Israel: Criminalisation and harassment of human rights defenders in Masafer Yatta must end, say UN experts

GENEVA (2 August 2022) – UN experts* today denounced Israel’s harassment of human rights defenders and humanitarian workers in the occupied West Bank hamlets of Masafer Yatta, as its communities continue to be threatened by risks of forcible transfer, including mass forced evictions and arbitrary displacement.

“Legitimised by the High Court decision, which abysmally found no reason to stop the implementation of illegitimate eviction orders, Israeli authorities have already demolished numerous Palestinian homes and structures, forcibly evicting and arbitrarily displacing residents from their homes in Masafer Yatta,” the experts said.

The UN experts earlier denounced in May 2022 the Israeli High Court of Justice rejection of appeals against eviction orders issued to Palestinian inhabitants of Masafer Yatta, designated as a military training site. Since then, dozens of families have been brutally displaced and left homeless without warning, while Israel authorities have issued more demolition orders and established military checkpoints.

“The tragic implications of that decision are now before our eyes: roughly 1,200 Palestinian residents in Masafer Yatta are left defenceless in front of the threat of forced eviction and arbitrary displacement. We can only imagine the pain of seeing your home, the place where you have grown or raised your children, the place where you have eaten all your meals from childhood to adulthood, the place where you have celebrated life and commemorated death, being bulldozed, with everything it contains, in the name of insatiable ambitions of an occupying power which acts with the violence of a coloniser,” the experts said.

The experts also expressed dismay at reports that human rights defenders and humanitarian workers have been harassed by the Israeli military in Masafer Yatta. They have been stopped and detained for several hours at checkpoints and had their identification documents or cars confiscated, often on grounds that they had entered a closed military site without permission.

“Israeli authorities’ hubris is proving without limits. They are even harassing human rights defenders and humanitarian workers seeking to support and protect people facing grave human rights violations in Masafer Yatta,” the experts said.

“This is a direct assault on the core of human rights and international humanitarian law, and a serious violation of the right of human rights defenders to engage in their work. This also confirms that impunity over abuse of power fosters power to abuse.”

UN experts expressed particular concern for Sami Hureini, a prominent human rights defender and member of “Youth of Sumud”, an activist group engaged in peaceful resistance against illegal settlements in the southern Hebron hills.

On 28 June 2022, Hureini was reportedly arrested at a checkpoint in Masafer Yatta and detained by the military for several hours. He is currently being tried in the Ofer Military Court for allegedly obstructing and assaulting a soldier and entering a closed military zone, following his participation in a peaceful demonstration on 8 January 2021. Reportedly, no physical evidence substantiating the allegations against Sami Hureini has been presented to Court.

“Mr. Hureini’s ongoing trial clearly shows an aggravating trend of Israel’s criminalisation and harassment of human rights defenders, aimed at silencing them and rooting out human rights work in the region,” said the experts. They noted that the main reason for the charges appeared to be that Sami Hureini was being considered the “main inciter” of the peaceful demonstration in 2021.

“We deplore the fact that the trial of Mr. Hureini is held by the military justice system, which falls short of fair trial standards required by international law. The systematic application of military jurisdiction to Palestinians is also blatantly discriminatory, when Jewish settlers in the West Bank are subject to civil jurisdiction.”

“Settlements are flagrantly illegal,” the experts said. “They are reminiscent of a past that the world of free nations worked to bury once and for all, and Israel keeps on revising. By design, they’re an instrument of oppression of the Palestinians.”

The UN experts have previously addressed the Israeli Government to express their concerns about Sami Hureini’s case, as well as the risk of forcible transfer in Masafer Yatta.