specifically the Geneva
Conventions which deal, among other things, with the legal regulation of
relations between occupied and occupier.
Israel has systematically been violating these international humanitarian
laws. Most egregiously, it has confiscated land from the occupied people and
settled its own citizens in occupied territory. From there follows a long
list of other violations including, but not restricted to, the deportation
of Palestinians to outside the occupied territories, the demolition of
houses, the assassination of individuals and restrictions imposed on
There is, however, another level of human rights violations that might be
more harmful though less obvious. This is the systematic humiliation that is
inflicted upon individuals in most aspects of their daily lives, a treatment
that affects the dignity of individuals, families, institutions and the
nation at large. Such humiliation is particularly evident at checkpoints,
crossing points and other routine points of contact between Israeli
occupiers and Palestinian individuals, but is also clear in the way Israel
deals with Palestinian needs on a macro level, such as the treatment of the
Palestinian Authority, the siege imposed on the elected president of the
Palestinian people, the unnecessary delays imposed on imports and exports,
the restrictions on and difficulties with the supply of water to populated
areas and so on.
The significance of this second level of human rights violation - the
ubiquitous humiliation and the assault on people's dignity - is that it has
the effect of deepening the hatred and hostility and increasing the desire
for revenge and the atmosphere of violence. Consequently, this level only
serves to accelerate and widen the ongoing vicious circle of violence.
Above all these considerations, however, probably the most damaging
violation of Palestinian human rights is the Israeli denial of the
Palestinian people as a nation with a right to self-determination and the
consequent Israeli refusal to deal with the Palestinians as a people with
the same rights that any other people deserves and would enjoy. The
continuity of this denial will ensure the continuity of the conflict. And
vice-versa: an Israeli recognition of the Palestinian people as a nation
with a right to self determination and statehood in accordance with
international legality and on the borders of 1967 will lead to an end to the
other violations of Palestinian human rights, and thus the gradual end to
hostilities and the building of normal relations. - Published 2/8/2004
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and
bitterlemons-international.org. He is the Palestinian Authority minister of
labor and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
The relationship between human rights and conflict is a complex,
multidimensional one. With the conflagration of the conflict in the fall of
2000, human rights violations increased dramatically in scale and intensity.
In the past three years and ten months, over 3,800 people have been killed,
tens of thousands have been wounded, thousands of houses have been
destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of people have been placed under siege.
The conflict has wrought poverty, humiliation, hostility, and polarization.
Though human rights are also violated in societies at peace, such violations
are endemic to a conflict like our own.
Yet human rights violations are not merely a result of the conflict, they
are also a cause. It is impossible to adequately explain the collapse of the
Oslo process and the explosion of violence in September 2000 without
mentioning the expansion of settlements, the daily humiliation of
Palestinians by Israeli forces, and the targeting of Israeli civilians by
Palestinian suicide bombers. Though these phenomena are generally seen
through a political lens, they are all also human rights violations.
It is rare to see the statistic I have cited above: over 3,800 people
killed as a direct result of this conflict since September 2000. Most
casualty statistics perpetuate a zero-sum mentality that compares
Palestinian and Israeli deaths. This macabre accounting of how many have
been killed on "my" side versus "your" side stands in stark contrast to the
most basic tenet of human rights: the idea that every human being has equal
rights, and that the life of a Palestinian child, for example, is of equal
worth to the life of an Israeli child.
Recognition of the universality of human rights, however, does not
obscure the fundamental asymmetry of this conflict. Israel maintains a
military occupation over some 3.6 million Palestinians with an
apartheid-like separation of Jews and Palestinians, whereby one's rights,
benefits and access to resources are determined by one's national identity.
This is not to say that Israelis are not victims of human rights violations
as well. Indeed, the targeted attacks on Israeli civilians are almost
universally recognized as war crimes. However, Israeli organizations like
B'Tselem focus on the actions of their own government, and their government
systematically violates Palestinian rights, while devoting enormous
resources to protect Israelis. Thus Israeli organizations are in the unique
position of defending the human rights of "the other" or even the enemy in
It is clear that we will never enjoy full human rights in a situation of
occupation and conflict, and therefore resolution of the conflict is
essential to protecting human rights. This does not mean that there is an
easy symbiosis between human rights and conflict resolution. In fact, human
rights violations are as frequently justified in the name of conflict
resolution as they are by the conflict itself. Governments on the left and
the right have persecuted the "opponents of peace," placing detractors in
administrative detention, torturing them and deporting them. One of the
primary roles of the human rights community is to state unequivocally that
the ends cannot justify the means. Not even the lofty goal of resolving this
conflict and bringing peace to Israelis and Palestinians can justify
violation of fundamental human rights.
Human rights organizations must be actively involved in resolving this
conflict. Though we do not take a position on political issues, any
diplomatic solution must also accord with all sides' legal obligations.
There is a utilitarian reason to include human rights in conflict
resolution: we learned from the Oslo process that a peace process that
ignores human rights violations is vulnerable at its core, perhaps even
doomed to failure. Yet human rights are also a moral imperative regardless
of their utilitarian merits.
It is therefore a mistake for diplomatic initiatives like the roadmap to
treat a settlement freeze, an end to house demolitions or lifting the siege
on Palestinian communities solely as confidence-building measures. These are
legal obligations that Israel must uphold regardless of any progress in
The same is true of the separation barrier, Palestinian refugees, Israeli
settlements and the future status of Jerusalem - all these must be
understood not only as political issues, but also as issues implicating
legal obligations that must be respected. Just as human rights violations
are a cause of conflict, no conflict can be successfully resolved without
taking human rights and international humanitarian law into account.-
Published 2/8/2004 (c) bitterlemons.org
Jessica Montell is executive director of B'Tselem: the Israeli
Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
bitterlemons: Would you say that there is a greater and greater
disconnect between international law and the implementation of such law on
the ground, most recently with regard to the wall?
Jarrar: The Israeli occupation has always brought with it a
violation of human rights if we look at the standard that should be but is
not implemented: international law and international humanitarian law. You
can give many examples of this, and one recent example is the wall. Israel
has said it will not implement or take notice of the Hague decision or the
United Nations General Assembly recommendation.
We feel, and this is always a worry to us as human rights activists, that
politics interferes with the implementation of human rights and those who
have the power can implement or not implement international law as they see
fit. In addition, what we notice now is that some powerful countries like
the United States want to make changes to international law.
bitterlemons: What can human rights groups like your own do about
that, if the powerful are intent on having their way?
Jarrar: Of course we understand that the struggle for human rights
is a long struggle. Human rights activists mainly try to lobby and influence
international public opinion. International law came about after World War I
and II as a result of people's reaction to the mass violations of human
rights these wars embodied. So this is the main way human rights activists
can be effective, and we hope that through such methods we can affect
changes in international public opinion. And we are somehow optimistic,
because we notice that there are changes in international opinion.
bitterlemons: How would you characterize the trend in human rights
in the past four years, both internally and vis-a-vis the occupation?
Jarrar: Violations of human rights as a result of the occupation
have reached unprecedented levels. We are now talking about mass collective
punishments, including the checkpoints that restrict the right of movement
and the rights of people to access their places of work or their land, as
well as restrictions on the access to water. These measures have affected
the lives of all Palestinians. In addition there are the assassinations, the
demolition of houses, the continued settlement building and lately, and
another thing that has affected the lives of all Palestinians, the building
of the wall. All of this is prohibited by international law. What we see is
that all these violations have continued and increased.
In addition, we notice that within the so-called peace process, the
security issue has become the overriding issue, and an issue at odds with
the human rights issue, which makes us worry about the prevalent view about
how to deal with the situation.
Within Palestinian society there are also violations. We monitor the
violations of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), which is why as an
organization when we talk about violations we also take into consideration
violations of the Authority. Before the Intifada there were mass arrests and
torture. Now there is no rule of law and without the rule of law nothing can
be implemented. There is a lot of discussion and lobbying within the
Palestinian community at the moment about elections, because we believe that
holding elections is one of the important mechanisms to make changes within
Palestinian society and to ensure accountability. But we also notice that
both internally and internationally there is no pressure to ensure this
process, while for other issues, like security, there is a lot of pressure.
bitterlemons: Your organization deals with prisoners' rights. What
is the current status of prisoners' rights?
Jarrar: There is constant violation of conventions regarding
prisoners. I will not talk politically here; I will talk only about the
rights of prisoners according to minimum international standards. There are
numerous Israeli violations of these standards, including the provision of
adequate healthcare, the number of prisoners per cell, the standard of food,
and so on. Even though the Israel High Court in 1999 ruled that the use of
torture should be stopped, we see that torture continues being used.
Prisoners are held in isolation for long stretches and lawyers are not
allowed access, which is a grievous violation. Israeli organizations
monitoring prisoner rights abuses last May issued a report detailing
violations not only of international standards but also Israeli standards,
and this is why there is now a case before the Israeli high court, and there
is discussion in the Israeli Knesset. Yesterday a Knesset committee went to
one prison to talk to prisoners. This co! mes after much pressure from
within Israel over the violation of prisoners' rights.
We will continue our monitoring work and submit our reports to the UN and
other international bodies in coordination with international human rights
groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as
other Palestinian human rights groups, to lobby against these violations and
improve the situation inside prisons.- Published 2/8/2004 (c)
Khalida Jarrar is the director of the Addameer Prisoners' Support and
Human Rights Association.
aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and
open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present
their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and
Yossi Alpher can be reached at