Last update - 21:31 04/12/2008
H a a r e t z
There was something exhilarating and promising about traveling the East Coast of the United States, a week after the country's historic presidential election. Notwithstanding the economic and military gloom, the mood was such that it seemed that challenges arise only so they can be overcome by great men - and that help is on its way.
Unfortunately, as a delegation of Israeli human rights lawyers - Sari Bashi from Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, Michael Sfard from Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights, Limor Yehuda from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and myself - specializing in the situation in the Palestinian territories, we witnessed the hope and joy with envy, and felt like the bearers of ill tidings. We had come from the trenches to report that we're suffering heavy losses. Indeed - that we're losing.
As is well known, Israel holds the territories under a legal regime called "belligerent occupation." This regime is indeed legal, in the sense that it is recognized by international law. Within it, the sacrifice of human rights is permitted in a manner that would not be justified in a "normal," democratic state of affairs. But the sanction is not unconditional. The ability to withhold certain rights from the protected citizens of the occupied nation is based on the assumption that the occupation is temporary. And in the Israel-Palestine context, "temporary" means 41 years, and counting.
During these 41 years, Israel has done everything within its powers (and then some) to create a new reality, at an exponential rate. Human rights lawyers and activists continue to be dizzied by the new policies of the Israeli government and its branches (ministries, army, Civil Administration, police, etc.). Such policies always employ the guise of temporary security measures, putatively legitimate under belligerent occupation, but are then made permanent to advance Israeli interests: safeguarding the benefits of settlers and settlements, exploiting the Palestinian population, and intervening in Palestinian internal politics. In this way, they are used to trample the human rights of the Palestinian people.
Here it is important to remember the basics: Human rights are an important check on the supreme authority of the government. As such, they are a peculiarly ingenious phenomenon, being important not only in and of themselves, but also by virtue of their having beneficial consequences for everyone. The right to free speech, for example, is important for the person who wishes to speak his burning truth, but also for the public,which may benefit from hearing it. When rights are set aside, unfortunate consequences develop - not only for the right-holders, but also for the country at large.
This is the sad situation that we relayed to audiences at four universities (Emory, American, Harvard and Columbia), and in Washington. We, as representatives of our four different organizations, presented a depressing picture of Israeli policy in the territories, its impact on the viability of a two-state solution and its consequences with respect to democracy in Israel-proper.
Several examples may be given. First - the "security" barrier. Since work on the erection of the security barrier began, government officials lied to the Supreme Court on several occasions, disguising their real motivation - settlement expansion - with security rhetoric. Moreover, when their lies were exposed, and the Court ordered a change in route (as in the Bil'in case), they have simply ignored the judgment. This is relatively well known. But there are other examples, no less significant for the future of the region: A recent Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights report shows how Israeli planning policy in Area C has effectively fragmented the West Bank to allocate land almost exclusively for Israeli use.
As Yesh Din reports, civilian settler militias act violently against the Palestinian population, and with total impunity. In 90 percent of the cases filed from the onset of the Second Intifada until 2007, no investigation followed the complaint. Gisha has demonstrated how the long-term closure of Gaza has led not only to dire famine and poverty, but has also made Hamas an attractive supplier of energy, food and basic supplies. And the Association for Civil Rights in Israel showed how Israel has turned the vibrant West Bank city of Hebron, a central hub for over 150,000 Palestinians, into a ghost town, all for the benefit of 600 Jewish settlers.
After ignoring the rule of law in the context of the territories, the government has learned that it is possible to shatter it within Israel as well. In two recent judgments, concerning migrant workers and education funding, the Supreme Court was dismayed to learn that previous judgments were simply ignored by the relevant ministries. Israel seems increasingly despondent, helpless to help itself. It is at times like this that the mettle of true friends is tested. When one is involved in self-destructive behavior, one relies on true friends to look one in the eye, and speak the truth: This is not good for you.
America has been an unwavering, true friend to Israel since its establishment, but at some point the test of America's friendship was transformed into an expectation that it would withhold any form of criticism. This is beyond unfortunate. The two-state solution is not a preordained course. We are, in fact, increasingly looking at a one-state consequence.
Consumed by the need to advance the peace process, all parties to the process have routinely ignored human rights violations that undermine this very goal. If the new American administration is serious about moving the peace process forward in the upcoming years, it must address the abuses that occur on a daily basis. Call it the fierce urgency of now.
Dr. Amir Paz-Fuchs is a board member of Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights, and teaches law at Ono Academic College and Tel Aviv University.