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The Israeli occupation of Palestine has come under fire for the human rights violations committed by governing authorities since the beginning. These violations include those by Israel as an occupying power and the Palestinian Authority (PA); The PA governs affairs in some of the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and is seen as a partner to the Israeli occupation because of its security cooperation with Israel since the Oslo Accords. Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, which rules Gaza, has also been criticised for its crackdown on protesters amongst other transgressions.
The international community regularly condemns Israeli actions in Palestine for contravening international law. The United Nations (UN) has issued numerous resolutions in response to the situation impacting the Palestinian population. These have included the displacement of people from their homes, arbitrary arrests, restricting access to essential services and a rapidly deteriorating situation that could amount to apartheid, illegal under international law.
International human rights organisations, following Palestinian human rights organisations, have increasingly recognised that the policy Israel has been practicing since its founding, both inside Israel proper as well as in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, has amounted to the crime of apartheid.
In this chapter, a general overview of the types of human rights violations that have been committed in Palestine will be given, including apartheid, displacement and home demolitions, Israel’s Separation Barrier, Palestinian prisoners and violence against Palestinians.
Apartheid is defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as follows:
The crime of apartheid means inhumane acts and crimes against humanity, committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.
Israel effectively controls the lives of a total population of almost 14 million, including Jewish Israelis and Palestinians across the West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and Israel. Even the limited degree of self-rule afforded to Palestinians in parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are subject to Israeli control over borders, airspace, movement, security, and registration of the population. It has used this control to instil a system that prioritises the lives of Jewish Israelis while discriminating against Palestinians.
While human rights groups have documented Israeli authorities’ laws, policies, and actions that demonstrate such a system, some Israeli officials have confirmed this ambition in words. For instance, on renewal of the discriminatory citizenship law, former prime minister Ariel Sharon said, “There’s no need to hide behind security arguments. There’s a need for the existence of a Jewish state.” Benjamin Netanyahu, who at the time was the finance minister also said, “Instead of making it easier for Palestinians who want to get citizenship, we should make the process much more difficult, in order to guarantee Israel’s security and a Jewish majority in Israel.”
In fact, Israel has been implementing policies that aim to advance the interests and rights of the Jewish population at the expense of the Palestinians from the very start.
Israel’s 1952 Citizenship Law ensured a pathway for Jews immigrating to Israel to obtain automatic citizenship, which does not apply to Palestinians. In 2003, the Knesset also passed the temporary order on Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, which has been successfully extended in the following years as a means of denying long-term legal status or citizenship to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who marry Israeli citizens or residents. However, the same restriction does not apply to spouses of Israeli Jews of any other non-Israeli nationality, to whom an immediate status is granted.
Jewish Israelis’ domination across Israel and Palestine was further cemented when the Knesset passed the Nation-state law in 2018, declaring Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” The law declared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, subsequently declaring Hebrew as the only official language, downgrading Arabic, despite it being spoken by over 20 percent of Israel’s population.
A provision in the law reads: ‘The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.’ There is no mention of equality in the act, and as one of Israel’s Basic Laws, that serves as Israel’s de facto constitution, it trumps the 1948 Declaration of Independence, which promised “complete equality of social and political rights for all [Israel’s] inhabitants,” regardless of their religion, race, or gender.
Holding Israel to account
The crime of apartheid as practiced by Israel has increasingly been put to the world’s attention.
March 2017, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) concluded in a report that Israel has been committing acts of the crime of apartheid; although the report was not endorsed by the UN as a body, it was seen as groundbreaking, as it was the first UN agency to do so, albeit unofficial.
The Israeli human rights organisation Btselem in January 2021 stated that the situation in the whole of historical Palestine (which includes Israel proper, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem) should be seen as one in which a single regime has been advancing the rights of Jewish inhabitants at the expense of basic rights of the Palestinians, amounting to apartheid. Btselem also stated that the above-mentioned 2018 Nation State law enshrined Jewish supremacy in basic law, making it a constitutional principle; this makes it unchallengeable.
According to Human Rights Watch in an April 2021 report, dispossession, confinement, and forced separation make Palestinians second-class citizens and the treatment they are subjected to is so severe it amounts to crimes against humanity, specifically, apartheid, and persecution. The NGO states that Israel operates a system of institutionalised discrimination through “forcible transfer,” “expropriation of landed property,” “creation of separate reserves and ghettos,” and denial of “the right to leave and to return to their country, [and] the right to a nationality.”
This system has included limiting the Palestinian population and their political power by restricting their right to vote or move to Israel. It also consists of the state policy of separating Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza, preventing the movement of people and goods within Palestine, and the “Judaization” of areas with significant Palestinian populations in Israel, leaving Palestinians to live in impoverished areas.
Even in occupied East Jerusalem, which Israel considers part of its sovereign territory, Palestinians’ legal status as “permanent residents” is precarious; Palestinians in East Jerusalem have been stripped of this status for not providing a “centre of life” in Jerusalem.
Amnesty International, in a report published in February 2022, also defined the situation in Palestine as apartheid, distinguishing four ways in which Israel has implemented its policy:
-fragmentation into domains of control (keeping Palestinians separated from each other)
-dispossession of land and property (discriminatory land and property seizures, home demolitions and forced evictions)
-segregation and control
-deprivation of economic and social rights (the deliberate impoverishment of Palestinians)
The report by Amnesty differs from the reports of the other organisations by stating that Israel must recognise Palestinians’ right of return and ensure compensation for Palestinians who have been dispossessed since 1948. In this way, Amnesty, as one of the largest human rights organisations in the world, has brought to the world’s attention Israel’s apartheid policies from the state’s foundation and has called Israel to account not only for its crimes against humanity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but also inside Israel proper.
While these international human rights organisations have brought to light the discussion of apartheid to a worldwide audience, increasingly bringing it into the mainstream narrative, Palestinian human rights organisations, including al-Haq, Adalah and al-Mezan have been arguing for years that Israel has been carrying out a policy of apartheid in the areas of its control. This narrative has now also been embraced by the worldwide international human rights community, putting Israel and its main supporters further under pressure.
Since 1948, Israel has used different measures to seize Palestinian land as an attempt to transfer it to state ownership, eventually evolving to the severe curtailment of Palestinian residential development.
House demolitions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, have been rising over the years. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the Israeli authorities demolished, forced people to destroy, or seized at least 292 Palestinian-owned structures across the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the first quarter of 2021, a 121 percent increase compared to the same period the previous year. By the end of 2020, the UN agency reported 854 demolitions of Palestinian properties, more than double the 2017 figure when there was a dramatic decrease after a peak of 1,094 demolitions in 2016 in the preceding seven-year period. Destruction of Palestinian property has also taken place in Negev, southern Israel where thousands of Bedouins live in unrecognised communities. Statistics for the territory within the Green Line (Israel proper) are unavailable.
Demolitions and forced evictions have created a coercive environment that leaves Palestinians homeless, living in overcrowded conditions or forcing them to move. There are various reasons why demolitions take place in the oPts. One of the main examples of these is punitive and a form of collective punishment, according to human rights groups such as al-Haq and Btselem.
The Israeli authorities target the houses of so-called “suspected terrorists” or their family members, claiming it is a deterrent for further crimes. However, there is no evidence these measures work, and there must be clear and concise military justification for such actions, which otherwise constitutes a war crime as per the Geneva Conventions. Moreover, the policy is conducted almost exclusively against Palestinians, and in the past, the Israeli army banned the practice saying it sowed hate amongst the Palestinian population. Israel also sanctions demolitions for land-clearing operations, 57 percent of which target structures in the Israeli-controlled Area C (the other zones, A and B, are where the PA has limited self-governance).
The Israeli High Court has sanctioned demolitions in this area of buildings which Israel says are illegal and without Israeli-issued building permits, which are difficult to attain. Between 2016 and 2018, the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank approved less than 2 percent of construction permits from Palestinians in Area C — despite a severe housing crisis among the Palestinian population. As a result, many end up demolishing their own houses to avoid high fines and demolition fees.
Palestinians often resort to building in these areas without the paperwork out of duress — only 7 percent of Palestinians get permits despite making up 40 percent of the population in East Jerusalem, leaving an estimated 100,000 people whose homes are at risk of demolition. In addition, around 72 percent of Palestinians in the Jerusalem municipality live below the poverty line due to a lack of infrastructure and service investment. Demolitions remain high in areas close to Israeli settlements, or areas under threat of annexation like East Jerusalem and Hebron H2 (the eastern part, which includes the old city). They can be executed with little notice, particularly when done as a land clearing or military operation.
Many proposed demolitions have attracted high controversy, such as the Bedouin hamlet of Khan al-Ahmar, yet clearing this area has been at an impasse for years, causing restrictions on movement for the resident Jahalin community. However, NGOs say this clearance is to ensure that the controversial E1 settlement goes ahead, ultimately allowing the area that is the centre of the West Bank to be controlled by Israel, cutting the territory in half and preventing travel from one side to the other.
In addition, there are plans for a new highway that will go through the traditionally Palestinian neighbourhoods of Sur Baher, Silwan, Ras al-Amoud, the Mount of Olives, connecting them to the E1 bloc, with demolitions and seizures also occurring in this area.
In 2002, Israel began to build a wall, purported to run along the Green Line or Armistice Line, an international boundary between the West Bank and Israel according to the Armistice Agreements of 1949. Construction began after several terrorist attacks in Israel proper, the barriers’ alleged purpose being to protect the security of the Israeli population.
In practice, the routing of the wall has been found to infringe on the West Bank. According to Btselem as much as 85 percent of the barrier runs through Palestinian territory, thereby de facto annexing more Palestinian territory and infringing the right of Palestinians to self-determination In some cases, it has cut off communities from agricultural land, markets and services and has involved a set of checkpoints that greatly impinge on Palestinians’ daily lives.
In a report for the UN General Assembly per resolution ES-10/13, the Secretary-General described the separation barrier as a “system of fences, walls, ditches and barriers in the West Bank,” mostly in areas near the Green Line, like Qalqilya, Tulkarm and Jerusalem.
Qalqilya, a town of around 40,000 inhabitants in the Qalqilya governorate, toward the north-east of the West Bank, is one example of an area surrounded by the barrier with one checkpoint for entry in and out of the town, open 12 hours a day. A report by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in 2003 noted that the complete sealing of the town and restriction of access from everywhere, bar the east, would seriously hinder those living in nearby villages. These residents rely on municipal services in the town, including the UNRWA hospital, used by displaced Palestinian families.
In December 2003, the UN General Assembly sought an advisory from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legal consequences of the wall. Despite objections from Israel, the ICJ delivered an opinion by July 2004, stating the wall restricted the rights of inhabitants, that construction should cease immediately and that the Israeli government should award the impacted Palestinians reparations for damages inflicted on them.
The UN currently keeps a register of damages caused by the construction of the wall.
However, the Israeli Supreme Court has rejected the ICJ’s opinion stating it did not have sufficient or precise facts to make a judgment, as Israel refused to engage. It also brought in the situation of Jewish settlements, which the ICJ weighed in on, as the barrier effectively annexed these illegal settlements built on West Bank land. The Supreme Court said their legality was of no consequence in any decision-making because, in their view, they are part of the local population in need of security, and thus, the Court stated that the barrier was a legitimate measure for self-defence.
While the international community and the Palestinian Authority agree Israel has the right to protect its civilians, they note the wall, in its current manifestation, is disproportionate when balancing the security needs of Israel and the human rights of Palestinians. The infringement of rights in the name of security has been further seen in the Gaza Strip where Israel has been maintaining its illegal siege since 2007 and continues to maintain control over the borders, restricting the movement of Palestinians, including visiting their family in other territories, such as the West Bank.
In 2020, Israel’s refusal to let construction materials and fuel into Gaza caused the territory’s only power plant to shut down, further reducing the electricity supply in the southern enclave. In addition, a full maritime closure and limited entry of goods, food, and medicine only amounted to collective punishment, according to Amnesty International, particularly when COVID-19 infections were increasing. The restriction of Palestinians to enter Israel from Gaza has also been fatal in some cases, as seen with baby Omar Yaghi whose family was denied a permit to attend a scheduled operation in Ramat Gan city.
In the first eight months of 2021, Israel imprisoned more than 5,500 Palestinian men, women and children, adding to roughly one million Palestinians detained since 1967. The issue of Palestinian prisoners has always featured high on the agenda of negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Rights groups have routinely criticised the system of detention for contravening basic human rights and international law.
Through the 1988 Israeli Military Order 1229, administrative detention in Palestine is legal. It allows individuals to be held in custody for up to six months without arrest or trial, if there are “reasonable grounds to presume that the security of the area or public security require the detention. Security is often interpreted broadly to include non-violent speech and political activity. Such detention is often decided upon on the basis of confidential information, undisclosed to the detainee or his attorney, while detention periods are often extended for up to several years.
However, the UN Committee Against Torture has said the detention of ‘inordinately lengthy periods’ could amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment depriving the detainee of basic safeguards such as the right to challenge evidence. It is also estimated that 95 percent of all Palestinian prisoners have suffered torture, humiliation or intimidation during their incarceration, often to force a confession.
According to Israeli military law, children from the age of 12 can also be detained. According to figures collected by the Israeli NGO Btselem, 173 of the 4,291 political prisoners at the end of September 2020 were children. They are treated as adults, often questioned without a family member present and are systematically abused and blackmailed in a bid to try and enlist them as informants, sometimes leading to false confessions and being subjected to stigma outside of prison.
In contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the Israeli authorities also keep a high proportion of prisoners outside of the occupied territories and separate prisoners according to political affiliations, citizenship status or locality to sow division among the Palestinian prison population.
Over the years, the Israeli government has tried to enforce tougher restrictions on Palestinian prisoners, which has led to a pattern of hunger strikes among them to call for better conditions and fairer policies. A notable example is around the #SaltWaterChallenge in 2017, a social media awareness-raising campaign of the plight of Palestinian hunger strikers in prisons.
While the Israel Prison Service (IPS) often ignores hunger strikers’ demands, it is conscious of broader public condemnation and international attention. In the case of the saltwater challenge, the IPS agreed to nearly 80 percent of prisoners’ requests, including better medical treatment and family visitation parameters. However, it fell short by not agreeing to halt administrative detentions and refusing to install public telephones.
The Palestinian population across Palestine often experiences violence at the hands of governing authorities. In addition, they face violence exerted by Jewish settlers, often with impunity as occupying forces — the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) or the Israeli police — look on.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) noticed an uptick in settler violence against Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank, documenting 771 incidents of settler violence causing injury to 133 Palestinians in 2020. During the first three months of 2021 alone, UNOCHA recorded more than 210 incidents of settler violence, including one Palestinian casualty.
These attacks are mostly to intimidate Palestinians and are motivated by settler ambitions to take over the land, which can deter Palestinians from accessing and working on their land, causing damage to assets that aid their livelihood. Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din noted an overwhelming lack of intervention from the authorities, with 91 percent of investigated cases of such crimes during 2005-2019 closed without an indictment.
Violence is especially seen each year during the olive harvest — an economically significant time of year for Palestinians. Even when the number of incidents dropped, the scale of violence appeared greater, with theft, vandalism, threats, hold-ups, and violent attacks defining this period. Soldiers used block-gates in the separation barrier so Palestinians could not access their farmland, as well as extensive beatings, and firing of teargas/stun grenades at farmers.
At other times of the year, the Israeli military and police also used unnecessary and excessive force against Palestinians. In an annual report, Amnesty International noted that the military and security forces killed at least 31 Palestinians, including nine children in 2020, in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
However, the PA has also been guilty of brutal and excessive crackdowns on those opposing its actions. For instance, in June and July 2021, peaceful protests following the death in custody of prominent Palestinian activist Nizar Banat, escalated after police and Fatah loyalists carried out physical assaults on demonstrators, particularly targeting journalists and human rights activists documenting the protests.
According to Human Rights Watch, Hamas in the Gaza Strip also routinely arrests and tortures peaceful critics and opponents. The ruling organisation sometimes holds detainees for mere hours but within that time has abused its power by taunting detainees, aiming threats against them, beating and torturing them as a punishment for and deterrent against criticising the government.
These abuses have left few places where Palestinians can avoid derogation of their rights.