(Jerusalem) – US President Barack Obama should press Israeli and Palestinian leaders to tackle persistent human rights abuses during his visit to the region. Obama is visiting the Middle East from March 20 to 22, 2013.
Obama should publicly address major issues such as unlawful Israeli settlement expansion and discrimination against Palestinians in the West Bank, lack of accountability for laws-of-war violations in Gaza, and the mistreatment of Palestinian detainees and African asylum seekers. He should call on Palestinian authorities to hold members of its security services accountable for abuses, including arbitrary arrests, torture of detainees, and crackdowns on the media.
“Resolving human rights problems should not await a comprehensive settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “President Obama should use this visit to demonstrate that his administration is serious about promoting human rights and will press hard for accountability for abuses.”
Obama should call upon Israel to stop unlawful demolitions of Palestinian homes and settlement construction in the West Bank, Human Rights Watch said. He should announce that his administration will withhold financial support to Israel equivalent to Israeli expenditures on settlements, and reconsider his administration’s opposition to Palestinian access to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
According to United Nations figures, Israeli authorities forcibly displaced 3,390 Palestinians by demolishing their homes in areas under the full control of Israeli military authorities from the beginning of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s previous term on March 31, 2009, to March 4, 2013, the last date for which figures are available. In these areas, East Jerusalem and “Area C” of the West Bank, Israeli military authorities displaced Palestinians by demolishing their homes and basic infrastructure.
The Israeli military also denied many Palestinian communities access to electricity, water, and road networks. It repeatedly confiscated tents donated by humanitarian agencies to Palestinians whose homes it had demolished.
The Israeli military tries to justify the demolitions by stating that Palestinians lacked building permits or were in areas not zoned for residential construction. However, under international humanitarian law relating to occupation, Israel may only demolish private property such as homes when absolutely necessary during military operations. According to Bimkom, an Israeli rights group, the military planning authorities deny around 94 percent of Palestinian permit applications.
Israeli planning authorities exclude Palestinians from the planning process in Area C, but include Israeli settlers, for whom the government has approved plans for thousands of housing units, special road networks, and other infrastructure in recent years. During its first term, the Obama administration repeatedly stated its opposition to Israeli settlements, which led Israel to impose a partial moratorium on new settlement construction in 2010.
However, the Israeli government ended the moratorium after 10 months and tenders for construction of new settlement housing units rose from 170 in 2009 to 3,148 in 2012, according to the Israeli organization Peace Now. The Israeli government also retroactively authorized 10 settlement “outposts” that had been built in violation of Israeli law, Peace Now reported.
The Obama administration should avoid offsetting the costs of Israeli expenditures on settlements by withholding US funding from the Israeli government in an amount equivalent to its expenditures on settlements and related infrastructure in the West Bank, Human Rights Watch said. Israeli special funding to settlements rose from 760.7 million shekels (US$206 million) in 2009 to 1.1 billion shekels (US$298 million) in 2012, including infrastructure projects, compensation for settlers affected by the moratorium on new housing, an annual “bonus due to the Oslo accord,” and other subsidies. US financial support to Israel increased from $2.6 billion in 2009 to $3.1 billion in 2012.
Instances in which Israel has unlawfully displaced Palestinians from their communities and policies that encourage and maintain settlements violate the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Because ICC jurisdiction could provide an avenue for accountability for violations of international law associated with Israel’s settlements regime – as well as create accountability for international crimes committed against Israeli civilians by Palestinian armed groups – Obama should reconsider his administration’s opposition to Palestinian access to the ICC, Human Rights Watch said.
“President Obama should remind Israel that its international legal obligations as an occupying power are not negotiable, that the US will not defray the costs of violating those obligations, and that such violations could entail criminal responsibility,” Whitson said.
Human Rights Watch urged Obama to press Israel to stop detaining Palestinians without charge or trial under “administrative detention” orders. Israel should also stop detaining asylum seekers without providing them access to a lawyer. Israel should stop pressuring detained Eritrean and Sudanese nationals to leave the country and return to their countries of origin, where they face a real risk of harm, by threatening them with long-term detention if they remain. Israel should allow detained immigrants to seek asylum.
Obama should also press Israel to end the near-total absence of accountability for laws-of-war violations in Gaza during “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008-09 and during “Operation Pillar of Defense” in 2012, Human Rights Watch said. Israel should carry out the recommendations of the Israeli public commission chaired by the former Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel to reform its mechanisms for investigating violations by its security forces.
During his planned visit to the West Bank, Obama should publicly state that his administration will impose conditions on US support for the Palestinian Authority unless its security services are held to account for serious rights violations, Human Rights Watch said.
In 2012, the security services carried out arbitrary arrests, harassed journalists and bloggers, and beat and assaulted peaceful demonstrators. The Palestinian Authority interior minister, Said Abu Ali, provided Human Rights Watch with an internal report stating that his ministry had taken disciplinary measures against 12 named police officials responsible for abuses against demonstrators at two protests in Ramallah in late June and early July 2012.
However, the Palestinian Authority has not provided information indicating that it has disciplined other security officers responsible for other alleged abuses, or that Palestinian courts have criminally prosecuted security officials for serious rights violations. In 163 cases documented by the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights during 2012, security services allegedly tortured or mistreated detainees. Despite strong evidence of torture in some cases, no security officials were convicted.
In January and February 2013, the Independent Commission for Human Rights received 27 additional complaints of torture and ill-treatment by Palestinian Authority security forces, including beating and punching detainees, suspending detainees from the ceiling, and forcing them to stand in painful positions for long periods.
The US government should condition support and training, as well as indirect budgetary support to the Palestinian Authority that it spends on its security services, on credible investigations and prosecutions of abuses. It should require the Palestinian Authority to routinely publish transparent, detailed information about any accountability measures taken against security officials responsible for severe human rights violations.
“In the West Bank, President Obama should clearly and publicly signal that the US will not turn a blind eye to abuses by the Palestinian Authority,” Whitson said.
Obama will not visit the Gaza Strip, but he should use the occasion of his visit to Israel and the West Bank to speak out against Israel's punitive closure of the Gaza Strip, particularly the near-total blocking of exports from Gaza, and the fact that Egypt also blocked all regular movement of goods at the crossing it controls.
Obama should also raise human rights abuses and laws-of-war violations by Hamas and Palestinian armed groups, Human Rights Watch said. In Gaza, Human Rights Watch has documented incommunicado detention and torture by Hamas security officials, convictions based on evidence obtained under coercion in the Gaza justice system, and the execution of prisoners convicted after unfair trials. Hamas authorities have failed to investigate and hold accountable members of Palestinian armed groups responsible for the extra-judicial executions of seven men and for indiscriminate rocket attacks that killed three Israeli civilians in November 2012.