Israeli violations of human rights
and international humanitarian law
in the occupied Palestinian territories
By Prof. Jeff Halper, Coordinator Israeli Committee
Against House Demolitions (ICAHD)
Presented at a hearing on "EU-Israel Bilateral Relations
in the Framework of International
and European Law" at the European Parliament June 20, 2002
I would like to begin my presentation by talking about "sides."
There is a perception -- indeed, an expectation -- that Israelis
and Palestinians will be on separate, conflicting and irreconcilable
"sides" of what is called the "Israeli-Palestinian
Conflict." There is a committee of the European Parliament
that liasons with the Palestinian "side," and another
that liasons with the Israeli "side." I would like to
declare at the outset that I do not locate myself on either of those
"sides." For me, as an Israeli Jew, "sides"
mean something different altogether. I am on the "side"
of Israelis and Palestinians who seek a just peace that addresses
Palestinian rights of self-determination as well as Israeli concerns
of security and regional integration. I am on the "side"
that stands for equality, human rights, democracy, peaceful co-existence
and regional economic development.
To be sure, there is another "side," those Israelis and
Palestinians that advocate exclusivity, conflict, a
win-lose mentality and continued injustice and suffering. That is
the way the "sides" divide, not Palestinian-Israeli.
In terms of resolving the conflict, there is yet another meaning
to "sides" -- that of two equal parties coming together
to resolve their grievances and perceived causes of injustice. Here
some kind of symmetry is supposed, of two parties that consider
each other legitimate parties to negotiations -- "sides."
It took the Palestinians until 1988 to formally recognize the fact,
if not the full legitimacy, of the Israeli "side," which
they did in their declaration of independence in Algiers. They did
so again in the Oslo Declaration of Principles of 1993, where by
recognizing Israel as within the 1967 borders, the PLO conceded
not only the 56% of the land partitioned to the Jewish state by
the UN in 1947, but also the additional 22% conquered from the prospective
Palestinian state -- 78% altogether. In return, Israel did not recognize
the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people. In the
Oslo Accords it agreed only to negotiate "final status issues"
with the PLO, without committing itself to any particular outcome,
including the establishment in the end of a viable, sovereign Palestinian
Understanding this is crucial for comprehending Israel's unilateral
"giving" certain concessions to Palestinians, presenting
its positions in a "take-it-or-leave-it" manner, or declaring
the results of certain rounds of negotiations as "null and
It explains why Israel continues to reinforce an occupation whose
every element, including the systematic demolition of 9000 Palestinian
homes since 1967, violates international humanitarian law, and particularly
the Fourth Geneva Convention. It explains the absolute impunity
by which Israel invades Palestinian cities, imposes a permanent
closure that impoverishes millions of people or imprisons an entire
people behind barbed wire, checkpoints and walls "so high that
even the birds cannot fly over them," in the words of a prominent
Israeli military historian. For neither Israel nor its pre-state
Yishuv nor the Zionist movement as a whole has ever recognized the
Palestinians as a distinct people with national or even individual
rights and holding legitimate claims to the country. Israeli Jews
view Palestinians as merely "Arabs," an undifferentiated
part of an Arab mass that might just as well live in one of the
"other" 22 Arab countries as in "ours." From
the point of view of legitimacy there is only one "side"
in the view of Israeli Jews, themselves as the only nation in the
country, exclusive holders of exclusive claims to it (a right that
extends to all Jews whether or not they live in Israel or have citizenship
there). This exclusive right extends to the entire country, including
the Occupied Territories. There is no other "side," only
a mass of intractable "Arabs" with which we must deal
in one way or another. This is the source of Israeli human rights
violations in both the Occupied Territories and within Israel itself.
This is the source of the impunity. There is no symmetry, no "two
The issue of symmetry -- or a fundamental lack of symmetry -- must
also be recognized at the outset. There are no two "sides"
from the point of view of power, of the ability to resolve the conflict
equitably -- and even of responsibility. We often speak of "two
sides," each of which must "stop the violence' or which
is "equally guilty" of perpetuating the conflict. But
this ignores the fundamental imbalance of the situation.
One "side," Israel, is an internationally recognized state
with one of the most powerful military forces in the world (including
200-300 nuclear warheads, making it the world's fifth largest nuclear
nation) and an economy more than 20 times larger than that of the
Palestinians. And it is the occupier.
The other "side" is a fragmented, stateless, impoverished,
vulnerable and traumatized people (70% of which are refugees or
displaced persons) possessing no sovereignty and only a lightly
armed militia. And it is occupied -- or exiled. The Palestinians,
moreover, are in a situation of resisting colonization -- a right
recognized in international law -- which differentiates their use
of "violence"-as-resistance to Israel's "violence"-as-repression,
the latter a violation of the right of self-determination. While
Palestinians must also be held accountable for their actions, including
the use of terrorism, their situation is qualitatively different
from that of the Israelis whose use of state terror and systematic
violations of human rights (in making its occupation permanent)
involve a much greater degree of choice.
From here I would like to make one other fundamental point: the
Israeli Occupation is not simply a reaction to terrorism or a means
of self-defense, but is an expression of a pro-active policy of
de facto annexation that began immediately after the 1967 war. It
is a goal in and of itself, which has generated over the years a
high degree of suffering, violence and human rights violations.
Israel tries to deflect attention from this fact by presenting its
military actions and policies of repression as mere reactions to
"Palestinian violence and intransigence."
In this way it has made the Occupation disappear from the discourse.
This presentation rests on the fundamental proposition that the
Occupation is an outcome of conscious Israeli policy of controlling
the entire "Land of Israel" from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.
Nothing illustrates this better than the construction of more than
200 Israeli settlements -- 44 in the year and a half of Sharon's
premiership alone. It is the Occupation and its role in preventing
the Palestinians from realizing their right of self-determination
that is the source of the conflict, not Palestinian resistance.
What flows from all of this is an Israeli attitude of impunity towards
Palestinian human rights and a disregard even a rejection of international
humanitarian law as applying to either Palestinians or to the situation
of occupation. Virtually all of Israel's occupation of Palestinian
lands violates human rights conventions and especially the Fourth
Geneva Convention that forbids an occupying power from making its
presence a permanent one. Thus:
-- Article 3 prohibits "outrages upon personal dignity, in
particular humiliating and degrading treatment," a routine
element of Palestinian life under Israel's occupation.
-- Article 32 forbids assassinations, and any brutalization of the
civilian population, including their treatment at checkpoints and
in "security searches."
-- Article 33 prohibiting pillage would obtain to Israel's extensive
use of West Bank and Gazan water resources, especially as they are
denied the local population. It also prohibits the use of collective
punishment, as represented by the imposition of closure, curfew,
house demolitions and many other routine actions of the Occupation
-- Article 39 stipulates: "Protected persons [residents of
occupied lands] who, as a result of the war, have lost their gainful
employment, shall be granted the opportunity to find paid employment."
It thereby prohibits the imposition a permanent "closure"
on the Occupied Territories, such as Israel has done since 1993.
-- Article 49 forbids deportations and any "forcible transfers,"
which would include such common practices as revoking Jerusalem
IDs or banning Palestinians from returning from work, study or travel
abroad. It also stipulates that "The Occupying Power shall
not...transfer parts of its own civilian population into territories
it occupies" a clear ban on settlements.
-- Article 53 reads: "Any destruction by the Occupying Power
of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively
to private persons...is prohibited." Under this provision the
practice of demolishing Palestinian houses is banned, but so is
the wholesale destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure (including
its civil society institutions and records in Ramallah) destroyed
in the reoccupation of March-April 2002..
-- Article 64 forbids changes in the local legal system that, among
other things, alienate the local population from its land and property,
as Israel has done through massive land expropriations.
-- Article 146 holds accountable individuals who have committed
"grave breaches" of the Convention. According to Article
147, this includes many acts routinely practiced under the Occupation,
such as willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, willfully
causing great suffering or serious injury, unlawful deportation,
taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of
property. Israeli courts have thus far failed to charge or prosecute
Israeli officials, military personnel or police who have committed
-- The PLO also bears a measure of responsibility for the violations
of its own people's rights under the Fourth Geneva Convention. According
to Article 8, the PLO had no right in the Oslo Agreements to abrogate
their rights and suspend the applicability of the Convention, since
"Protected persons may in no circumstances renounce in part
or in entirety the rights secured to them by the present Convention."
Had international humanitarian law been the basis of the Oslo peace
process rather than power-negotiations, the Occupation would have
ended and the conditions for a just peace would have been established,
since virtually every element of Israel's occupation violates a
provision of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
And this is perhaps the most important point. The International
humanitarian law provides a map for the equitable resolution of
the Israeli-Palestinian "conflict." By guaranteeing the
collective rights of both peoples to self-determination and prohibiting
occupation and the perpetuation of refugee status, it leaves only
the details of an agreement to be worked out by negotiations. Boundaries,
the just resolution of the refugee issue based on the Right of Return
and in dividual choice and the other "final status issues"
can be resolved only if they are addressed in the context of human
rights and international humanitarian law -- and not as mere by-products
of power. Nothing is being asked of Israel that is not asked of
any other country -- accountability under covenants of human rights
formulated and adopted by the international community, which Israel
pledged to respect as a condition for its creation by the UN and
upon which Israel itself has signed.
As it is, Israel refuses to abide by international law and treats
both the Palestinians under its control and the international community
attempting to intervene with absolute impunity. The refusal of the
international community to intervene makes it complicit in the violations
of human rights and war crimes that Israel is committing in the
Occupied Territories. The European Union and this very Parliament
has emerged in our time as a hopeful sign of a new age of lowered
boundaries and great economic integration for the benefit of all
its member nations.
International humanitarian law has also emerged since World War
II as a hopeful sign of a world based on
justice and equality rather than power and dominance. If the new
political and economic form that is it the EU is not founded firmly
on the new notion of universal rights and justice, then it will
remain an interesting but finally localized experiment in technical
cooperation among states, with no implications for a truly better
The Occupation poses a bold challenge to the international community,
whether to its elected representatives as in this chamber or to
the civil society as represented by the NGOs and faith-based organizations
testifying before you today. In an era of global transparency, of
mass media, instantaneous news coverage and the internet, can a
new Berlin Wall be built that locks millions of Palestinians behind
massive fortifications, Israel's $100 million "security fence?"
Decades after the end of colonialism and a decade after the end
of South African apartheid, will the international community actually
sit passively by while a new apartheid regime arises before our
very eyes? And in a world in which the ideal of human rights has
gained wide acceptance, could an entire people be imprisoned in
dozens of tiny, impoverished islands, denied its fundamental right
of self-determination? Until we all act according to the ideals
and rules we ourselves havecreated, the answer will remain blowing
in the wind.
(Jeff Halper, an anthropologist, is the Coordinator of the Israeli
Committee Against House Demolitions www.icahd.org.
He can be reached at email@example.com.)
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