On June 5, 51 years to the day since Israel began its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, French President Emmanuel Macron will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Paris. Today, Israel controls these areas through repression, institutionalized discrimination and ongoing serious abuses of the Palestinian population’s rights. For 51 years, the international community has failed to rein in abuses associated with the occupation.
The tide may have begun to shift, however, with a range of initiatives under way that are laying the groundwork for the international community to take more active measures to hold Israeli authorities to their obligations under international law. France can take the lead here and Macron should use his meeting with Netanyahu to make clear that there will be consequences for Israel continuing to disregard human rights.
Last month, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman approved the building of 2,500 new housing units in settlements in the occupied West Bank, where over 600,000 Israeli settlers currently reside. Such transfer of civilians into occupied territory constitutes a war crime. Settlements also contribute to a two-tiered discriminatory regime, which treats Palestinians separately and unequally.
In March 2016, the UN Human Rights Council approved the establishment and publication of a database of businesses operating in settlements. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expects to publish an initial version of the database by August. The European Union also recently put in place regulations requiring the labeling of imports from settlements, so Israel cannot pass off settlement goods as made in Israel. France has incorporated these regulations into its own laws. Macron should remind Netanyahu of France’s opposition to settlements, making clear that France will continue to support the database amid efforts by some to suppress its publication and advise French businesses to cease doing business in or with settlements.
To facilitate expansion of settlements and their supporting infrastructure, Israeli authorities have expropriated thousands of acres of Palestinian land and demolished homes and civilian structures such as schools on the grounds they lacked permits, even though discriminatory burdens make it nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain such permits in East Jerusalem and the 60% of the West Bank under exclusive Israeli control (known as “Area C” since the Oslo accords).
On May 24, Israel’s Supreme Court approved the government’s plans to demolish Khan al-Ahmar Ab al-Hilu, a village of 180 people east of Jerusalem, including its school, which educates 160 children from five surrounding villages. The school is just one of dozens of Palestinian schools against which the Israeli military has issued demolition orders and Khan al-Ahmar is just one of 46 Palestinian communities that the UN considers at “high risk of forcible transfer.” Forcible transfer of the population of an occupied territory is a war crime.
The European Union, UN officials and the UK’s Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa have all warned Israel against razing Khan al-Ahmar, which could take place any day. European states have also of late moved beyond mere condemnation; in October 2017, eight countries, including France, demanded compensation for humanitarian structures they had helped build in Area C and which Israel demolished. Macron should publicly call on Netanyahu to cancel plans to demolish Khan al-Ahmar and make clear that France will continue to support international efforts to identify and hold accountable those responsible for possible war crimes.
Since March 30, Israeli forces killed over 100 Palestinians in demonstrations inside Gaza and maimed and wounded thousands more; the latest victim was 21-year-old paramedic Razan al-Najjar, shot dead on June 1 while clearly identifiable as a medical volunteer and as she apparently tended to other injured protesters. The killings occurred while soldiers were carrying out open-fire orders from senior Israeli officials that allow them to use lethal force against protesters outside of situations where they posed an imminent threat to life, contrary to the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. These killings come amid Israel’s decade-long closure of Gaza, which severely restricts the movement of people and of goods, and which Egypt exacerbates by keeping its border with Gaza mostly closed.
On May 17, the UN Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the killings at the Gaza fence. The prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, which has an open preliminary examination into the situation in Palestine, has said that her office is following developments on the ground in Gaza. These efforts aim to break the virtual impunity within the Israeli justice system that enable such abuses.
As Israeli authorities ramp up rights abuses, they continue to narrow the space for rights defenders. Last month, Israel revoked Human Rights Watch’s work permit and ordered me to leave the country. The decision, which Israel justified based on positions I allegedly took on boycotts against Israel before joining Human Rights Watch (while acknowledging that neither the organization nor I as its representative promote boycotts), comes as the Israeli government makes it harder for rights groups to operate, accuses Israeli advocacy groups of slander against the state and discrediting the state and army and subjects Palestinian rights defenders to travel restrictions and even arrests and criminal charges.
A wide range of voices, including European Union and the UN, have issued strong statements of support for Human Rights Watch, which is appealing the revocation of the work permit in an Israeli court. In addition, foreign officials continue to meet rights groups in Israel and Palestine, despite warnings from Israeli authorities. Macron should express concern about the growing restrictions on Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights defenders.
The increase in international momentum to combat Israeli rights abuses, however, is threatened by the rise of populist leaders worldwide attacking universal values. France has a crucial role to play in defending human rights and international law at this critical time. It should seize this historic opportunity before too many more grim anniversaries pass.