Your upcoming visit to Israel and Jordan is an opportunity to reaffirm America’s commitment to basic principles of human rights and freedom while promoting security and extending a helping hand of friendship to the Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian people.
Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan are each responsible for significant human rights abuses. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel and Palestinian armed groups are also responsible for violations of international humanitarian law (the “laws of war”), which undermine the peace process that the United States has invested in so heavily.
The US government has failed to deter the Israeli government from continuing and even accelerating construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are widely recognized as illegal under international law. On June 13, 2008, the Israeli government announced the development of 1300 new homes in the Ramat Shlomo settlement, in East Jerusalem. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has criticized these developments, but has stopped short of taking steps that would ensure that the US government is not funding them.
The ongoing construction of the “separation barrier” or wall inside the West Bank endangers basic rights of the Palestinian population. The route repeatedly deviates from the Green Line, the post-1948 demarcation line between Israel and the West Bank, and is having a profound impact on the ability of the Palestinian residents to exercise their fundamental right to freedom of movement, endangering their access to their lands, services, medical care, water, and livelihoods. Most recently, in June the village of Ni'Iin, near Ramallah, lost two and a half hectares of agricultural land claimed for barrier construction.
Israel has sought to justify its construction of the wall on the basis its need to protect the security of its population from terrorist attacks. While Israel is entitled to build such a wall inside its territory within the Green Line, it violates its obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention to the extent it has placed the wall inside occupied territory in the West Bank. Furthermore, the Israeli government has acknowledged that the wall is not being built just for security purposes but also to establish its territorial and political claims on the occupied territories. Tzipi Livni, in her former capacity as the Israeli Minister of Justice, has said that the future borders of Israel will roughly follow the route of the wall.
To avoid U.S. financial complicity in policies that the U.S. Government opposes and that international law prohibits, the United States should, first, state in unequivocal terms that it will not tolerate any further settlement expansion and, second, announce that the administration will deduct from U.S. financial aid to Israel ($2.8 billion in 2008) an amount equal to Israel's expenditures on the settlements and on the construction and maintenance of such portion of the wall that is inside the West Bank.
Israel’s near total blockade of the Gaza Strip continues to have a severe impact on the civilian population, reducing the availability of basic goods to a trickle and severely affecting the provision of essential services. Israel, along with Egypt, sharply restricts travel abroad for Gazans, preventing departure for work, study and medical care except in humanitarian emergencies defined by Israel. The closure of Gaza has also crippled the Gazan economy. Its cumulative effect has been to erode the economy “in a manner that is difficult to reverse,” in the words of the World Bank. In March it reported that the restrictions have led to the suspension of 95 percent of Gaza's manufacturing operations. These measures, designed to curb Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel, amount to collective punishment of the civilian population, and are in violation of the laws of war.
Indiscriminate rocket attacks fired by Palestinian armed groups into Israeli towns such as Sderot, near the Gaza border, have caused civilian casualties, continuing trauma, and forced displacement. The use of rockets that cannot discriminate between civilians and military targets, such as the locally made rockets fired by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups, violate the laws of war when fired toward populated areas. While the US government has no direct contact with Palestinian groups in Gaza, we urge you as a presidential candidate to use your prestige and stature publicly to press for an end to such attacks. In any meetings with Palestinian officials, you should ask them to use their own influence to bring an end to these indiscriminate attacks.
Israeli attacks on Palestinian militants in Gaza have also incurred high numbers of civilian casualties. (Reuters estimate that a third of all Palestinians killed this year have been civilians.) These figures, as well as recent attacks, indicate the need for independent investigations to determine whether Israel has taken all feasible precautions to avoid harming civilians, as required by the laws of war.
In the West Bank, the United States is the leading donor of a $220 million program aimed at strengthening Palestinian security forces and the judicial system. Human Rights Watch investigations have found that forces under the control of Palestinian Authority have committed serious abuses against criminal suspects and prisoners, including hanging detainees by their feet and putting them in “stress” positions for hours at a time. There is currently insufficient legal and judicial oversight of these structures. In addition to paying for training and development of these institutions US aid to Palestinian should insist that adequate mechanisms are put in place to ensure sufficient oversight so that further abuses are not committed. Once again, to avoid financial complicity, the US government should make clear that any aid will be cut to institutions that continue to breach international human rights law.
Jordan continues to have a problematic human rights record. In 2007 and 2008, Human Rights Watch visited seven of Jordan’s 10 prisons and found torture to be widespread and routine. Prison guards torture with impunity, in part because allegations of abuse are investigated and prosecuted by a special Police Court beholden to the police authorities. Jordan’s intelligence service has a notorious record for its torture of prisoners. The United States has been directly implicated in serious human rights abuses when the CIA secretly rendered terrorism suspects to Jordan’s intelligence service for interrogation and likely torture between 2001 and 2004.
Recently, Jordan qualified for initial consideration by the US Millennium Challenge Corporation, despite the fact that it gave the government low marks on civil and political rights. Initial MCC assistance since 2007 has not improved this situation to date. In June, Jordan’s cabinet referred to parliament draft laws severely restricting the rights to peaceful public assembly and to freedom of association and expression of non-governmental organizations.
The United States has invested a great deal in Jordan. Jordan is among the highest per capita recipients of US aid worldwide. The enactment last week of the Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2008, makes an additional $450 million available for Jordan until September 2009, on top of the more than $600 million already allotted for military and economic assistance for 2008. US aid has greatly helped Jordan address economic and security challenges, but more needs to be done to ensure that this generous assistance is used to promote the human rights of all people in Jordan. Assistance to Jordan’s intelligence service should be conditioned on its compliance with human rights law, respect for due process, and an end to torture and other inhumane treatment, and parts of US aid in the “cash transfer” facility and MCC funding of the Jordanian government should be conditioned on respect for freedom of association and expression and peaceful assembly in law and practice, and on the effective prevention of torture and inhumane treatment in regular prisons, as well as civilian prosecution of perpetrators.
Lastly, the Supplemental Appropriations Act makes $175 million available to Jordan for assistance to Iraqi refugees there. This is a welcome step to alleviate a financial and social burden that Iraq’s neighbors have shouldered disproportionately so far. In its treatment of Iraqi refugees, however, Jordan does not comply with international refugee law. It deports asylum seekers to possible persecution to Iraq, closes its borders to Iraqis fleeing persecution, and, by not recognizing Iraqis as refugees, denies them the right to work in Jordan. The additional US aid to Jordan should be accompanied by greater attention to these issues of concern.
In your upcoming meetings with Israeli officials, we urge you to raise concerns about Israel’s construction of settlements and the separation barrier, and the humanitarian impact of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. With your Palestinian interlocutors, we urge you to raise the issue of torture and to call upon the Palestinian Authority to hold perpetrators accountable.
In Jordan, we urge you to raise the issues of torture, the rights to free assembly and association, and concerns regarding Iraqi refugees in Jordan.
The abuses of human rights described above undermine extensive efforts by the United States to promote stability and respect for the rule of law in the region. As by far the largest financial donor to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, the United States is in a unique position to ensure all three administrations fulfill their obligations under international law. As a candidate for the presidency of the United States we would urge you to press them to comply with international human rights law.
Human Rights Watch