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Human Rights Watch World Report 1998


Human Rights Developments

The Palestinian Authority (PA), established in 1994 pursuant to the Oslo Accords, exercised authority over internal security and other spheres in those areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in which the vast majority of Palestinians resided. Israeli military authorities continued to exercise direct authority over a minority of West Bank Palestinians, mostly those living outside the major cities. Israeli civilian authorities exercised authority over Palestinians living in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem. In addition, Israel exercised extensive control over the freedom of movement of all West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, and over those rights that depended on it.

Tension remained high throughout the year. In March, the PA suspended talks with Israel in protest over Israeli settlement construction in annexed East Jerusalem. A series of deadly bombings were carried out inside Israel and claimed by the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas). Israel, in a crippling act of collective punishment against more than 1.5 million Palestinians, imposed the tightest restrictions since the Gulf War on the movement of people and goods in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

On March 21, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed three Israelis in a cafe in Tel Aviv. A second suicide bombing occurred in the West Jerusalem Mahane Yehuda market on July 30, killing fourteen in addition to the bombers. A third suicide attack, in a West Jerusalem street mall on September 4, killed five passersby and wounded more than 150.

Israel's response to the attacks included a tightening of the existing closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It blocked the flow of goods and of Palestinians into and out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and also between the Palestinian-controlled cities of the West Bank. Thus, most West Bank Palestinians except Jerusalem residents were confined to their home towns, regardless of whether they worked or had pressing business elsewhere. Although the official policy was to exempt from the restrictions relief supplies, ambulances, medical professionals and patients, there were numerous reports of their being delayed or turned back at military checkpoints, and of hospitals struggling with reduced staffs. According to hospitals and local human rights organizations, including the Ramallah-based Al-Haq, two Palestinians died after encountering long delays at checkpoints while en route to hospitals.

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) gradually eased its internal closure of the West Bank after September 14, but kept in place the general closure, in effect since March 1993, which barred Palestinians who lacked hard-to-obtain Israeli permits from entering or transiting through Israel or East Jerusalem. In addition to impairing economic activity, permit denials disrupted family life for the thousands of families whose members lived in different parts of the territories, prevented over one thousand Gazans from reaching the West Bank universities in which they were enrolled, and kept worshippers from the holy sites in Jerusalem, to list but a few of the obstacles created.

Israeli authorities claimed the closure was a justified security measure intended both to assist the investigation of the bombings and to prevent future attacks, and that during closures "every effort is made to ensure that normal life for the Palestinians should continue as far as is possible." In fact, few official mechanisms functioned efficiently and responsively to mitigate the hardships. Despite its stated security grounds, the closure amounted to an act of collective punishment because of its imposition in an indiscriminate fashion on an entire population.

According to local human rights groups, such as the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment (LAWE), there were at least 500 Palestinians in administrative detention held in jails within Israel at the end of October, some 200 of them detained since the July 30 bombing. Administrative detainees were held without charge or trial for renewable periods of up to six months each and were denied their right to a meaningful appeal. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, in a May 1997 report, reported that since the signing of the Israeli-PLO accords, Israel had administratively detained Palestinians for longer periods than previously, with over half of the detainees having had their orders extended at least once. The longest-held administrative detainee, Ahmed Qatamesh, entered his sixth year in custody without charge.

The Israeli General Security Service (GSS) continued to torture while interrogating Palestinian security detainees. The standard methods involved a prolonged regimen of confinement in painful and unnatural positions, hooding, exposure to incessantly loud noise, sleep deprivation, and in some cases, vigorous shaking of the head back and forth during questioning. Israeli authorities did not deny using these methods, but stated that they were carefully regulated to ensure that physical pressure remained "moderate" and never amounted to torture. Virtually all human rights organizations and the U.N. Committee against Torture ( see below) insisted that these practices, used in combination and over time, constituted torture.

The Israeli Supreme Court continued to abstain from ruling whether GSS interrogation methods violated domestic or international law. During 1996 and 1997 it ruled against Palestinians under interrogation who petitioned the court to bar the use of physical force against them. In those cases in which the GSS contested the petition, the court accepted its arguments that intensive interrogation was required to obtain from the detainees crucial and urgent information affecting Israeli security. The court merely warned that GSS interrogators were bound by Israeli law-which prohibits "the use of force or violence" during interrogation-without commenting on the tension between this law on the one hand and, on the other, the GSS internal guidelines permitting the use of "moderate physical pressure" and the physical methods being consistently alleged by the petitioners.

Violent clashes continued to erupt between Palestinian stone-and bottle-throwers and Israeli soldiers, notably in the Hebron area. Although the security forces relied more on rubber-coated bullets than in previous years, they killed fourteen Palestinians between January and July, according to B'Tselem, and inflicted many serious injuries, including loss of eyesight, by firing these bullets at close range.

Israel stepped up the bulldozing of houses built or expanded without permits in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, demolishing more than one hundred houses, according to local human rights groups. While Israel asserted that it was merely enforcing building codes, the fact that the demolitions surged after the July suicide bombing gave a blatantly political coloring to the practice. Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Israeli civil authority in the occupied territories, alluded to this in September. "We had delayed [demolitions]," he said, "to try to give some chance to the negotiations between us and the Palestinians and to try to stop tension between us." After the July attack, "everything changed, all the reasons we had before did not exist anymore."

Many Palestinians built without permits because Israeli authorities in the West Bank and the Jerusalem municipality rarely issued permits to Palestinians seeking to construct or enlarge their homes. Jewish homeowners with the same aspirations were granted permits more easily and with extremely rare exceptions, did not risk the razing of their property if found to have built without a permit.

Israel also continued its policy of collective punishment by demolishing the family homes of militants suspected of killing Israelis, even when the militant was himself already dead. At least four family residences were destroyed on these grounds during 1997. In July, Israel's parliament gave its initial approval to a draft law limiting the right of Palestinians to seek compensation for wrongful injury or death caused by Israeli soldiers. The legislation would disqualify most suits by unduly broadening the definition of "combat activity"-situations for which no compensation could be sought-and by exempting from consideration injuries that are not serious and permanent. If enacted, this bill would eviscerate what has been one of the few means of holding the Israeli army accountable for abuses: civil suits in Israeli courts.

Since 1996, the right of East Jerusalem Palestinians to reside in their native city came under direct threat from a policy apparently designed to further Israel's objective of limiting the Palestinian population of the contested city. These 170,000 Palestinians had overwhelmingly elected not to accept citizenship after Israel annexed the eastern portion of the city. Israel classified these Palestinians as "permanent residents" of Israel. This status was subject to revocation, whether or not a person was born in the city, if the Interior Ministry determined that he or she had established a primary residence elsewhere. Over 1,000 adults had lost their right to legal residence since 1996, and with them, several times that number of dependents. They also lost their health insurance and social benefits, and risked being barred from reentry if they ever ventured out of the city. The appeals process placed the burden of proof on the residents to show through written documentation that Jerusalem remained their "center of life." Meanwhile, Israel did not subject to the same scrutiny and tests the status of Jewish Jerusalem residents who were not citizens. The Interior Minister declared his determination to continue the policy in spite of a promise by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu early in 1997 to review it.

The Palestinian Authority

The Palestinian Authority (PA) failed during 1997 to institutionalize important safeguards against patterns of human rights abuses that included arbitrary detentions without charge or trial, sometimes without disclosing the detainee's whereabouts; mistreatment of detainees underinterrogation; and persecution of those who criticized or challenged the authorities. The PA continued to refer cases to the State Security Court, where defendants received almost none of the basic due process rights. The preeminent forum for airing human rights issues remained the Palestinian Legislative Council, but its influence was diminished by the dismissive attitude of the executive branch toward its activities and resolutions.

In August, Palestinian human rights groups, including LAWE, estimated the total number of detainees being held by the PA without charge or trial at between 200 and 300. The following month, at least eighty suspected Hamas activists were rounded up and held without charge, following Israeli and U.S. pressure for a crackdown in the wake of the September 4 bombing in Jerusalem.

The independent Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) issued a report on May 27 alleging "wide-spread" torture of detainees under interrogation, based on a study of forty-two West Bank and Gaza residents who underwent interrogation since 1996. The report stated that, according to their testimony, "all suspects were beaten, over half with the aid of a weapon or while tied in a painful position." Nine were either subjected to immersion in cold water or exposed to cold weather or burns from cigarettes or other hot objects, PHRMG reported.

One of the five suspicious deaths in custody between January and September resulted in a criminal trial by the time this report went to press. A military court was convened one day after the June 30 death of Nasser Abed Radwan from blows to the head. It sentenced three officers to death and three others to prison terms. As in other cases that caused an uproar, the announcement of a trial, conviction and sentencing so quickly after the death suggested an effort by the authorities above all to mollify critics, with little regard for ensuring that the defendants enjoyed their rights in court. None of the death penalties handed down by Palestinian courts had been carried out as of this writing.

There were some gestures by the PA in response to human rights criticism. In July, Fayez abu Rahmeh was named to replace Attorney General Khaled al-Qidra, who had gained notoriety for ordering the arrest of several critics of the PA and other measures that undermined the rule of law. And on July 1, Police Chief Ghazi Jabali warned the security services to curtail abuses and violence among their ranks. "We will not be tolerant of anyone, no matter what their rank, if there is a complaint about him from a citizen who was beaten," he announced in advertisements in Palestinian newspapers in which he urged people to voice their complaints.

Soon after becoming attorney general, Abu Rahmeh promised to examine the cases of some 180 detainees that he said were being held without charge or trial, and to try or release them "as soon as possible." But after he ordered the release of ten detainees for lack of evidence on August 15, Palestinian security forces promptly rearrested the men.

At least three men reputed to have sold land to Israelis were murdered in circumstances that strongly suggested official tolerance if not involvement in the killing. They were killed shortly after the PA announced in early May that it would seek the death penalty for Palestinians convicted of selling land to Jews, pursuant to Jordanian law, which remains in effect in the West Bank. Justice Minister Freih Abu Medein made inflammatory statements at the time that seemed to give a green light to violence against suspected land dealers. For example, after the May 9 murder of land dealer Farid Bashiti, Abu Medein told the press, "As I have said before, expect the unexpected for these matters because nobody from this moment will accept any traitor who sells his land to Israelis." The PA made no arrests in any of the killings.

After two years in which newspapers were confiscated and journalists threatened and arrested, the local Palestinian press generally avoided direct criticism of President Arafat, although criticism within certain limits of lower PA officials was tolerated. While public dissent was not systematically suppressed, critics of the PA continued to be at risk of arrest. Gazan lawyer Jameel Salameh was detained on April 26 in connection with an article he wrote that compared the PA unfavorably with the government of Israel in its handling of corruption. He was released after one week without charge. On July 2, Palestinian Preventive Security forces arrested Fathi Subuh, a professor of education at al-Azhar University in Gaza, shortly after he had given his students an examination containing a question on corruption at the university and within the PA. The official claim that "security reasons" were behind the arrest was undermined when security forces confiscated the students' examination booklets from his home. Subuh was allowed no contact with his family or lawyer for more than a month. Petitions to secure his release from detention in October, at which time he had still not been charged, were rejected by the Palestinian High Court of Justice on the grounds that the case was before the State Security Court and therefore beyond its jurisdiction, according to the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

In the face of PA intimidation of critics, the Palestinian Legislative Council was the preeminent forum for debating and exposing issues of human rights and corruption. When live coverage of the council's stations proved popular among West Bank viewers, the PA responded by jamming the signal and detaining Daoud Kuttab, the journalist responsible for arranging the broadcasts. Kuttab was released on May 27 after one week in detention without charge. Although the PA had not, as of early November, permitted the resumption of extensive live coverage of the council's sessions, the West Bank's local television stations continued to offer talk and call-in shows that provided a lively contrast to the staid PA-controlled station.

The Right to Monitor

Israel permitted human rights organizations to collect and disseminate information in the areas under its control. However, closures kept human rights workers, like other Palestinians who did not hold Jerusalem identity cards, from moving freely among regions within the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinian lawyers were frequently unable to reach clients in jails inside Israel.

On July 27, Israel renewed for six months the administrative detention of Sha'wan Jabarin, fieldwork coordinator at Al-Haq. He has been held off and on for a total of nearly five years since 1989, all of that time without charge or trial.

The PA allowed human rights organizations to operate in the territory under its jurisdiction. For a variety of reasons, including pressure on those who publicly criticized the PA, some of these groups opted for tactics other than public denunciation to make known their concerns about PA practices.

On October 26, Palestinian security forces arrested Khaled Amayreh, a journalist and human rights activist, after he published a report on the torture of Hamas detainees in a PA center near Hebron. Amayreh said later that he was held for almost two days and verbally abused by Jibril Rajoub, head of the Preventive Security Service in the West Bank. He was released without charge.

The PA continued to deny to rights groups regular access to prisons, although ad hoc visits were granted to lawyers and human rights workers in their individual capacities. The human rights group LAWE stated on October 20 that the head of General Intelligence in the West Bank, responsible for detainees under investigation, had barred its staff from any visits to prisons under its authority. LAWE linked the move to its exposure of torture by Palestinian security forces.

The Role of the

International Community

United Nations

The U.N. Committee Against Torture, on May 7, 1997, following its review of Israel's report of February 17, found that Israel's methods of interrogation, as documented by human rights organizations, "constitute torture as defined in article 1 of the Convention." The committee recommended that methods that are in conflict with the Convention "cease immediately" and urged Israel to incorporate the Convention's provisions into domestic law. In its report, Israel did not dispute the charges made by human rights organizations but instead defended the use of "a moderate degree of pressure, including physical pressure," during interrogation of "dangerous terrorists who represent a grave threat."

European Union

In December 1996, the Council of Ministers cited Israel's commitment under the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement "to promote compliance with the basic norms of democracy, including respect for human rights and the rule of law." The E.U.-Israel Association Agreement was ratified by most E.U. member states during 1996-1997. Ireland, Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom added ministerial statements or parliamentary resolutions that underscored the human rights dimension of the agreement, in some cases stating that the persistence of abuses such as torture would place Israel in violation of the agreement.

The European Union was the largest single donor to the PA. By 1996 it had provided the PA with U.S.$404 million, and pledged to provide an additional $63 million annually until 1998. In 1997 a preliminary agreement was reached that would promote trade cooperation and development of the PA areas and pave the way for a Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement. According to press reports, when President Arafat came to Brussels to sign the interim agreement, E.U. officials cautioned him that the agreement could be jeopardized by a persistent pattern of human rights abuses.

United States

Israel remained the largest recipient of U.S. bilateral aid, with over $3 billion in economic and military assistance. As in past years, there were no indications that the U.S. was prepared to link continued aid to curtailing human rights abuses.

The U.S. remained the principal third party in the Israeli-PLO negotiations. With that process stalemated during much of the year amid mutual recriminations, the Clinton administration publicly pressured the PA to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It also broke its customary silence on Israeli abuses on a few occasions when it believed that Israeli practices were complicating the negotiations. Settlement construction was the most frequent but not the only human rights topic mentioned. During Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's first visit to the region in September, she called on President Arafat to fight harder against terrorism while urging Israel to take a "time out" on settlement construction, ease its blockade of the PA-controlled areas, and refrain from "land confiscations, home demolitions and confiscation of I.D.s." It was probably the strongest public statement on human rights uttered in Israel by a U.S. secretary of state in several years. While such public demarches were infrequent, diplomats at the Tel Aviv embassy and Jerusalem consulate actively followed human rights developments throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip and made numerous demarches both with the Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

U.S. policy toward the PA was dominated by pressure on the PA to act decisively against anti-Israeli violence, one of Israel's conditions for continuing the negotiating process. U.S. pressure was often applied in a manner that, in light of the past record of the PA, condoned arbitrary arrests and other abuses in the name of containing anti-Israeli violence. For example, on August 5, Secretary Albright told reporters, "What we would like is as robust a reaction to the terrorists as [Arafat] took in March 1996, where heundertook a series of very specific steps to deal with the terrorist threat," an apparent reference to the roundup of several hundred suspected Islamists who were then held without charge or trial, and the summary closure of charitable organizations affiliated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The U.S. applauded when the PA began rounding up suspected Hamas activists in September-again, without charges being filed-and closing Hamas-affiliated charitable organizations. State Department spokesman James Foley said on September 8, "We think any step in the direction of an active, relentless effort to dismantle the security infrastructure [of the extremist groups] in the territories under the Palestinian Authority's control is a positive step...."

Following the failed assassination attempt by Israeli intelligence agents of Khaled Meshal, a Hamas official in Amman, Jordan, the U.S. obliquely criticized the Israeli operation while urging the PA to continue its crackdown on that organization. Referring to the Hamas institutions the PA shut down as having supported "the terrorist infrastructure that we're trying to eliminate," State Department spokesman James Rubin said on October 6, " We want them shut down. Those people who support them ought to be arrested and ought to stay in jail."

When the PA committed abuses that fell outside the context of the fight against anti-Israel violence-such as by jailing secular critics and journalists, and when a detainee died under suspicious circumstances-the U.S. was more willing to speak out and make demarches. The U.S. took a strong public stance over the arrest of Palestinian-American journalist Daoud Kuttab. And following the death of detainee Yousef al-Baba in February, U.S. Consul in Jerusalem Edward Abington declared, "Too many Palestinians have died while in [PA] custody. Palestinians must not suffer at the hands of other Palestinians. Those who break the law must be held accountable." He also told Reuters, "Security is important but it can't come at the cost of human rights," a laudable maxim that did not characterize U.S. policy overall toward the PA during 1997.

The U.S. provided an annual $100 million to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, most of it toward programs administered by U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). The self-described goals of AID programs included strengthening democracy and civil society and increasing the flow and diversity of information to citizens. One recipient was the project to provide live televised coverage of the sessions of the Palestinian Legislative Council ( see above). In August 1997, U.S. assistance to the self-ruled areas was held up following Congress's failure to re-certify, within a deadline provided by legislation, that the PA was doing enough to curb anti-Israeli violence.

Relevant Human Rights Watch reports :

Israel-Without Status or Protection: Lebanese Detainees in Israel, 10/97

Israel/Lebanon: "Operation Grapes of Wrath," 9/97

Palestinian Self-Rule Areas: Human Rights under the Palestinian Authority, 9/97

Israel-Legislating Impunity: The Draft Law to Halt Palestinian Tort Claims, 7/97

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