WORLD REPORT 1997 - The Israeli-Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip

Human Rights Developments

This chapter covers only developments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The conflict in southern Lebanon and northern Israel is discussed in the Middle East overview section.

As suicide bombings, a change of government in Israel and political disagreements stalled implementation of the Oslo peace accords, human rights were again subordinated to political objectives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Between February 25 and March 4, a series of four suicide bombings in Israel caused fifty-eight deaths, most of them of civilians. Responsibility for the attacks was claimed by the militant Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and Islamic Jihad. The government responded by imposing the strictest Aclosure@Cthe sealing of the West Bank and Gaza StripCin the history of the occupation. Since late March 1993, the West Bank and Gaza had been under a general closure that prevented Palestinians without Israeli-issued permits from traveling into Israel or Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, including for transit between the occupied territories. The army regularly tightened this closure by restricting the movement even of those Palestinians with valid permits. In an unprecedented step following the four suicide bombings, the Israeli army also blocked internal movement in the West Bank for ten days, effectively placing Palestinian residents under town arrest.

A humanitarian crisis ensued as Israel virtually halted the entry of food, medical, and relief supplies into the West Bank and Gaza. Personnel, patients, and ambulances were prevented from reaching health-care facilities, leading to at least nine probably avoidable deaths during the first ten days of the closure. The army also placed entire villages and camps under twenty-four hour curfew, arrested relatives of bombing suspects, including minors, and sealed and demolished the homes of nine bombing suspects, leaving innocent family members homeless. These measures appeared to be aimed at punishing the Palestinian population more than at preventing specific acts of violence. In their scale and indiscriminate nature, these measures amounted to collective punishment, which is proscribed under international law.

This intensified closure was gradually eased in April and May, but the general closure of the West Bank and Gaza, in place since late March 1993, continued. In addition to its adverse impact on health care, the general closure prevented regular access to schools and universities for hundreds of Palestinian students who were denied permits, often arbitrarily. By mid-September, no Gaza students had received permits to transit Israel in order to attend West Bank universities.

Onerous restrictions on the movement of goods, which Israel said were necessary for security reasons, further impoverished Palestinians. Israel also further reduced the number of Palestinians permitted to work inside Israel, although Israel had suppressed the local economy throughout the occupation, rendering Palestinians heavily dependent upon jobs inside Israel. These restrictions made it difficult or impossible for Palestinians to meet their basic needs, and violated Israel=s obligation under the laws of occupation to ensure the basic welfare of the population.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party, was elected prime minister on May 29. During the ensuing months, the peace process came to a virtual halt and tension between the Palestinian Authority and Israel mounted. Partial redeployment from Hebron, the last major Palestinian city under direct Israeli military control, was delayed further as the Israeli government insisted on modifications to the original agreement. Israel continued to confiscate land in the occupied territories to expand settlements and build bypass roads for settlers. In addition, it demolished dozens of Palestinian homes, as well as a center that provided services to the handicapped in East Jerusalem, on the grounds that they had been built without difficult-to-obtain permits. In August, the cabinet formally lifted a moratorium on the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

Against this background, Prime Minister Netanyahu decided, on September 25, to open a new entrance to a controversial ancient tunnel for use by tourists near Muslim and Jewish holy shrines in Jerusalem. This decision triggered protests throughout the West Bank and Gaza and violent clashes soon erupted, involving, in some cases, Palestinian police and armed civilians exchanging fire with Israeli soldiers. In other cases, such as an incident that took place in Jerusalem=s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on September 27, Israeli soldiers fired rubber bullets and live ammunition at Palestinians armed with stones and bottles. In three days, over 1,300 Palestinians were injured, and at least sixty-two Palestinians and fifteen Israeli soldiers died. Once again, the Israeli army placed residents of the West Bank under town arrest and imposed a total closure, impeding access to medical supplies, medical treatment, and food.

During the first eight months of the year, prior to the September 1996 clashes, six Palestinian civilians had been killed by Israeli security forces.

Following the 1995 AOslo II@ Agreement, Israel released about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners but, in areas that remained under its control, continued cracking down on suspected Islamists and opponents of the peace accords, arresting an estimated 1,400 more Palestinians on security-related grounds. These roundups began in late December 1995, just prior to Israeli redeployment from major West Bank cities and population centers, and intensified following the suicide bombings in February and March.

On September 18, according to official Israeli figures, 2,335 Palestinians were serving sentences in Israel for security-related offenses, and an additional 677 were undergoing interrogation or awaiting trial. Another 294 Palestinians were being held in administrative detention, without charge or trial. Ahmed Qatamesh, the longest-held administrative detainee at the time, had completed his fourth year in detention without charge. In addition, 148 residents of other Arab countries, nearly two dozen of whom had already completed their sentences, remained in Israeli detention.

Throughout the year, the Israeli General Security Service (GSS) continued to subject Palestinian detainees to torture and ill-treatment during interrogation. The government renewed, at regular intervals, the authorization to use harsher methods of interrogation in Aexceptional@ cases. These methods were not made public but, according to extensive documentation by human rights groups, they included violent shaking, which had caused at least one death in 1995, abusive body positioning, beating, hooding, and sleep deprivation. In January, the Labor government introduced legislation which, while purportedly outlawing the use of torture, authorized the use of Apressure@ against suspects. This legislation was expected to codify the government-appointed Landau Commission=s approval, in 1987, of the use of Amoderate physical pressure@ which, in practice, amounted to sanctioning torture and ill-treatment.

Prior to redeployment from parts of the occupied territories in 1994 and 1995, Israel transferred thousands of prisoners and detainees to facilities inside Israel. This violated Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which requires that protected persons be held in the territories under occupation. The detention of Palestinians inside Israel impeded regular access to them by West Bank and Gaza lawyers, especially during closures. This policy also prevented regular family visits during closures, in violation of Article 116 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

In July, the daily Yediot Ahronot (Tel Aviv) published an interview with Ehud Yatom, a former senior official in the GSS, in which he admitted to murdering two Palestinian bus hijackers in 1984 by crushing their heads with a large stone. GSS foul play had always been suspected in the case, since a newspaper had run photos of the Palestinians being taken alive from the bus, but details of an official inquiry were never made public. Despite Yatom=s reported confession to these extrajudicial executions, the government initiated no action against Yatom or other senior officials who had been at the scene. Yatom later denied having committed the murders, reportedly after being reprimanded by the GSS for holding an unauthorized interview with the press.

The Palestinian Authority (PA)

The human rights situation in the areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that were under Palestinian self-rule deteriorated steadily during the year. Intolerant of internal opposition to its policies and under intense pressure from Israel and the United States to Acombat terrorism,@ the PA conducted mass and often arbitrary arrests of suspected militants and opponents of the peace process. In the aftermath of the February-March suicide bombings, an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 people were rounded up, often arbitrarily, and several hundred remained in detention by October. Most of those detained were never charged with a criminal offense or put on trial.

Torture and ill-treatment by security forces occurred regularly during interrogation and led to at least one death: twenty-six-year-old Mahmoud Jumayal, who died in Nablus on July 30 as a result of severe beating and burning. Detainees who did not undergo interrogation, however, were not generally ill-treated.

The number of security agencies grew to at least eleven, but their respective duties seemed ill-defined or overlapping. Competition among the agencies, which appeared accountable to no one but Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat, encouraged abusive conduct. The police and security forces also lacked training and were implicated in dozens of beatings and unlawful shootings, including at least six Aaccidental killings.@ Many of the security agencies operated their own detention facilities, some of them in secret locations; thus, family members, lawyers, and human rights activists could not obtain prompt and reliable information about the whereabouts of detainees.

Security forces routinely beat and dispersed demonstrators demanding the release from Palestinian custody of uncharged detainees. On March 29, Palestinian security forces raided the campus of an-Najah University in Nablus, where students were protesting the large-scale arrests by both the PA and Israel. Security forces fired their weapons in the air, beat students with clubs, and used tear gas, injuring twelve students. During a massive demonstration in Tulkarm on August 2, following the death in detention of Mahmoud Jumayal, the police opened fire on demonstrators, killing one and injuring several others.

On January 20, an estimated 75 percent of eligible voters turned out to elect a president and an eighty-eight member legislative council. Local and international monitors characterized the rather rushed elections as generally free and fair, but identified violations. During the electoral campaign, both Israeli and Palestinian authorities sought to silence opponents of the elections and the peace accords through arrests, intimidation, and detention of some candidates and their supporters. The PA also denied candidates equal access to the media it controlled. In East Jerusalem, Israeli forces prevented candidates from campaigning in the city, and later created an intimidating atmosphere by filming voters and impeding some residents and Palestinian election observers from reaching polling sites.

The Palestinian legislative council, whose inaugural session was held on March 7, emerged as the primary forum for independent debate within Palestinian society, on issues such as human rights and accountability. The council passed several resolutions calling for the release of detainees held without charge, raised concerns about the use of torture, and challenged President Arafat=s attempts to impose his will on the council. These exchanges were rarely reported in the Palestinian press, however, and the PA only occasionally responded to the council=s demands or questions.

Although there was no formal censorship, Palestinian newspapers practiced self-censorship and rarely printed anything that could be construed as critical of the PACparticularly of President Arafat or his security policies. The PA had sent a clear warning against criticism when its forces detained Al-Quds (Jerusalem) editor Maher Alami, who had refused PA orders to publish an article on the front page of the Christmas day 1995 issue about President Arafat=s meeting with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. Numerous journalists were detained, usually briefly, and at times beaten. For example, in April Associated Press photographer Khaled Zghari was beaten until he lost consciousness after photographing a demonstration demanding the release of Hamas prisoners in the West Bank.

The Palestinian State Security Courts, established in February 1995, continued to exercise jurisdiction over both security and criminal matters. By October 1996, the courts had sentenced over fifty people in trials that violated basic due process guarantees. Trials were held at night and often lasted only minutes, and defendants did not have the right to legal counsel of their choice or the right of appeal.

The Right to Monitor

Although Palestinian groups monitoring human rights in the West Bank and Gaza came under pressure from the PA, none was closed or prevented from carrying out its activities. While authorities usually refused official visits by human rights organizations to detention facilities and detainees, they often permitted visits by lawyers and human rights activists in their individual capacity. On September 1, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the PA signed an agreement granting the ICRC regular access to all detention facilities and detainees in the self-rule areas. A similar agreement signed in 1994 had not been implemented.

The PA continued its past practice of targeting specific activists for harassment and short-term arrests, creating a climate of intimidation and fear. Dr. Eyad Sarraj, commissioner-general of the quasi-official Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens Rights, was detained twice in 1996, after having been arrested and released in December 1995. He was arrested for eight days in May, after criticizing the PA=s human rights practices in a New York Times interview. He was rearrested on June 10 and detained for seventeen days on trumped-up charges of drug possession. During his detention, Sarraj was denied access to his lawyer and subjected to physical ill-treatment on one occasion.

Mohammed Dahman, director of the Addameer Prisoner Support Association, was arrested on August 12 and detained for fifteen days. He was brought before the State Security Court and charged with publishing false information after issuing a press release raising questions about the death of a Palestinian detainee.

In Israel, the ongoing closure prevented West Bank and Gaza lawyers and rights groups from reaching prisons inside Israel. The closure also prevented Palestinian journalists, even those accredited by Israel, from entering Israel and East Jerusalem. For several weeks following the closure imposed in February, Israeli authorities barred not only Palestinians but also most non-Israeli and Israeli civilians from entering and leaving the Gaza Strip, preventing local and international relief and human rights groups from assessing the crisis and providing assistance. Immediately following the closure imposed after the violent clashes of September, most non-Israeli and Israeli civilians, including journalists but not settlers, were again barred from entering the West Bank and Gaza.

On February 4, 1996, Israel imposed a six-month administrative detention order on Sha=wan Jabarin, fieldwork coordinator at the Ramallah-based human rights organization Al-Haq. Jabarin had been administratively detained on five previous occasions, and had already spent almost thirty months in detention without charge or trial. His administrative detention order was renewed for another six months on July 27. Riyadh Za=aquiq, who worked for Defence for Children International in Hebron, was placed under administrative detention for six months on June 17. On August 19, Israeli authorities detained Bashar Tarabieh, a consultant for Human Rights Watch, while he was on vacation in his native Golan Heights. Tarabieh spent a week under interrogation in an Israeli jail, where he was subjected to hooding, painful shackling in a chair and sleep deprivation. He was released without charge. Al-Haq researcher Riziq Shuqair was shot and injured by Israeli soldiers while conducting field work during the September clashes in Ramallah.

The Role of the International Community

The United Nations continued to monitor human rights through its Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Arab Territories Including Palestine.

The European Union

European governments provided economic assistance both to Israel and the PA, through the European Union (E.U.), the World Bank-administered multilateral aid program, and bilateral agreements. The E.U. was the largest single donor to the PA, with US$404 million in assistance between 1993 and 1996 and a commitment to provide an additional $63 million annually until 1998. On October 1, the European Council of Ministers authorized the European Commission to negotiate an interim agreement on trade and cooperation with the PA. Both the E.U., through a U.S.$11.25 million program in 1996 for the promotion of human rights, democracy and civil society, and individual European governments actively funded and provided training to the Palestinian police and were involved in institution-building projects. The E.U. sent 300 election observers to the West Bank and Gaza for the January election and coordinated the international election observation operation.

Despite this leverage, however, European countries appeared fearful of disrupting the peace process and did not act determinedly to stem abuses, particularly when committed by the Palestinian security forces who they helped fund and train. European governments and the E.U. did privately condemn human rights violations by the PA throughout the year, but generally shied away from public pronouncements. Norway, among others, publicly condemned abuses in high-profile cases such as the arrest of Sarraj and the death of Jumayal (see above).

With regard to Israeli violations, European governments signaled the harm inflicted on the Palestinian population by the Israeli closure and raised this issue at the Washington follow-up meeting to the Sharm al-Sheikh conference.

Following the September clashes, the E.U. General Affairs Council issued a strong declaration urging both sides to Aavoid resorting to disproportionate force,@ and reaffirmed the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to East Jerusalem and other occupied territories. When asked by the European Parliament if the council was considering the possibility of suspending an E.U.-Israel Association Agreement, which is explicitly conditioned on respect for human rights, the council responded that its declaration was Aquite explicit about what we [the E.U.] expect from Israel.@ As an immediate step, the European Parliament suspended $6.8 million in direct financial assistance to Israel, charging that its actions were jeopardizing the peace process.

United States

The United States, despite its stated goal of promoting human rights and respect for the rule of law in the Middle East, and the detailed documentation of both Israeli and PA abuses in the State Department=s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995, largely ignored human rights protection in its public dealings with Israel and the PA.

Israel remained the largest recipient of U.S. bilateral assistance, with over $3 billion in economic and military assistance, $50 million in counterterrorism assistance and nearly $2 billion in available loan guarantees in 1996. Yet, except for the section on Israel in the Country Reports on Human Rights, the U.S. maintained a public silence in the face of violations. On March 5, in response to a question about whether the United States had given Israel a blank check in responding to the four deadly suicide bombings, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said, AThey=re going to be taking firm action. Those will be the decisions of Israel.@ This statement, like many others by U.S. officials, ignored clear evidence that Israel had repeatedly carried out arbitrary arrests and tortured suspects.

The Clinton administration appeared concerned that any public criticism of then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres might jeopardize his chances of winning the upcoming Israeli elections. The U.S. did not publicly criticize the strict closure imposed in February, in spite of its tragic humanitarian consequences. However, the U.S. did, according to State Department officials, privately encourage Israel to implement specific measures aimed at mitigating the impact of the closureCparticularly by facilitating the entry of food, medicines, and building materials into Gaza.

Both Israel and the U.S. repeatedly urged President Arafat and the PA to do more to prevent Aterrorism.@ It was only after the PA engaged in repeated waves of often arbitrary arrests and torture of detainees that both governments praised President Arafat for showing determination in the fight against Aterrorism.@ The implicit message sent by the U.S. in 1996Cto both Israel and the PACwas that abuses carried out in the name of security were justifiable and would not be publicly criticized. In spite of continuing evidence of extensive due process violations in the State Security Courts, no U.S. official retracted Vice-President Al Gore=s praise of these courts in 1995. But following the repeated arrests of human rights activist Dr. Eyad Sarraj, for example, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem met twice with President Arafat to convey U.S. concerns and urge Sarraj=s release, and an officer from the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv met with Sarraj in prison.

During the violent clashes over the Jerusalem tunnel in September, the U.S. abruptly withdrew support, for a mildly-worded U.N. Security Council resolution calling for Athe immediate cessation and reversal of all acts which have resulted in the aggravation of the situation@ and Afor the safety and protection of Palestinian civilians.@ The resolution was passed by fourteen votes to zero, with the U.S. abstaining.

The U.S., a major participant in the international donor effort in the West Bank and Gaza, had obligated $225 million in assistance managed by the U.S. Agency for International Development between September 1993 and September 1996, more than half of which had been disbursed by the end of fiscal year 1996. Many of these programs were aimed at democratization, institution-building, and ensuring free elections. The U.S. also provided the PA about $13 million in police and medical assistance.

At the international level, the March 12 Aanti-terrorism@ summit convened in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt represented a lost opportunity: the statement issued at the end of the conference focused on preventing Aterrorism@ without reference to the human rights standards that have been so frequently trampled in pursuing that goal.