Human Rights Developments
In 1995, the 800,000 Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank enclave of Jericho spent their first full year under Palestinian rule. In the rest of the West Bank, the transfer of formal authority to the Palestinians over local security matters got under way after the "Oslo II" agreement was signed in September. Elections for an eighty-two member legislative council were planned for early 1996, the first elections for public office to be held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in two decades.
For Palestinians living in the areas affected, the incremental transfer of authority reduced direct contact with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Community life and work were no longer disrupted by prolonged round-the-clock curfews, which had been so often imposed by the IDF during the Palestinian uprising. Clashes with soldiers, and the attendant casualties, decreased. Israeli security forces killed thirty-four Palestinians during the first ten months of 1995, compared to 108 in all of 1994.
Slightly under 5,000 Palestinians remained in Israeli prisons after the initial prisoner releases stemming from the "Oslo II" accord; but due to continuing arrests throughout the year, this figure was only slightly below the number in prison at the same time one year earlier.
Israel continued to maintain stringent control, if at a distance, over aspects of the lives of Palestinians no longer under its direct rule. The most onerous controls were on freedom of movement; Israel continued to restrict Palestinians entering and leaving the occupied territories, as well as traveling within the territories, through a system of permits and checkpoints.
Israeli security forces, in those areas where they continued to exercise direct control, committed the same kinds of abuses as in past years: they arbitrarily arrested hundreds of civilians, tortured suspects during interrogation; and employed excessive and often fatal force in confronting demonstrators.
The first part of this section covers the practices of the Israeli occupation authorities. A separate subsection examines the conduct of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Both sections focus on political and civil rights. Some prominent issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as the future boundaries of a Palestinian entity and how the right to self-determination is to be exercised, lie outside the mandate of Human Rights Watch.
Some commentators argue that the interim accords have ended the state of military occupation. In our view, Israel, in its actions that affect Palestinian civilians anywhere in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, continues to be bound by the obligations of a military occupier, especially the humanitarian law requirements of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Militant opposition groups, such as the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and the Islamic Jihad, must also abide by customary humanitarian norms, especially the unconditional prohibition on acts of violence against civilians.
The increase in attacks on Israelis by Palestinian groups opposed to the Israeli-PLO accord, particularly of deadly suicide bombings, led to an intense Israeli crackdown on suspected Hamas and Islamic Jihad members. Hundreds of suspects were arrested and interrogated, often abusively.
In October 1994, the government of Israel announced that it would allow the General Security Service (GSS) to employ harsher interrogation methods. The new powers remained classified, as did the GSS's standing interrogation guidelines. But according to the testimony of Palestinians who underwent interrogation, the methods used in 1995 involved a more intensive use of those already practiced: primarily a combination of sleep deprivation, hooding, prolonged standing or sitting in unnatural positions, threats, beatings and violent whiplashing of the head. Some combination of these methods were used on most of the hundreds of Palestinians who were taken in for interrogation during the year, including those who were later released without charge. Applied in combination, these methods often amounted to torture.
In April, Abd al-Samed Harizat, a suspected Hamas activist, became the first Palestinian to die under Israeli interrogation since 1993. A Justice Ministry inquiry determined that Harizat had died from fatal brain damage caused by his interrogators violently shaking his head back and forth. Nevertheless, the state attorney declined to prosecute the interrogators, explaining that death from the shaking technique was so rare that the interrogators could not have anticipated that their actions would lead to fatal results.
According to reports in the Israeli media, the government renewed throughout the year its authorization for interrogators to employ the harsher methods, including whiplashing, but only in "exceptional" cases and only with permission from superiors.
In August, the GSS held a rare press conference to claim that the use of the harsher methods had enabled the agency to crack a Hamas ring responsible for a string of suicide bombings. Attorney General Michael Ben Yair entered the public controversy in October, telling the press that shaking should be restricted to rare cases because of its severe nature. "I am not ready to see every black-bearded Palestinian youngster who is detained for interrogation end up with brain damage," he said.
The army's pursuit of "dangerous" fugitives was also the subject of unprecedentedly blunt words, although the fatal shooting of fugitives declined in 1995. In April, the army's commander of the West Bank forces told an Israeli newspaper that the goal of such operations was to kill certain wanted men. Human rights organizations have long charged that special army units had summarily killed scores of fugitives since 1989 without making an effort to capture them alive, challenging official assertions that force was used only as a last resort.
In February, authorities lengthened the maximum period of administrative detention (internment without charge) from six months to one year, renewable. Among the nearly 200 Palestinians in administrative detention as of October, the longest-held had been detained without charge for over three years.
Israeli-imposed restrictions on movement constrained the lives of virtually all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The stated grounds for these restrictions were security concerns, which were exacerbated by the rise in deadly bombings inside Israel that had been carried out by residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At the same time, these restrictions were imposed indiscriminately on all Palestinians, without regard to individual guilt or to the extreme hardship that particular individuals faced as a result. Appeals procedures for Palestinians denied a permit were neither efficient nor transparent. Given its inflexible and indiscriminate nature, the closure policy constituted a form of collective punishment that harmed Palestinians living in both the self-rule areas and those under direct Israeli rule.
During most of the year, only the small number of Palestinians who held valid Israeli-issued permits were allowed to enter Israel or Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem. They were also effectively the only ones permitted to travel between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, since that trip required crossing through Israeli territory.
There were extended periods during the year when no Palestinians, even those holding permits, were permitted to leave the West Bank or Gaza Strip. According to Palestinian human rights organizations, between May 1994, when the first agreement on the transfer of authority was signed (the "Cairo Agreement"), and August 30, 1995, the Israeli authorities imposed seventeen total closures on the West Bank and Gaza Strip for a total of seventy-four days.
The closure policy severely disrupted Palestinian life and caused economic hardship. The number of Palestinian workers employed inside Israel continued to dwindle because their permits had been canceled or non-Palestinian workers had been hired to replace them. Many Gaza students could not pursue their university studies on the West Bank. Other Palestinians could not reach Jerusalem to meet business contacts, submit visa requests at foreign consulates, or obtain specialized medical care.
Tensions over Israeli settlements continued to simmer, fueled by the approaching transfer of authority to the Palestinians over parts of the West Bank. Tensions were highest in Hebron, where the IDF continued to respond to settler-Palestinian strife by subjecting Palestinians_but not settlers_to curfews, road closures, and delays at checkpoints. Settlers continued to vandalize Palestinian property, throw stones at Palestinian homes and otherwise harass Palestinians, with little risk of the harsh treatment that authorities administered to Palestinians suspected of similar acts against Jews.
During the first ten months of 1995, Palestinians killed eleven Israeli civilians and one tourist inside pre-1967 Israel. Hamas claimed responsibility for some of these attacks, openly targeting Israeli civilians and thereby violating one of the most elemental customary norms of humanitarian law.
The number of Palestinians killed by their brethren as suspected collaborators with Israel continued to decline. Two Palestinians were killed as suspected collaborators in the first eight months of the year, according to the Associated Press. In addition, in October, two human rights organizations, al-Haq and the Mandela Institute, expressed concern about three Palestinian detainees inside Israeli prisons who appeared to have died from physical torture inflicted during questioning by other detainees.
The Palestinian Authority (PA)
Under pressure from Israel and the United States to prevent and punish attacks on Israeli targets from the areas he administered, Chairman Arafat arrested suspected members of opposition groups, primarily from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, throughout the year and imprisoned them without formal charges for weeks or months at a time. Other suspects were put on trial in the newly-created state security courts. In these courts, which stood outside the existing Palestinian civil and military court system, trials usually took place at night and were closed. The proceedings, which often lasted only minutes, were presided over by security force officers with no previous judicial experience. Defendants, who were mostly accused of planning or taking part in violent activities on behalf of the Islamist opposition, were given insufficient notice of the charges and were not represented by lawyers of their own choosing. Most of the trials ended in convictions and prison terms.
During the first ten months of the year, two Palestinians died under suspicious circumstances during or after interrogation by the Palestinian security services; two others were killed shortly after their release from detention. In at least one of these two cases, there was suspicion of security force complicity in the death. In one death-in-detention case, involving a U.S. citizen of Palestinian origin, the U.S. government pressed for a serious inquiry and the PA announced that five security-force members had been detained. But investigations into the deaths lacked transparency, raising doubts about the commitment of the PA to exposing the facts and punishing abuse in its ranks.
The PA grew more aggressive in pressuring Palestinian media to temper criticism of the Israeli-PLO accord and the authority's record. Journalists were briefly arrested, and newspapers were suspended on at least five occasions for articles deemed damaging to the authority. In May, the Gaza state security court sentenced the editor of Hamas-affiliated al-Watan newspaper to two years in jail on charges of incitement against the authority. He was still in prison when a ban on al-Watan was lifted in October.
The various security agencies came under scrutiny not only for their conduct within the self-rule areas of Gaza and Jericho but also beyond their borders. The Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem issued a report in August 1995 accusing the Palestinian Preventive Security Service (PSS) of conducting policing activities throughout the West Bank, even though the Cairo Agreement gave them responsibility for internal security only in the self-rule areas. The PSS was accused of arresting residents without warrants, holding them in detention for long periods without bringing charges against them, and torturing them during interrogation. B'Tselem pointed out that the PSS was, with Israeli acquiescence, filling a vacuum in that Israeli occupation forces had largely neglected law enforcement in criminal matters. The PSS denounced the B'Tselem report as "baseless," and denied that the abuses it documented were the work of PSS agents.
Human rights violations are not merely "symptoms" of a conflict to be addressed by focusing exclusively on long-term political goals. While a just political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can of course improve the state of human rights, abuses must also be confronted in the present. They cause enormous suffering, constitute violations of the legal obligations of the abusive parties, and contribute to the kind of political turmoil that undermines peace prospects.
The U.S. has provided Israel each year with more than three billion dollars in economic and military assistance, making it the largest beneficiary of U.S. bilateral assistance. The U.S. also became the largest bilateral donor to the PA when, in 1993, it pledged $500 million in development projects and loan guarantees over five years, including $24 million in 1995 for "democracy-building" programs. In our view, this aid gives the U.S. influence it should use to promote greater respect for human rights by the Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
The U.S. downgrading of human rights was best illustrated by its response to two salient issues in 1995: Israel's adoption of explicitly more abusive interrogation methods and the PA's creation of the state security courts.
The rise in suicide bombings prompted the government of Israel to ease restraints on interrogation methods. This represented another step backward by a state that had ratified the Convention against Torture in 1991 but had continued to use torture systematically. The State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1994 called "credible" the reports that Israeli interrogators were responsible for "widespread abuse, and in some cases torture." Except in the Country Reports, the U.S. refrained from clarifying publicly where it stood on this core rights issue, despite preliminary evidence that the eased guidelines had led to an increase in torture, the death of a Palestinian under interrogation in April, and the debate in Israel around the new guidelines.
Toward the PA, the U.S. effectively endorsed Israel's position of repeatedly urging Chairman Arafat to do more to prevent and punish attacks by armed opposition groups on Israelis, while showing little interest in the human rights consequences of how this goal was achieved. The highest U.S. official to visit the area during the first ten months of 1995, Vice President Al Gore, conveyed this message clearly. On March 24 in Jericho, Gore hailed Chairman Arafat's promise to set up state security courts as "an important step forward in helping to build confidence in the peace process and in the effort by authorities on all sides to control violence and stop terrorism and defeat the enemies of the peace process." On April 4 the vice president sidestepped reports of the courts' lack of due-process safeguards, telling a Washington audience, "I know there has been some controversy over the Palestinian security courts, but I personally believe that the accusations are misplaced and that they are doing the right thing in progressing with prosecutions."
One week later the State Department spokesperson alluded weakly to the problem, responding to a journalist's question, "The establishment of the rule of law, including respect for human rights, is a very important element in the development of Palestinian self-rule....We know that Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian authorities are grappling with these issues."
There was no doubt that attacks on Israelis posed a grave threat to the peace process. It was also true that in attempting to stop the attacks, the new and financially strapped PA lacked some of the means and institutions that can help to safeguard human rights. But by endorsing a security policy that resulted in arbitrary mass arrests and summary, closed-door trials, the U.S. appeared to attach little priority at this formative stage to the need to build human rights protections in the self-rule areas.
To its credit, the U.S. Embassy and Jerusalem consulate staff took an active interest in human rights conditions, meeting regularly with local rights groups and producing a well-researched chapter in the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1994. And although John Shattuck, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, did not visit Israel or the occupied territories in 1995, his staff met in October in Washington with Col. Jibril Rujoub, Chief of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service in Jericho. According to Bureau staff, much of the meeting was devoted to human rights concerns.
The Right to Monitor
Human rights organizations continued to work in the Palestinian self-rule areas. However, several incidents occurred to suggest that official tolerance for human rights fact-finding and criticism was limited.
Following the release of a critical statement on the decree to establish the Palestinian state security courts in February 1995, Raji Sourani, then-director of the Gaza Center for Rights and Law (GCRL), was detained overnight for questioning. A seminar organized by the GCRL to examine the state security courts was barred by the PA on the pretext that a requisite permit had not been obtained. No observers were permitted to attend trials of the state security courts in the self-rule areas.
Bassem Eid, a field-worker at the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, was attacked by name by Colonel Rujoub. Following the August 1995 release of B'Tselem's critical report on human rights violations by the PSS, Col. Rujoub, denounced the report and publicly accused Eid, a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, of being an agent of the Israeli police. Many rights groups protested this remark as a malicious and unsubstantiated allegation that could endanger Eid's personal safety. The PA gave assurances that human rights groups were free to work in the self-rule areas, but did not formally retract the accusation.
The ombudsman-like Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights enjoyed greater access and influence with the PA than did other Palestinian rights groups. Since Dr. Hanan Ashrawi stepped down as head of the commission, it may become clear whether the authorities' responsiveness to its interventions was due to their respect for the institution itself or to the immense personal prestige of Dr. Ashrawi.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Middle East
Prior to releasing the report, representatives of Human Rights Watch/Middle East met with Palestinian human rights organizations, Palestinian officials in the Gaza Strip and Israeli officials in Jerusalem to discuss our findings. We also met with a Hamas spokesman in Gaza to protest the targeting of Israeli civilians by Hamas militants. A follow-up mission to confer with Israeli and Palestinian human rights workers was conducted in August.
A global report on communal violence contained a chapter on Israeli judicial leniency toward acts of violence committed by Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
In written interventions and published articles, Human Rights Watch/Middle East took its concerns to the authorities and before international public opinion. For example, in response to revelations that Israelis soldiers had executed Egyptian prisoners of war in 1956 and 1967, we urged the Israeli government to investigate thoroughly and not to rule out criminal prosecutions. A letter to Chairman Arafat urged a retraction of Col. Rujoub's dangerous accusation that human rights field-worker Bassem Eid was an Israeli police agent.