Human Rights Developments
For the third consecutive year, the human rights situation in the Israeli-occupied territories was dominated by Israel's efforts to quell the Palestinian uprising. Severe violations conitnued, with their frequency declining in some cases and increasing in others. The general downward trend in killings by security forces indicated that fatal shootings are a controllable phenomenon when the will is there. At the same time, the continued use of live ammunition in non-life-threatening situations, the revival of deportations, the widespread use of administrative detention, extensive curfews, university closures and other measures indicated the grave level of abuses that persisted for the 1.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The use of deadly force continued to be among the most pressing human rights concerns in 1990. The Israel Defense Force (IDF) continued to be inadequately prepared to employ nonlethal means for handling civil unrest, including the use of plastic shields and the deployment of adequate numbers of troops to control crowds without resorting to gunfire. The government-appointed commission investigating the killing of 17 Palestinians by the Jerusalem Police on October 8 emphasized "the immediate need to develop alternatives to the use of live ammunition." This belated recommendation applies equally well to IDF troops patrolling the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
While failing to adopt nonlethal techniques for handling unrest, the IDF took some steps during much of 1990 to lower fatalities: patrols in some heavily populated areas were reduced, and soldiers, apparently on orders from their superiors, showed greater restraint in opening fire with live and plastic bullets.
These changes in IDF conduct, along with a decline in the frequency with which Palestinians engaged soldiers in physical confrontations, contributed to a reduction by more than one-half in the monthly average of fatal shootings when compared to 1988 and 1989. Israeli security forces killed 137 Palestinians by gunfire between December 1, 1989 and December 31, 1990, compared to 555 over the two years from December 8, 1987 to November 30, 1989, according to B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.23
However, when the relative calm of 1990 was broken, it was by clashes that proved to be exceptionally fierce and bloody, most notably the confrontations that followed the murder of seven Palestinian workers by an apparently deranged Israeli civilian on May 20, and the clash in Jerusalem on October 8 in the al-Aqsa mosque compound (known to the Muslim world as Haram el-Sharif, and to the Jewish community as the Temple Mount).
While modifications in the practices of patrolling and opening fire contributed to greater restraint by soldiers during 1990, the military justice system did little during the year to reinforce that sense of restraint. As in previous years, only a handful of incidents of killing or injury inflicted by soldiers led to courts-martial or trials, and no soldier received a sentence of more than one year in prison. The cases prosecuted represented only a small portion of cases in which there was prima facie evidence -- credible eyewitness testimony and, in some cases, medical evidence -- that soldiers had exceeded their open-fire orders.
A similar reluctance to hold security forces responsible for using excessive force characterized the report of the government-appointed commission looking into the killings at the al-Aqsa mosque compound. Its report mentioned only in passing the "uncontrolled use of live ammunition" by police, giving scant attention to what should have been a central issue: the use of excessive force, including shooting into a crowd with bursts of automatic-weapon fire. While a continuing judicial inquest may still lead to charges against police who caused the deaths of Palestinians that day, the commission's report was symptomatic of the low priority given by Israeli authorities to encouraging a policy of restraint in handling disturbances.
There were some positive developments in the military justice system in 1990. IDF criminal investigators showed an increased willingness to contact some independent organizations, such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, when they claimed to possess information pertinent to the investigation of particular cases. And throughout the year, the court-martial of Col. Yehuda Meir, which was ordered by Israel's High Court of Justice, kept the issue of senior officers' responsibility for abuses committed by their subordinates very much in the public eye. The trial of Col. Meir, who is charged with ordering the beatings of Palestinian in custody in January 1988, was still in progress at the end of 1990. In another significant development, the only other officer ranked colonel or above to be court-martialed for an intifada-related abuse, Col. Yaakov Sadeh, was convicted on December 13 of negligence in the death of a Gaza youth during a disturbance in 1989. The court-martial found Col. Sadeh guilty of violating the regulations on firing plastic bullets; he announced plans to appeal, and a sentence has not yet been handed down.
Fewer Palestinians spent periods in administrative detention -- internment without trial or charge -- during 1990 than during the two previous years, when the number of Palestinians under administrative detention remained above 2,000 much of the time. In mid-December 1990, the IDF Judge Advocate-General said there were 910 administrative detainees. While lower than in previous years, the detention of this number of Palestinians goes well beyond the exceptional use of this drastic measure -- "for imperative reasons of security" -- that is authorized by Article 78 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.24
In our report on 1989, we noted that the IDF doubled the maximum length of an administrative detention order from six months to one year. Since then, only a small fraction of those detained were issued the full one-year sentence; in December 1990, the Ramallah-based human rights organization al-Haq said it knew of 15 Palestinians serving one-year orders at that time.
In practice, authorities exercised their power to renew shorter detention orders more often than their power to sign initial one-year detention orders. Although statistics were not available, a significant minority of administrative detainees found their terms renewed upon their expiry; a handful have served as many as five or six terms -- that is, two to three years in detention without charge or trial, with little or no interruption.
Credible and frequent accounts of physical abuse of Palestinian security suspects during interrogation continued in 1990, although the data were unavailable to determine whether its frequency and severity increased or decreased. Suspects continued to report the same forms of mistreatment by General Security Service (Shin Bet) interrogators as have been regularly reported in the past, including hooding, long periods of forced standing with the hands tied, confinement in closet-like rooms, and beatings. In Gaza Central Prison, three suspects died during interrogation between December 1989 and November 1990; in one of the cases, two General Security Service interrogators were indicted after an autopsy showed that one of the victims, Khaled al-Sheikh Ali, died from severe blows to the abdomen.
With the apparent exception of the interrogation period, prison conditions for many Palestinian inmates convicted or accused of security offenses improved during 1990, due in part to the expansion and upgrading of facilities and the decline in the size of the prison population. However, the improvement in many facilities was overshadowed by the confinement of roughly one-half of the Palestinians in custody at the Ketsiot detention center in the Negev desert, where unacceptably harsh conditions prevailed. The more than 6,000 prisoners at Ketsiot experience extreme physical heat, impeded access to their lawyers and mail, and an atmosphere of great tension in which soldiers regularly point loaded rifles at them and frequently fire tear gas into the tent areas. The atmosphere was in stark contrast to the conditions in Israeli civilian prisons, in which professionally trained and unarmed guards, rather than reserve soldiers, watched over the prisoners. In addition, due to a standoff between the IDF and Palestinians that the IDF could quickly resolve if it chose, no family visits have taken place since Ketsiot was opened in March 1988. Finally, it bears repeating that the detention of Gaza and West Bank residents in Ketsiot, inside Israel and a long drive from the occupied territories, violates Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which requires an occupying power to detain protected persons within the territory under occupation.
West Bank schools, which military authorities had kept closed for most of 1988 and 1989 on the grounds that they were "centers of intifada violence," were permitted to remain open during 1990, with the exception of a few periods lasting up to several days. In addition to these system-wide closures, local closure orders led to an average of 13 schools being closed per week between January 10 and May 31, according to B'Tselem. In the Gaza Strip, where military authorities have refrained from shutting down the entire school system during the intifada, pupils missed school days due to curfews, local closure orders, and strikes declared by Palestinian leaders.
In 1990, military authorities permitted the reopening of two of the smaller Palestinian universities and all 16 junior and technical colleges. However, the four main universities remained shut for the third consecutive year, preventing some 12,000 university students and over 1,000 staff members from entering their campuses. Unlike previous years, authorities did not attempt to break up the off-campus classes that the closed universities had organized.
Curfews of areas large and small continued to be imposed frequently during 1990, both in response to incidents of violence and in anticipation of unrest. The entire Gaza Strip remained under a permanent curfew from 8:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. (9:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan) and experienced 24-hour curfews on at least seven occasions during 1990, each one lasting up to seven days. In a clear example of an anticipatory curfew, over 100,000 people in the Nablus area were confined to their homes on May 3 to permit Jewish settlers and politicians to dedicate the Torah scriptures for a new religious school at the Tomb of Joseph, which is located inside the city. On November 14, one day before Palestinians celebrated the second anniversary of their self-declared independence, a two-day curfew was imposed on most refugee camps and major cities in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
While a curfew may be justified under humanitarian law for a limited duration to prevent an even more severe disruption of civil life and public order, the circumstances, scope and duration of curfews imposed by Israeli authorities suggested that they were in many instances punitive and in violation of the prohibition against collective punishment contained in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
For example, the permanent nighttime curfew throughout the Gaza Strip appears punitive when one considers that it restricts all 700,000 residents of the district and not only those living in turbulent areas, and that authorities have not once tried to lift the curfew during three years to test whether it actually was contributing to quiet. A suit challenging the legality of the blanket curfew was rejected by Israel's High Court of Justice in August; the army had argued that the curfew prevented nighttime activity by Palestinian strike committees.
Military authorities continued to demolish the homes of the families of Palestinians suspected of committing grave, politically motivated acts of violence. Resort to this form of collective punishment declined somewhat in the months following the July 1989 High Court of Justice ruling that gave Palestinians an opportunity to appeal demolition orders to the Court, except in cases of "operational military needs." Nevertheless, 79 homes were demolished between January and mid-November 1990, according to B'Tselem, compared to 164 in 1989. This punishment -- and the less drastic measure of sealing shut part or all of a house --justified by military authorities as a deterrent to others, is almost always meted out before the suspect is convicted. It is never used against Jews suspected or convicted of comparable assaults on Palestinians; Jewish residents of the occupied territories are subject to Israeli law and not the emergency regulations that permit demolitions.
One form of extrajudicial punishment that was revived at the end of 1990 after having been shunned by Israel since 1988 was deportation. On December 15, following a wave of knifings by Palestinians that left seven Israelis dead and others wounded during the nine weeks following the killings in the al-Aqsa mosque compound, Defense Minister Moshe Arens ordered the expulsion of four Gazans accused of being active in Hamas, a militant Islamic organization. Hamas had called for lethal attacks against Israelis and had claimed responsibility for the fatal stabbings of three Israelis in Jaffa the day before. [The four were deported on January 8.]
The decision to suspend deportations in 1988 has been attributed to two factors: steady pressure from the international community, including the United States, which had made deportation a priority among its human rights concerns, and a sense among many in Israel's political and defense establishment that the efficacy of the sanction was undermined by the time-consuming appeals process available to those served with deportation orders. Some IDF and government officials have pressed for an accelerated and more limited appeals process. At the end of 1990, concern was growing that an expedited appeals process would soon be implemented.
Unlike the deportation of security suspects, the deportation of Palestinians lacking Israeli-issued residence papers has not been resumed since its suspension. The practice was halted in early 1990 after more than 250 Palestinians had been summarily deported, some in the middle of the night, during the previous year.
Most Palestinians deported in this fashion had been unable to obtain residency permits that would allow them to live legally in the territories with spouses or children who are legal residents. Instead, they entered on visitor's visas which later expired.
Israel conducted a census of the West Bank and Gaza Strip shortly after capturing them in the June 1967 war. Palestinians present at the time of the count were registered. Palestinians outside the area at the time -- for example, those studying or working abroad or who fled during the hostilities -- had to apply for residency.
Many of those unable to obtain legal residency were Palestinian women who grew up in Jordan or elswhere and then married residents of the West Bank. Between 1967 and 1987, only 9,000 out of 140,000 petitions for family reunification had been approved by the Israeli authorities, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross; the pace of approvals slowed further during the intifada.25 The decisions on applications are made by military committees that do not hold hearings or give applicants an opportunity to present their case.
A halt to the deportation of "illegals" was announced on January 31, one day after the Washington Post ran a front-page story about the deportations and the State Department criticized the practice. In the spring, following a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, some of the spouses and children who had been deported were permitted to return on longer, renewable visitor's visas. Nevertheless, the plight of members of divided families who have been unable to obtain permission to live together in the occupied territories remains unresolved.
During 1990, administrative forms of control continued to place a burden on all Palestinians. Bureaucratic regulation of life in the territories was deliberately increased during the intifada on various stated grounds, including the authorities' desire to catch up with tax boycotters and to control the movement of Palestinians with records of security arrests. Since 1988, Palestinians wishing to do such things as travel abroad, obtain a driver's license or a telephone, or register a newborn infant or an automobile, have had to obtain clearance from a series of agencies. Depending on the applicant and the procedure, these include various tax authorities, the police, the military, civil administration and the General Security Service. The process routinely involved long lines, fees, and the arbitrary and humiliating behavior of the authorities involved. While bureaucratic red tape is characteristic of many societies, its pervasiveness in the occupied territories amounted to a form of deliberate discrimination and harassment.
* * *
While killings by Israeli security forces declined during 1990, killings by Palestinians of other Palestinians accelerated. From the beginning of the intifada until the end of November 1989, some 153 Palestinians were slain by other Palestinians on what was said to be suspicion of collaborating, according to the Associated Press; during the next 13 months, 171 more were murdered. The basis for the suspicion of collaborating was not known in every case; some of the killings may have had other motives.
Some Palestinians defend the killing of "collaborators" as necessary to protect the population from informants who help security forces by identifying activists and facilitating arrests and ambushes, thereby putting activists at risk of arrest or gunfire. Palestinian collaborators are also issued arms by the Israeli authorities and have reportedly been responsible for killing ten other Palestinians from the beginning of the intifada through the end of 1990, according to B'Tselem, and for causing injuries and property damage in many instances.
Regardless of the accusations against these individuals, the manner in which they have been punished is deplorable. Their deaths did not come about in a situation of battle or combat. Almost without exception, killings of "collaborators" have been carried out execution-style, sometimes after torture. Although some of the victims received warnings and had some opportunity to plead their case, it cannot be said that any of them received a fair hearing before an independent tribunal. The deprivation of their basic due process rights was all the more serious in light of the severe punishment meted out.
Journalists and others who have studied the issue report that many of these killings have been carried out by local persons acting autonomously. However, there is evidence that the Unified National Leadership of the Intifada (UNLI), the local underground front comprised of representatives of the main Palestinian political factions, played a central role in approving the punishment of some of the suspected collaborators. Both the Palestine Liberation Organization and the UNLI condoned the killings under certain circumstances and at the very least failed to condemn them at a time when they had become an almost-daily phenomenon.
Since late 1989, however, the public positions of the Palestinian leadership appear to have evolved toward opposing the killings. In late December 1990, the UNLI issued its clearest orders yet forbidding activists from killing suspected collaborators without a decision being taken at the highest level. Middle East Watch urges Palestinians who exercise some measure of political authority over their compatriots to press hard in 1991 to eliminate these assassinations altogether.
The United States showed tentative but important signs of becoming more vocal about Israeli human rights abuses during 1990. Most significantly, the US endorsed two UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel's killing of the 17 Palestinians in Jerusalem on October 8, as well as a third protesting Israel's resumption of deportations of Palestinians. Other than a resolution criticizing deportations in January 1988, these were the first instances since 1980 that the US supported Security Council resolutions critical of Israeli violations of human rights in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The United States also demonstrated how it might condition bilateral aid on Israeli practices in the occupied territories. This was done in response to a request by Israel for a $400 million loan guarantee26 to finance housing for Soviet immigrants. Although the administration eventually approved the guarantee, it delayed approval for several months while it voiced concern repeatedly about Israel's settlement policy in the occupied territories.
Despite these signs of chafing at Israeli practices, US policy remained fundamentally unchanged. Economic and military aid to Israel, by far the largest bilateral aid program of the United States, increased during 1990, with no public suggestion by any administration official that the $3 billion in annual grants should be linked to greater respect for human rights.27
The aid received by Israel amounted to one-fifth of all US foreign assistance in fiscal year 1990. The total package consisted of $1.8 billion in military grants and $1.2 billion in economic grants. In addition, the US attached several favorable conditions to the Israeli aid package, such as an early disbursement that allows Israel rather than the United States to collect interest on the grants during the year, which increased the value of the total package to well over $3 billion.28
The budget for fiscal year 1991 adds $700 million to this basic $3 billion package of grants. The supplemental appropriation, which was approved by Congress following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, authorizes the President to transfer up to $700 million worth of Defense Department stockpiles to Israel. Backers of the amendment contended that the Gulf crisis had increased the military threat to Israel.
In its public pronouncements on human rights in 1990, the Bush administration seemed content, until the fall at least, to repeat the pattern of the previous year. As in 1989, the publication in February of a strong chapter on Israeli abuses in the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices was followed by months of near-silence on the continuing abuses that the report described. In 1990, however, this reluctance to speak out lasted only until October, when the killings in Jerusalem and political considerations related to the Gulf crisis prompted a more vocal stance.
The Bush administration, like its predecessor, justified a low-profile policy on Israeli human rights violations on the grounds that the abuses were merely a symptom of the absence of peace. As Richard Schifter, the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on February 21:
Following this logic, the Bush administration opted either to shun public criticism of abuses as counterproductive to the peace process, or to criticize them more as impediments to peace than as abuses per se. While muting its public comments, the administration claimed to be lobbying the Israelis extensively in private. "The State Department has communicated with the government of Israel more than with any other government of the world, frequently on a high level," Assistant Secretary Schifter testified at a joint hearing of two subcommittees of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on May 9. "There's no other country with whom I have had as many communications."
In the view of Middle East Watch, the US should respond to ongoing gross abuses of human rights through public statements as well as diplomatic contacts, especially in view of the unparalleled amount of US aid sent to Israel each year. To date, the US has not explained how fair public criticism of human rights violations committed both by Israel and its neighbors would derail the diplomatic process.
In searching for an appropriate human rights agenda for the year, the administration needed to search no further than its own Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1989. The chapter on the Israeli-occupied territories depicted the range and seriousness of the violations, although it presented them in a disembodied manner that often failed to convey the degree to which they were systematic rather than aberrational.29
In the months following publication of the Country Reports, it became clear that once again, the administration considered that document to be the main statement that would be made during the year on Israeli abuses. For example, at the May 9 joint hearing of the two House Foreign Affairs subcommittees, Assistant Secretary Schifter in his prepared testimony would not even repeat the criticisms contained in the Country Reports but simply made reference to them. It was not until intense questioning by the subcommittees that he reluctantly uttered a word of criticism.
In response to a question, Schifter did say that the administration had "tried to come up with a short list [of issues to raise with the Israeli government], which is more useful than a long list." On that list, he said, were deportations, house demolitions, and the number of fatalities. On the latter issue, Schifter said, the US had stressed that there should be no doubt about the circumstances in which a soldier may open fire. He said that the US also focused on the nature of the IDF's patrols in the territories, in particular their size and how often they were deployed. Commenting on the decline in the number of Palestinians killed by security forces in the preceding months, Schifter said he hoped that the reduction in deaths "has something to do with our conversations."
As noted earlier, beginning in the spring of 1990, Israeli troops with few exceptions appeared to have limited the frequency of patrols and to have exercised greater restraint in using lethal force. The Bush administration should be commended if it, indeed, chose to stress this critical issue in bilateral discussions. However, since the US rarely went public with its concerns about the use of excessive force by Israeli security forces -- until the October 8 killings -- it was not possible to ascertain how much pressure the US in fact applied on this issue.
Certainly, the US did not use the occasion of bilateral meetings to comment publicly on this or any other human rights concern. While neither President Bush nor Secretary of State James Baker visited Israel during 1990,30 Israeli officials were in Washington on several occasions during the year, both before and after the replacement of the Labor-Likud coalition government by a narrow Likud government in the spring. Then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin came in January, then-Foreign Minister Moshe Arens came in February, and in September, Foreign Minister David Levy came twice and Foreign Minister Arens came once. Rabin saw, among others, Vice President Dan Quayle, Secretary of State Baker and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. In February, Arens conferred with Baker; in September, he met with Cheney to request additional military aid in response to the Gulf crisis. Levy met with Baker on both of his trips in September. During these visits, US officials did not once publicly raise human rights concerns.
The Bush administration also failed to comment publicly on human rights during Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's only official visit to the United States in 1990. The Bush-Shamir meeting, which took place on December 11 and lasted nearly two hours, was intended mainly to show unity at a time of strained relations during the Gulf crisis, according to press reports. Their discussion did not even broach the killings in the al-Aqsa mosque compound or Israel's rejection of a UN investigation of the incident, because "the flow of conversation didn't go that way," according to Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs John Kelly.
In their talks two days later, Secretary Baker reportedly reminded Shamir of US opposition to the deportation of Palestinians on security grounds. Although at the time Israel had issued no new deportation orders since 1988, the Israelis were considering a revival of the measure in response to a surge of violent attacks by Palestinians on Israeli civilians. Four days after the Shamir-Baker meeting, Defense Minister Arens ordered four Gazans deported, as noted above, which prompted the State Department to denounce the extrajudicial measure and recommend that "charges of wrongdoing should be brought in a court of law based on evidence to be argued in a public trial." The deportations also reportedly prodded the US toward sponsoring a UN Security Council resolution critical of Israel that had been under negotiation for several weeks, as discussed below.
Despite its shunning of public criticism during bilateral discussions, the Bush administration was outspoken on two issues during the year. The first was the continued construction and expansion of Jewish settlements in the lands captured in 1967, and the second was the killings in the al-Aqsa mosque compound in October.
The issue of settlements was raised by the administration in response to Israel's request for $400 million in loan guarantees to finance housing for Soviet Jewish immigrants. In March, both President Bush and Secretary Baker used the occasion of the request to remind Israel of US opposition to settlements in an unusually blunt manner. "I don't think it's unreasonable of us to ask for some assurances that these funds will not be used to create new settlements or expand old settlements in the occupied territories," the Secretary of State testified before a House Appropriations subcommittee on March 1.
Two days later, President Bush commented that US opposition to settlements applied to annexed East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Although the treatment of annexed Jerusalem as part of the occupied territories is consistent with long-standing US policy, Bush's comments stirred a furor because this policy is rarely made explicit.
US displeasure with Israeli settlement policy was also registered at the United Nations, where the Bush administration participated in drafting a proposed Security Council resolution that would criticize settlements in the occupied territories as a breach of international law. This would have represented a new step for the administration, which has not taken a position on the legality of settlements, having criticized them only as obstacles to peace. Although the draft resolution became bogged down in discussions, where it remained at the end of 1990, US involvement in drafting the resolution sent a message to Israel.
In May, Congress approved the $400 million loan guarantee, but the administration continued to hold up its implementation. It was only in October, after receiving written assurances from Foreign Minister Levy that the funds would not be used beyond the Green Line marking Israel's pre-1967 borders, that Secretary Baker announced approval of the loan guarantees.
The controversy did not end there. Accused by some Israelis of having conceded too much to the Americans, Levy then issued a clarification stating that while these loans would not be used in East Jerusalem, Israel had no intention of preventing Soviet Jews from settling there. Defiant statements from other Israeli officials to the effect that Israel would encourage Soviet Jews to settle in East Jerusalem prompted the State Department to delay further the finalizing of the guarantees.
While the administration ultimately approved the package, President Bush's willingness to link in a public fashion his concerns on settlements to US aid provided a useful model of how human rights issues such issues as the excessive use of lethal force or the use of administrative detention might be raised. It represented the first time in recent memory that the US made a public issue of whether Israel was spending US aid in the occupied territories, something that is forbidden under the terms on which the US aid is appropriated.
There were, to be sure, other occasions during 1990 when the US voiced disapproval of Israeli practices, primarily when those practices received prominent press coverage. In January, for example, the arrest of one Palestinian leader and the imposition of travel restrictions on several others prompted the State Department to comment that these measures "send the wrong signal to Palestinians who favor dialogue" and "discourage Palestinian confidence in the peace process."
On January 30, Margaret Tutwiler, the State Department spokeswoman, commented on a lengthy report in the Washington Post, noted above, about the policy of summarily deporting Palestinian spouses and children who had overstayed their visitor's visas. "As we currently understand their policies," she said, "the Israelis impose difficult conditions of residence. We hope that the government of Israel would apply residency requirements with sensitivity and flexibility." The following day, Israel announced that it would suspend the summary eviction of Palestinians.
In May, when soldiers killed 12 Palestinians and wounded several hundred during three days of fierce demonstrations and riots, the administration made several comments on the casualties. At a State Department briefing on May 21, spokesman Richard Boucher said: "We're disturbed by the number of casualties inflicted by the Israeli army. We've repeatedly called upon the Government of Israel to exercise restraint in these situations in order to avoid heavy casualties." President Bush said in a press conference later in the week: "I have called on both sides for restraint. I've called on the Israeli forces to show constraint."
These bland reactions to the killings were eclipsed by a seemingly bolder response by Secretary Baker, who announced that the US "would be prepared to discuss the question of a UN observer team if that indeed comes up at the UN Security Council session." Baker's remarks caused a stir because they hinted that the US might support efforts to dispatch a Security Council team to investigate human rights conditions in the territories. However, later clarifications by Baker revealed that US opposition to a high-profile UN mission had not changed: the US would only support an envoy who would be dispatched by the Secretary General. The resolution that was put to a vote on May 31 called instead for the Security Council mission, and the US vetoed it in a 14-1-0 vote.
Explaining the veto, US Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering made a classic articulation of the US policy of soft-pedaling human rights abuses by Israel on the stated grounds that public criticism endangers the peace process. He said that the resolution
does not focus attention on the real needs of moving the peace process forward, an endeavor that must be undertaken by the parties themselves in the region. Rather, it would too easily become a vehicle which could be misused to generate needless controversy and dispute in the area, something clearly inappropriate, especially under present circumstances. It thus appears to us more likely to add to rather than to help resolve the problems in the region.
While the US offer justified its opposition to UN resolutions by calling them one-sided and counter-productive, the administration rarely substituted its own public criticism.
The US took a more aggressive approach in the fall, following the killings in the al-Aqsa mosque compound. The US took the lead in formulating the Security Council response and, on October 12, joined a unanimous vote in favor of Resolution 672, which condemned "especially the acts of violence committed by the Israeli security forces resulting in injuries and loss of human life" and called upon Israel "to abide scrupulously by its legal obligations and responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which is applicable to all the territories occupied by Israel since 1967."
The resolution represented a compromise; the US had rejected a stronger resolution which would have mandated that a delegation be sent by the Security Council to recommend methods for protecting Palestinians in the occupied territories. The resolution adopted asked instead for a mission dispatched by the Secretary General to submit its "findings and conclusions" by the end of the month. Despite its opposition to the stronger recommendations, the US took a big step by supporting the resolution that passed.
US criticism of Israel's handling of the disturbances in the al-Aqsa mosque compound was reinforced by strong language from President Bush and Secretary Baker about the fundamental human rights issue in the incident: the use of excessive force. At a press conference on October 9, the President said, "Israeli security forces need to be better prepared for such situations, need to act with greater restraint, particularly when it comes to the use of deadly force."
Secretary Baker reiterated the point in a letter sent on October 14 to Foreign Minister Levy that was published in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. Baker wrote that the US supported the Security Council resolution "because honestly we thought that Israel should have been ready and able to handle violence and riots without killing 2031 people and wounding 150."
Israel reacted angrily to the UN resolution, declaring that a UN mission would get no cooperation from the government if it came. The US lobbied Israel to accept a compromise formula, but Israel remained defiant. On October 25, the US once again joined in a unanimous vote in favor of Security Council Resolution 673, which deplored Israel's refusal to receive the UN mission. In the face of Israel's refusal to cooperate, UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar decided to submit his report on the occupied territories without dispatching the mission.
Security Council concern with the plight of Palestinians continued after passage of the two resolutions. After extended negotiations over language, the US came around to backing a third resolution on Israel that passed unanimously on December 20. One of the factors reported to have persuaded the administration to back the measure was Israel's revival of deportations five days earlier.
The December 20 resolution "deplored" the resumption of deportations and urged Israel to accept de jure applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to all territories occupied by Israel since 1949, including Jerusalem. It asked the Secretary General, in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross,
to develop further the idea...of convening a meeting of the high contracting parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention and to discuss possible measures that might be taken by them under the Convention and for this purpose to invite these parties to submit their views on how the idea could contribute to the goals of the Convention....
The resolution backed, however tentatively, an increased role for the international community in monitoring conditions in the occupied territories, including Jerusalem. By supporting it, the US underscored its insistence on the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Most observers believed that despite administration denials, the US had toughened its policy toward Israel at the UN during the fall of 1990 in large part to preserve the fragile coalition of Arab nations opposing Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. While the Bush administration's more vocal criticism of Israeli abuses since August was appropriate and long overdue, its political motivation -- at a time when the administration was rewarding such gross abusers of human rights as Syria and China for supporting the anti-Iraq alliance -- engendered some understandable cynicism. Only by maintaining a vocal and consistent policy toward human rights abuses can the US best utilize its considerable influence to improve the human rights practices of the Israeli government.
The Work of Middle East Watch
During 1990, Middle East Watch determined that it could be most effective in addressing Israeli human rights violations by concentrating its efforts on a few specific issues. These choices were made after consultation with human rights organizations in Israel and the West Bank.
The way that the Israeli authorities investigate killings by soldiers was the subject of a major report released in July. One consideration underlying the selection of this topic was the IDF's apparently greater willingness to cooperate with an investigation by a US-based organization than with a local group. Indeed, officials of the IDF Judge Advocate General's office held many hours of discussion with Middle East Watch representatives who were preparing the report.
The report, entitled The Israeli Army and the Intifada: Policies that Contribute to Killings, criticized the permissive rules for opening fire with lethal ammunition in the occupied territories, the way in which the IDF investigates killings by its own troops, and the restrictions it imposes on monitoring by independent observers. These policies, the report charged, contributed to a lack of restraint and to excessive killings by the IDF. The IDF wrote a lengthy rebuttal, which Middle East Watch included in the final version of the report.
While the report was nearing completion, Middle East Watch testified before two House Foreign Affairs subcommittees on the content of the report as well as other human rights concerns in the occupied territories. The material prepared by Middle East Watch for the May 9 session helped members of the subcommittees to formulate questions for the hearing's main witness, Assistant Secretary Schifter.
Later in May, Middle East Watch issued a newsletter calling for Palestinian universities to be reopened. The newsletter detailed the restrictions imposed on universities during the intifada and described who had been affected.
In October, Middle East Watch issued a statement on the use of excessive force by the police in the Temple Mount killings on October 8, and began monitoring the judicial investigations that were launched into the police actions that day. The investigations were still proceeding at the end of 1990.
At year's end, Middle East Watch was also preparing a report entitled Prison Conditions in Israel and the Occupied Territories. The report is based on visits by representatives of Middle East Watch to twelve facilities in July and August. The facilities included those run by the IDF, the civilian prison authorities, and the police.
During 1990, Middle East Watch intervened on several occasions when Palestinian human rights monitors were the victims of arrest, mistreatment or travel restrictions. In January, Middle East Watch protested the denial to Gaza human rights lawyer Raji Sourani of a laissez passer for him to travel to the United States to participate in a human rights program at Columbia University. He was eventually permitted to leave, but only after authorities required him to sign a document imposing onerous conditions on his freedom of movement and expression while abroad.
Telegrams were also sent to protest the detention of al-Haq human rights field-worker Iyad al-Haddad in September and Gaza human rights lawyer Muhammad Abu Sha'ban in November. The former prompted a reply from West Bank legal advisor Col. Ahaz Ben-Ari, which said:
This was the only substantive reply that Middle East Watch received to its protest cables during 1990. Both al-Haddad and Sha'ban were released in December. Israeli authorities neither charged them nor disclosed any evidence of their having engaged in specific illegal activities.
Middle East Watch did receive a reply to an intervention it made in 1989 on behalf of al-Haq field-worker Sha'wan Jabarin, who had been badly beaten during his arrest in October of that year. The Ministry of Justice wrote that as the result of an investigation, one soldier was to be court-martialed and two would face disciplinary proceedings in connection with the beating. A request by Middle East Watch to be informed of the disposition of the cases went unanswered. However, Middle East Watch learned that two of the soldiers charged in connection with the beating were court-martialed and ordered imprisoned for periods of 14 and 28 days.
23 Killings caused by means other than gunfire also showed a decline. In the two years prior to December 1, 1989, thirty-one Palestinians died from burns, beatings and other methods used by the Israeli security forces, according to B'Tselem, compared to four Palestinians from that date through the end of 1990.
At least 72 Palestinians died after exposure to tear gas fired by Israeli troops in the two years before December 1, 1989 and another 13 through the end of 1990, B'Tselem reported. However, the organization acknowledged that, "[f]rom a medical point of view, it is difficult to pinpoint exposure to tear gas as a direct and sole cause of death."
24 The US government, like most of the international community, maintains that the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilians in the Time of War applies to Israel's occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Israel is a party to that convention, but disputes its applicability to the occupied territories on the grounds that those territories were not legally part of Egypt or Jordan prior to their capture by Israel in 1967, and thus are not occupied within the meaning of the convention. Israel has nonetheless stated that it will abide by the convention's humanitarian provisions, but claims that this undertaking is merely a voluntary one that is not enforceable in local courts.
28 See Clyde H. Farnsworth, "Israel Has a Unique Deal for U.S. Aid," New York Times, September 23, 1990; Colin Campbell, "U.S. Devises Many Ways to Help Its Friend Israel," Atlanta Constitution, January 21, 1990; and Martha Wenger, "The Money Tree: U.S. Aid to Israel," Middle East Report, May-August 1990.
29 The circumspect tone of the chapter may have been due to the way that the office of Assistant Secretary Schifter edited the material prepared by diplomatic staff in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which monitors human rights conditions on the ground. A senior source in the State Department told Middle East Watch that the editorial changes, which were more substantial than is commonly the case for other chapters, effectively softened the picture of Israeli abuses. See also Timothy Phelps, "U.S. Official Toned Down Israel Critique," Newsday, February 22, 1990.