Middle East

Rights for both sides, or rights for none

Palestinians wave their national flag in front of the headquarters of UNESCO during a march to mark the 1947 UN partition plan for Palestine. (AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED ABED)

My visit to Israel and Palestine a year ago left me with a profound sense of the difficult human rights situation faced by many Palestinians and Israelis. Still, the openness of representatives on all sides to engage seriously on the human rights challenges I identified was encouraging.

Taking this spirit of constructive engagement as our point of departure, I and my staff have been watching closely for progress on the issues I raised with Israeli and Palestinian authorities in Gaza, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Tel Aviv. We have also continued to press for greater respect for human rights and suggested ways to protect civilians from violence and insecurity.

Today, I present my annual report on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories to the Human Rights Council. This provides me with an opportunity to highlight a few steps that have the potential to make it easier for both sides to live side by side in peace and security.

During my 2011 visit, I expressed my concern to Palestinian representatives about the arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of fellow Palestinians. These issues have not yet been sufficiently addressed, especially in Gaza. Palestinian leaders should clearly instruct security personnel to refrain from arresting people without a proper warrant. They must also ensure that all credible allegations of ill-treatment are investigated promptly, thoroughly and impartially.

A second challenge on the Palestinian side, is the need to safeguard the freedoms of opinion, expression, association and assembly, which are fundamental human rights. These freedoms are central to the open and democratic society to which so many Palestinians have aspired for so long. Palestinian leaders should make a greater effort to secure these rights in law, policy and practice, including for human rights defenders and journalists.

The indiscriminate firing of rockets and other projectiles from Gaza into Israel is illegal and unjustifiable. Those who participate in such activities are not only terrorizing Israeli civilians, they are playing into the hands of those who wish to maintain the blockade. Today’s report notes that, during certain sensitive periods in 2011, the rockets stopped. This suggests that Palestinian leaders have the ability to end such attacks altogether.

My visit brought me face to face with many large-scale human rights violations stemming from Israel’s occupation of Palestine. At the conclusion of my visit I stressed that transferring civilians into occupied territory is plainly and unequivocally illegal. To treat the freezing of settlement activities as a concession, or a pre-condition, for peace negotiations is to turn the law on its head.

There are numerous serious human rights challenges intrinsically linked to the expansion of settlements. Repeated violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians is one such challenge. The Israeli government has a clear obligation to protect Palestinians and their property from violence by Israeli settlers. One step in this direction is to rigorously investigate all such incidents and hold perpetrators accountable. Israeli authorities have spoken with me about difficulties in investigating settler violence. But the fact is Israel delivers accountability in some cases and should be able to do so consistently. Palestinians must be able to easily access Israeli police stations and register complaints if settler violence is to be dealt with effectively.

Over the past year, my office has paid particular attention to incidents of excessive use of force by Israeli security forces. In the West Bank, Israeli forces carrying out law enforcement activities and operating checkpoints have on several occasions killed unarmed Palestinian civilians. In Gaza, Israeli soldiers enforcing restrictions on access to certain areas on land and at sea have also killed unarmed Palestinian civilians. These deaths were needless. Such incidents can be avoided if Israeli forces, in accordance with international standards, stop resorting so readily to the use of live ammunition when dealing with civilians.

Last year I met many civilians whose lives have been wrecked by Israel’s blockade of Gaza. If poverty, unemployment and the deterioration of health care, education and water and sanitation facilities are its goals, then Israel’s blockade is succeeding. But Israel has the resources to handle legitimate security concerns that emanate from Gaza without punishing the civilian population en masse. Important steps that Israel can take immediately include facilitating the movement of civilians to and from Gaza, ensuring that reconstruction materials can be delivered and permitting more goods to be exported.

To protect civilians from violence and insecurity is to respect human dignity. Without this respect, “living side by side in peace and security” will remain unrealistic rhetoric for both Palestinians and Israelis. Taking these steps would not only lead to immediate improvements in the lives of civilians, it would demonstrate that Israeli and Palestinian leaders are actually interested in providing their own populations with human rights, peace and security, since neither side will enjoy all three, unless both sides do.

Navy Pillay is the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 17, 2012, on page 8.




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