For the past six months, the West Bank city of Hebron has been the scene of serious and sustained human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said in a new report Center of the Storm: A Case Study of Human Rights Abuses in Hebron District.
"Hebron is a microcosm of the devastating impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on civilians," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "These widespread human rights abuses simply cannot be deferred to future negotiations."
Human Rights Watch urged the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority take immediate steps to stop abuses by the forces under their control, and called for an independent, international monitoring presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to monitor and report on Israeli and Palestinian abuses.
Human Rights Watch researchers spent a total of five weeks in Hebron in November 2000 and February 2001. They completed more than 180 interviews with victims and witnesses to abuses, Israeli and Palestinian officials, international observers, medical and educational personnel, and Israeli settler representatives.
Israeli forces were responsible for the most extensive abuses, the report found, including excessive use of force against unarmed demonstrators, unlawful killings, indiscriminate and disproportionate fire in response to Palestinian attacks, and a consistent failure to protect Palestinians from attacks by Israeli settlers. Israel has restricted Palestinian movement with varying degrees of severity since March 1993, but the curfews and blockades now imposed, are the most extensive to date. These restrictions have had a devastating impact on all aspects of Palestinian life, including education, health, employment, and access to basic necessities. Jewish settlers in Hebron have also been responsible for frequent abuses against Palestinian civilians in Hebron. The Israeli authorities, especially the army, rarely intervene to stop or prevent settler attacks against Palestinians. Settlers in Hebron, who are not subject to the stringent curfew and closure restrictions, regularly beat Palestinians, attack their homes and businesses, and shoot and stone Palestinian drivers. Settlers have also targeted independent observers, humanitarian workers, diplomats and journalists during attacks that largely go unpunished.
Human Rights Watch also found that Palestinian gunmen, including some belonging to President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, have frequently targeted Israeli civilians living in settlements or traveling on roads, in violation of international humanitarian law. Although Israeli settlements are illegal under international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said, unarmed Israeli settlers, including children, are civilians and attacks on them are prohibited under international humanitarian law. Palestinian gunmen also put Palestinian civilians at risk by firing at Israeli targets from heavily populated Palestinian neighborhoods.
"Both sides have shown a blatant disregard for the rights of civilians," said Megally. "There is an urgent need to re-establish respect for the most basic principles of humanitarian law in this conflict. Civilians should never be the target of attack -- period."