|Human Rights in Israel/Palestine
September 29, 2003
Jon Elmer, FromOccupiedPalestine.org:
Three Jewish settlers from the West Bank settlement of Bat Ayin were convicted
on [17 September] of plotting to bomb a Palestinian girls school in the
East Jerusalem neighbourhood of At-Tur, as well as a hospital. Judges said
that scores of school children would have been slaughtered if the attack
had not been foiled. Back in April a group calling itself Revenge of the
Infants hurled grenades into a high school in Jenin, injuring 29. Can you
discuss the threat of Jewish settler terrorism?
Jessica Montell, B’Tselem
– Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories:
Over the past three years we have seen an increase in violence against
both Israelis and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. It seems that
as part of this intifada, people on both sides are taking the law into
their own hands and committing acts of violence against the other community.
a human rights perspective, we are more concerned with the response of
the Israeli authorities, and the responsibility of Israel to enforce the
law and to punish people who violate the law. The Israeli authorities are,
on the whole, much more lenient toward Jews who break the law – including
acts of violence – than they are toward Palestinians.
The intensive investigations, arrests, interrogations, and prosecutions
in the case [of the settlers from Bat Ayin], stand in stark contrast to
what we see as very lax law enforcement against the routine violence by
settlers toward Palestinians.
issued three reports in this intifada, and several before that, about the
lax law enforcement [toward settlers]. The findings are that in contrast
to incidents of violence by Palestinians, where law enforcement is extremely
severe – to the point of collective punishment and violations of the human
rights of innocent Palestinians – in the case of violence by settlers,
the Israeli authorities tend to be overly forgiving. They turn a blind
eye, and do not take enough measures to protect Palestinians and their
Elmer: In BTselems
report Land Grab (2002), you conclude: “Israel has created in the Occupied
Territories a regime of separation based on discrimination, applying two
separate systems of law in the same area and basing the rights of individuals
on their nationality. This regime is the only one of its kind in the world.”
Is that not a textbook definition of apartheid?
Montell: Apartheid has symbolic
value because of the South African context. You can draw plenty of similarities,
and you can also see lots of differences between apartheid South Africa
and Israels occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I think the word
apartheid is useful for mobilizing people because of its emotional power.
In some cases, the situation in the West Bank is worse than apartheid in
South Africa. For example, the roads network in the West Bank,
where Jews are allowed to travel on roads that Palestinians are not allowed
to travel on, or the separation fence, which Palestinians call the Apartheid
was recently at a conference with John Dugard, who is now the Special Rapporteur
of the UN Commission on Human Rights for the Occupations Palestinian Territories,
and is originally from South Africa. He was (jokingly)
offended that apartheid was being maligned [by its comparison the Israeli
occupation]. In South Africa you didnt have apartheid on the roads,
you didnt have walls being constructed?
however, clear similarities between apartheid South Africa and Israels
policies in the West Bank, and over the past three years they have become
even clearer as the separation has intensified. Every
area of life – legal rights, benefits, privileges, allocation of resources,
the justice system, criminal prosecution – now has two separate tracks,
one for Israelis and one for Palestinians.
Elmer: Current figures estimate
that over 6,000 Palestinians are now in prison, roughly a quarter of whom
are in “administrative detention” without charge or trial. Can you discuss
Israels policy of illegal detention and the violations of human rights
Montell: Our figures are
4,000 or 5,000 people in prison, and about 700 people in administrative
detention. Administrative detention has been used by Israel since the
beginning of the occupation in 1967, and even earlier. It is a remnant
of defence regulations in the British Mandate period, when even Jews, such
as Menachem Begin and others in the Jewish movement, were put in administrative
detention by the British.
Beginning with the first intifada in 1987, Israel used administrative detention
on a massive scale, with up to 5,000 people in detention – without trial,
and with no allegations against the person that they have committed an
offence. It is supposed to be used as a preventative detention; if they
know that you are about to commit a crime, they put you in detention to
in order to prevent that crime.
Obviously, this is hugely problematic: on what basis do I know you are
about to endanger security? Also, given that all the information against
you is secret, there is no meaningful way that the detainees can appeal
their detention. People are detained for a six-month period, and the period
can be extended indefinitely. So we have had people
in detention for five years with no charge, no trial.
Elmer: In North America the
term human shield is generally used pejoratively to discredit international
solidarity activists whose passports allow them a certain protection and
level of humanity that the Palestinians are clearly denied by Israeli soldiers.
But the term means something far more shocking in the Israeli armys lexicon.
Here is one soldiers testimony: “Before searching a house, we go to a
neighbour, take him out of his house, and tell him to call for the person
we want. If it works, great. If not, we blow down the door or hammer it
open. The neighbour goes in first. If someone is planning something, he
is one who gets it.” (Operation Defensive Shield: Soldiers’ Testimonies,
Palestinian Testimonies, BTselem journal, p. 10) Can you discuss the IDFs
use of the so-called “neighbor procedure” and the use of Palestinians as
Montell: Beginning with Operation
Defensive Shield we got testimonies from Palestinians that we initially
thought were not credible, given that they were so shocking: physically
using people as shields, forcing them to walk in front of soldiers, even
resting a rifle on their shoulder, hiding behind them when going into houses?
Together with six other human rights organizations, we petitioned the High
Court of Justice. As a result of this appeal the State said that [the IDF]
would cease using human shields, with the exception of what they call the
“neighbor procedure,” which they refuse to give up, and remains before
the High Court.
The “neighbor procedure” is when a Palestinian is recruited to do various
sorts of missions for the army, such as to go knock on the door of a neighbour
and say that the army is here and if you dont come out they are going
to shoot at you, or blow up your house. What the army claims is that Palestinians
volunteer for these missions perhaps if its a family member, to prevent
the house from being demolished. It is clear that if a Palestinian volunteers
to get their son out of the house before it is demolished, they are free
to do that. That is different than, in many cases, what the soldiers testimonies
Despite [the militarys] declarations before the High Court that this is
only done on a volunteer basis, we continue to take
testimonies from Palestinians, even after the decision of the High Court,
of people being used in the original definition of human shield as a
shield to protect [soldiers] from gunfire, as well as in the neighbour
Elmer: Another concern about
Israels blatant violations of civilian protections that BTselem has addressed
is the use of live ammunition to enforce curfew. In one four-month period
you cite at least 15 Palestinians killed by live ammunition used to enforce
curfew: 12 of those 15 were children, and the eldest, 60 (Lethal Curfew:
The Use of Live Ammunition to Enforce Curfew, October 2002). Can you comment
Montell: We have not been
able to receive official confirmation from [the IDF] that the use of live
ammunition to enforce curfew is in fact the rules engagement being given
to soldiers. All we know are the consequences. This connects to two problems
we have identified in general about the rules of engagement. Number one,
it does not appear that soldiers are being given written rules of engagement,
[such as] open-fire regulations.
This is in contrast to the first intifada and during the Oslo years when
soldiers carried around a little booklet that said when they were allowed
to use rubber bullets, when they were allowed to use live ammunition, the
rules for apprehending a suspect, the rules of stopping someone at a checkpoint
all of these things were very regularized.
we have taken from testimonies from soldiers is that all of these regulations
apparently are conveyed to soldiers orally from Commanders who have themselves
received their orders orally so what you have is a broken telephone.
It is not clear that what the higher-up levels of the army and the Judge
Advocate General have determined to be the rules of engagement are in fact
what is being carried out in the field.
[The second problem] has to do with accountability. Contrary to the situation
prior to this intifada when the Judge Advocate General opened a military
police investigation into every case of a Palestinian killed by the IDF,
today that is not the case, and the vast majority
of Palestinians killed go uninvestigated.So what that means
is that there is no learning a lesson from previous tragedies.
Now this is aside from, say, assassination cases where they intentionally
want to kill the person. I think in the vast majority of cases, and there
have been over 2000 Palestinians killed since the beginning of this intifada,
there is no intent to kill Palestinians. I dont think that the IDF has
an intentional policy to kill unarmed, innocent Palestinians, and yet were
talking about over 2000 people killed.
the question is: what lessons are being learned in order to prevent these
tragedies, accidents and needless deaths from happening in the future.
The fact that they are not investigating these cases thoroughly indicates
that they are not learning lessons – its extremely severe negligence when
you look at the number of people killed.
Elmer: Does BTselem have
a position on the Israeli assassinations?
Montell: Assassinations are
one of the more complicated cases, because it gets into the grey area of
the definition of this conflict from the point of view of international
humanitarian law. Israel defines the conflict as an armed conflict short
of war, which is a meaningless definition because war is armed conflict
– they are the same from a legal perspective. In an armed conflict obviously
combatants are legitimate targets: that is the case with IDF soldiers,
and that is case with combatants on the Palestinian side.
From B’Tselem’s perspective, it’s clear that the entire situation in the
West Bank cannot be defined as an armed conflict. There may be isolated
incidents of clashes that reach the level of an armed conflict, but most
of what the IDF is doing in the Occupied Territories is normal policing
functions: carrying out arrests, staffing checkpoints, and other sorts
of functions that are police functions under international law. Even in
the case of an armed conflict, who [is considered] a combatant on the Palestinian
side is a very complicated legal issue.
the way the assassinations are currently being carried out, using massive
firepower in very densely populated areas, with a very large number of
innocent civilians killed in the course of the assassination, is unacceptable.
And there is a big question mark about the way Palestinian targets are
Elmer: Because it is clearly
political leaders that are being targeted, especially of late – Ismail
Montell: Right, its political
leaders and the leaders of military wings of Hamas, people who Israel itself
no longer claims are on their way to carry out assassinations. Its also
not clear that Israel could not arrest these people if it wanted to. In
area A of Palestinian cities it would be a much greater threat to civilian
lives to launch a campaign to arrest people, but in some cases we know
that people have passed through IDF checkpoints in the days or weeks prior
to their assassination, and at least in these cases Israel could have arrested
them if it wanted to.
Elmer: Escalating from ticking
bombs to ticking infrastructure?
Elmer: The so-called separation
fence will annex significant parts of the West Bank to Israel, while leaving
tens of thousands of Palestinians on the west side of the fence between
the fence and the Green Line, and thousands of Jewish settlers on the east
side. That doesnt seem much like separation.
Montell: Very few Palestinians
will be living on the west side of the barrier. As of Stage 1, between
12 and 13,000 Palestinians live in the villages to the west of the barrier.
The main problem is Palestinians who are living in enclaves entirely surrounded
by the barrier, often cut off from their farmland, and all of the problems
of freedom of movement for Palestinians who need to cross back and forth.
Thats another 70-75 thousand just in the first stage that has already
Again, as you said, its not a barrier that is separating Israel from Palestine
along the 1967 border. And thats primarily because of the presence of
settlers and settlements in the Occupied Territories, many of whom have
launched their own lobbying campaign so that individual settlements will
be included to the west of the barrier. As a result, Palestinians are either
living in enclaves, or are themselves on the wrong side of the barrier.
At this point were all in suspense about the future stages of the barrier
– whether or not it will include Ariel and other settlements, and equally
significantly [the route of the barrier] in Jerusalem, which is obviously
a very densely built up urban area. The fence is apparently just going
to go right down the middle of a street, separating the neighbourhood of
Abu Dis [for example], separating a family from their daycare, grocery
store, doctor, work and everything else. So its a really devastating measure.
And again, contrary to Israels claim that it can always be moved and that
its not permanent, it is in fact a fairly massive structure being built
at a huge cost to the Israeli economy, and something that is not easily
going to be moved. My fear is that we will be living with the implications
of these bad decisions made by the government in terms of the route of
the fence for a very long time to come.
Elmer: Can you describe the
physical presence of the wall?
Montell: In most areas of
construction its not a wall, but a series of measures about 60-100 meters
wide. It starts with an electronic fence in the middle that will sense
anyone touching or trying to tamper with it, then a series of roads on
either side including a trace road and a patrol road, followed by a barbed
wire fence and then a trench. So even the amount of land taken for the
actual construction is very significant.
few places, on the west side of Qalqiliya, and then going through Abu Dis,
it is actually a massive concrete wall up to four meters high. So again
its a very large structure taking up a lot of land, costing a lot of money,
and not easily moved.
Elmer: Predictions are always
problematic, but what does BTselem see the future holding for Palestinian
human rights, given the apparent death of the Road Map peace process and
the escalation of the conflict?
Montell: To the extent that
the armed conflict continues, its clear that civilians are the main ones
paying the price. Thats true on the Israeli side with Palestinians mounting
suicide bombings and other attacks that primarily target Israeli civilians,
and its also true on the Palestinian side, where the civilian population
is really paying an unbearable price the restrictions on movement that
are devastating all aspects of Palestinian life, and obviously the destruction,
injuries and deaths. At this point we are stuck in a cycle that Israelis
and Palestinians are not able to get out of. Its clear that without
a very concerted effort by the international community, which until now
has not been forthcoming, there isnt a lot of optimism in terms of the
Jessica Montell is the Executive
Director of BTselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in
the Occupied Territories.
Jon Elmer is a freelance
journalist currently reporting from Israel-Palestine and is the editor