25 June 2007

24 June 2007 - Are humans a human rights violation?

Over the weekend, I looked at Amnesty International’s latest report on the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, which my boss had asked me to examine. It’s a brief but thorough criticism of Israel’s policy in the territory, focusing on the security barrier, closures, settlement expansions, demolitions, attacks on human rights demonstrations, and the general legal and economic consequences of it all.

The report does not describe Palestinian violations against Israelis, including rocket attacks, suicide bombings, drive-by shootings, media incitement, abductions, and the general political and economic consequences of continued conflict. Nor does it describe the (possibly more brutal) violations of Palestinian human rights by other Palestinians on either side of the Fatah-Hamas divide over the past year or so.

There is a case to be made for dealing with Israel’s own abuses in isolation, since these might be the only ones falling under the jurisdiction of the Israeli legal system, and since Israel has to answer to her own moral conscience. Violations by Palestinians against Israelis and against each other have no bearing on Israel’s guilt, though they might explain the context and mitigate the punishment sought.

Even so, I find the report difficult to swallow. I can only agree with three, or perhaps four, of its seven recommendations to the Israeli government (1. End the closures; 2. Stop the construction of the security barrier; 3. Stop the expansion of settlements; 4.Stop demolishing houses unless militarily necessary; 5; Let Palestinian authorities control decisions regarding unlicensed houses; 6. Punish violations by Israeli settlers; 7. Investigate and punish violations by Israeli forces).

Of these, I can agree with numbers 4, 6 and 7 without hesitation, though I believe with regard to number 7 that the Israeli military does fairly thorough investigations of its soldiers’ conduct. I have reservations about the other four. Number 1 might have a real cost in terms of the security of civilians, both Israeli and Palestinians.

Number 2 is inappropriate in light of the hundreds of lives saved by the barrier, which the Amnesty report does not mention, though a different route (one along or closer to the West Bank border) might be more appropriate. Number 5 seems premature, since Palestinian authorities can barely provide the most basic services and the divided Palestinian administration is in disarray at the moment.

I can agree partially with number 3. I believe that the expansion of settlements should be stopped, since it is inimical to the final settlement of borders and to the trust necessary to negotiate a successful agreement. The report, however, calls for settlement expansion to be stopped as a “first step” towards removing all remaining settlers and settlements from the West Bank—never mind mooted land swaps.

I supported the disengagement from Gaza—not because I believed it would bring peace, but because I believed it was important for Israel to decide where its own borders were. It was unfortunate, in a way, that Israeli settlers had to be pulled out, even if it was wrong for them to settle there in the first place, because ideally the Palestinian government should have protected their rights within the Palestinian polity itself. Under the circumstances, they had to be removed, and they were.

The disengagement was successful in ending the Gaza occupation and proving to that Israel is prepared to sacrifice for peace. The credibility Israel thus earned has endured, and has been vital to the isolation of Hamas. Unfortunately, the Gaza disengagement did not improve Israel’s security, and in fact seemed to encourage Hamas in its successful political campaign of 2006 and in its ongoing terror attacks.

(It is also argued by some critics that the Gaza disengagement was wrong because it was unilateral. I disagree—first, because I believe Israel did not have a reliable partner with which to conduct a bilateral agreement; and second, because I believe it was important for Israel to make an independent decision to end the occupation, with or without mutual commitments from the other side, and clarify its plan B.)

There are certain aspects of Israel’s settlement policy that do seem to me to involve rights violations of various kinds, particularly the expropriation of Palestinian property and discrimination between Israelis and Palestinians by Israeli authorities (i.e. on the roads) in the West Bank. But I do not believe it is correct to view the presence of Israeli civilians itself in the West bank as a human rights violation.

A human being is not a human rights violation. The Fourth Geneva Convention seeks to prevent an occupying power from intentionally altering the demography of a territory through civilian settlement. Even so, the solution does not require the complete evacuation of such civilians. Rather, they should be granted rights as Palestinian citizens, so long as doing so does not threaten Palestinian sovereignty.

Why, as the late South African Chief Rabbi, Cyril Harris, once said, should the Palestinians territories be judenrein? Why should Israel or anyone else indulge xenophobia or antisemitism? If we expect Israel to protect the rights of its Arab minority, why should we not expect Palestine to protect the rights of its Jewish minority? If we believe in human rights, should we expect anything less?

I think that one reason the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has continued is that the world has continued to hold the Palestinians to a lower standard in terms of how they treat Jews, and how they treat each other. Failing to hold the Palestinian government to minimal standards of human rights and democratic accountability has encouraged violence and rejectionism, and prolonged suffering on both sides.

But back to Israel. Much of what Israel has done, and continues to do, in the occupied territories is objectionable. But we must ask why Israel has behaved the way it has. The report acknowledges that the system of Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks increased after the second intifada began. Thus, some of the worst features, such as the security barrier, are a direct response to Palestinian violence.

The report hints at the fact that Israeli checkpoints also began increasing after the Oslo agreements. Partly this was also a result to Palestinian terror, which accelerated in the mid-1990s. Partly it was dictated by the agreement itself, which created a variety of different jurisdictions in the territories and did not allow the discontent of ordinary Palestinians (or Israelis) to feed back into the peace process.

There is also a degree—perhaps even a high degree—of Israeli culpability that extends beyond the accidental, the unintentional, and the reactive. It is a culpability suggested in an internal Israeli investigation, described in the Amnesty report, of how the government has quietly encouraged illegal outposts. Yet context is also important, and it is context that these reports somehow always seem to lack.

I have a feeling that there is something amiss in the whole human rights approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—something wrong at a theoretical and practical level, something that makes these reports seem as if they just don’t fit. I think it is important to include human rights in conflict resolution, because a peace that affirms human rights is more enduring, but the proper approach remains elusive.


At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joel, I am sure your ‘Jewish settlers should be allowed the right to become Palestinian citizens if they wish’, doesn’t go down very well with your colleagues. In my numerous conversation with Israeli ‘peace activists’, I have often found that they are so focused on ending the occupation, that they refuse to acknowledge the rights of Israel in respect of the territories. I actually think even among the Zionist Left there is a rather lopsided approach to human rights. Unfortunately the logic goes that ‘you can’t expect Arabs to behave like democrats’. The number of Israelis that buy into the Middle East freedom agenda is miniscule. Ironically Arab democracy’s greatest Israeli champion Natan Sharansky is demonized as a right winger.


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