on the world: a view on human rights
Worldwide, human rights are under attack. From the basic rights to clean water, housing, education and healthcare to freedom of expression, association and the very right to exist, defending human rights is a precarious occupation. Civil society occupies an ever-shrinking space with individuals, communities and rights defenders under sustained attack. Seeking justice and rights-based solutions are increasingly considered terrorism appeasement.
How then can a state such as Israel, often seen and treated as being above and beyond the international human rights standards set for others, be held to account? With a lack of effective domestic accountability and broad political support for Israel’s policies from the international community, how can victims seek accountability and justice for human rights violations? Over 1000 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails started a mass hunger strike on 17 April, making demands that include an end to administrative detention and solitary confinement, better healthcare and access to families. Are such acts of desperation the most effective means of drawing attention to a desperate situation?
On Wednesday 19 April, Medical Aid for Palestinians held a panel discussion with three women Israeli and Palestinian human rights defenders working on the ground through the organisations they represent to hold the Israeli state to account for its human rights violations vis-à-vis the Palestinian community.
Rina Rosenberg, Co-Founder and International Advocacy Director of Adalah, The Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, spoke about the extent of state impunity and fighting it.
In 2000, 13 Palestinians, 12 of whom were Israeli citizen, were shot dead by the Israeli police in a single week during demonstrations in which more than one thousand people were injured and 640 were arrested. To date, there have been no prosecutions of any police officers, even though Adalah and others have filed a large number of cases over the years. Nor has filing complaints against the police helped accountability. According to a 2017 report by the Israeli State Comptroller, which found a “weakness” in the handling of police complaints, out of over 13,000 cases filed in 2013-2015, 69% had not been investigated and less than 3% had led to prosecution.
In January 2016, Palestinian homes were demolished in the village of Umm Al-Hiran in Negev. Hundreds of Israeli police descended on the village resulting in the death of one officer and Bedouin teacher Yacoub Abu al-Qiyan. The police claim Al-Qiyan had deliberately tried to ram his car into them and that he was an ISIS terrorist, yet police video and eye witness reports show this was not the case. A lawsuit into his death is pending. The Israeli police refused to return his body to his family; it was only released a week later after Adalah filed a petition to the Supreme Court.
In East Jerusalem, Adalah has brought joint cases with Palestinian prisoner support NGO Addameer against extrajudicial executions of Palestinian youths accused of planning attacks. The organisations argue that at the time of death the victims did not pose a public risk. Out of five cases that have been filed, four were closed without prosecution.
In the two years following the 2014 Gaza offensive, the Israeli military advocate general received 500 complaints related to 360 separate incidents of which only one resulted in prosecution for three soldiers for looting. With Al Mezan, Adalah filed 28 of these complaints, including those related to the bombing of civilian homes and an attack on a UNRWA school. Some appeals have been filed, including in the case of four young boys killed on the beach in Gaza by a military rocket during the offensive.
Ms Rosenberg criticised the slow response to complaints, the lack of transparency and impartiality as well as the poor level of investigation carried out, allowing “impunity for police officers, political leaders, commanders who are responsible”.
Rachel Stroumsa, Executive Director of Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), focused on child prisoners. The case of a 17 year old prisoner from East Jerusalem was given as an example. Blinded by a sponge-tipped bullet in one eye during demonstrations he was not involved in, the boy was detained for questioning by the Israeli Security Agency Shin Bet on unrelated matters, during which he missed his appointment for a prosthetic eye. His detention, as is typical, involved the use of torture (shackling, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement). He was beaten by prison guards and within 30 days confessed to allegations made against him. He developed an eye infection that was so bad that during his court hearing the judge ordered the prison to provide him with professional medical care, which he was not given.
The case raises a number of issues, such as the lack of medical staff in prisons to protect prisoners as well as adequate judicial oversight. While there is a focus on prisoner torture during interrogations, the very conditions of detention, including frequent beatings by guards, are tantamount to torture. Prisoners, including children, are often subject to lengthy transfers from one prison to another, which can take days at a time, during which they are shackled and may not have access to food, water and sanitation facilities throughout. Ultimately, the young man in the case above decided to enter a plea bargain rather than return to prison.
Israel’s Youth Law provides that the questioning of youths must only take place by officers trained to work with young people, in the presence of a parent and that house arrest must be used as opposed to remand or prison. The safeguards in this law are not applied to Palestinian youths. Israel has no law that criminalises the use of torture. Although work is underway on a draft law, it may not meet international standards and may not be applied in practice.
Nada Kiswanson van Hooydonk, Senior Legal Advocacy Officer at Palestinian NGO Al Haq spoke about the opportunities offered by international law mechanisms, in view of the failure of domestic ones: namely the preliminary examination opened by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in January 2015 into potential war crimes committed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Hamas during the 2014 Gaza War. Alleged crimes include attacks on medical facilities, UNRWA schools, civilian homes and infrastructure by the IDF and the abuse of collaborators and prisoners by Hamas, among others.
The ICC has received 300 documents and put together a database of over 3000 incidents. At this stage the prosecutor can only consider public documents and submissions made by civil society organisations and thus they have an important role to play in providing information and supporting the investigations. The Rome Statute offers Palestinians a broader base to make complaints as it criminalises acts not covered by other courts, such as apartheid. Thus far, Palestinian NGOs have submitted three files on IDF actions in 2014, as well as the bombing of Rafah in 2016 and the impact of the closure of the Gaza Strip.
The preliminary examination is likely to take a few more years to be completed in view of the resources available to the court as well as the range of alleged crimes. On the ground, the preliminary examination has led to greater state efforts to suppress civil society organisations and human rights defenders working with the ICC, in order to hinder its efforts.