United Nations

Briefing to the 59th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights

Israel/Occupied Territories


Human Rights Watch urges the Commission on Human Rights to address the grave human rights and humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza with a resolution that condemns human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law by all parties. The resolution should also call on the international community to meet its obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure the protection of civilians in circumstances of armed conflict and belligerent occupation.


Civilians are increasingly paying the price for repeated, egregious violations of international humanitarian law by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Palestinian armed groups. At least 1,985 Palestinians and 720 Israelis were killed between September 2000 and January 2003, the majority civilians, including more than 300 Palestinian and 80 Israeli children.

Excessive and indiscriminate use of force, willful killings, and impunity

The number and gravity of violations committed by the IDF escalated as clashes culminated in the military reoccupation of most areas of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israeli soldiers repeatedly used indiscriminate and excessive force, killed civilians willfully and unlawfully, and used Palestinian civilians as human shields. Israel also used helicopter-fired missiles, tanks, and explosive devices to kill more than 175 individuals whom they accused of planning or carrying out attacks on Israeli military targets or civilians, sometimes in circumstances where the person could have been arrested and where Israeli forces showed insufficient regard for civilian life. The IDF continued to fail to investigate wrongful deaths or other violations by Israeli soldiers, and as of January 2003, had not responded to repeated requests from Human Rights Watch for information on killings the organization documented in Jenin.

Armed Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians—suicide bombings and other deliberate attacks—also reached unprecedented levels. PA officials condemned such attacks, but failed to move decisively against those responsible for ordering and organizing them. Armed Palestinians also killed at least twenty-two alleged collaborators.

Collective punishment

Extensive IDF damage to civilian buildings and infrastructure, including the partial or complete destruction of roads, sewage networks, water supplies, and electrical grids, appeared to exceed any requirement of military necessity in urban areas such as Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah. The IDF also destroyed hundreds of houses, primarily in Gaza, on alleged security grounds in excess of military necessity. Israeli forces also demolished homes of families of alleged suicide bombers or armed militants. Such demolitions often severely damaged adjacent properties. Tawfiq Hussam Obreika, a two-year-old child, was killed on October 13, 2002 when a neighboring house in Rafah was demolished.

Israeli restrictions on freedom of movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were so severe and widespread as to constitute collective punishment. These crippling restrictions were accompanied by extensive curfews. In the first week of July some 850,000 Palestinians were under curfew; by late September this number stood at some 550,000. Notifications of curfew impositions and liftings were often inconsistent and erratically enforced, resulting in numerous civilian deaths and injuries. Collective punishments also include restrictions on Palestinian travel abroad and a prohibition on working in Israel for all men under 35 years of age.

Humanitarian crisis

The cumulative impact of damage to civilian infrastructure, curfews and closures, and ongoing violence led the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to describe the humanitarian situation as "the most dire since 1967." Economic activity, already severely curtailed, is now at a virtual standstill. Unemployment stood at 50 percent in both the West Bank and Gaza, and more than 55 percent of inhabitants in the West Bank and 70 percent in Gaza lived under the poverty level of two dollars of consumption per day. Israeli authorities also restricted and harassed humanitarian agencies responsible for providing food, medication, and other essential goods and services in the West Bank and Gaza.

Settlements and settler violence

Israeli authorities continued to confiscate Palestinian lands to expand illegal Israeli settlements and bypass roads. Israeli settlers killed at least twelve Palestinian civilians during 2002, injured dozens more, and attacked Palestinian homes, fields, cars and other property, and blocked major roads with unofficial checkpoints. Israeli authorities rarely prevented, halted, or punished settlers for attacks against Palestinian civilians and their property.

Arbitrary arrest and detention and torture

An estimated 4,500 Palestinian civilians, including children, were arrested for questioning during Operation Defensive Shield, and a steady stream of arrests continued throughout the year. Reports of ill-treatment were widespread, including kicking, beating, squalid conditions, deprivation of food and drink, and even gradual reversion to the use of torture. As of January 2003, some 5,100 Palestinians were being held on security-related grounds - the highest level in over a decade. More than one thousand of them are held in administrative detention without charge - an increase from twenty-seven such detainees held in October 2001.

Protection imperative

The "roadmap" developed under the auspices of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations includes provisions for monitoring violations of cease-fire agreements. The need for observers to monitor and report on violations of international humanitarian law in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip is an immediate imperative that the international community should move to implement immediately.


We strongly urge members of the Commission on Human Rights, bearing in mind their simultaneous obligations as High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions, to adopt a resolution that would:

  • Condemn systematic and grave violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by all parties to the conflict.

  • Urge the United Nations Security Council to authorize the establishment of an international observer mission to monitor and report on continuing human rights and international humanitarian law violations in the West Bank and Gaza.

  • Incorporate the text and standards contained in the December 2001 Declaration of the reconvened conference of the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention.

  • Call on Israel to conduct impartial investigations into all suspicious killings by members of its security forces, make the results public, and discipline or punish individuals found guilty of wrongdoing.

  • Call on the Palestinian Authority to arrest and bring to justice in accordance with international standards those responsible for attacks against Israeli civilians.

February 27, 2003

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