The Arab World Geographer
Forum on Current Crisis in Palestine/Israel
Putting Human Rights Back on the Map of Palestine

Joseph Schechla
(Regional Coordinator)
Habitat International Coalition, Housing & Land Rights Committee
8 Nagy Farid Street, No. 5, Muhandisin, Cairo, Egypt

In the year that the map of Palestine transformed with the UN General Assembly's Palestine Partition resolution (GA 181), that same body adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms that "everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being including housing (Article 25).  Eighteen years later, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a treaty now ratified by 143 states, including Israel, recognized "the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living ... including housing" and the obligation to "take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right" (Article 11[1]).  Although this norm is firmly grounded and further developed in international law, Palestinians constitute a textbook example of its negation.

Israel's systematic denial of the Palestinians' right to a place to live in peace and dignity lies at the very heart of the Palestine problem, which has occupied the UN for more than 50 years.  For only the fifth time in its long history, the UN Commission on Human Rights convened a special session from 17 to 19 October 2000 to address the current crisis in the Middle East.  Although the need to handle the violent crisis may be urgent, the political and spatial geography of Palestine shows an unmet need to address continued human rights violations. Especially dramatic breaches of the right to housing have been apparent throughout the course of recent events.  At Beit Sahour, in the West Bank, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers reportedly have occupied civilian Palestinian homes and converted them into military positions, with the result that the homes have been destroyed and/or the resident families have been evicted.  Collateral destruction of homes also resulted from helicopter gunship fire in Beit Lahiya, in the Gaza Strip, on 13 October.

On 9 October, IDF tanks and bulldozers arrived in convoy in the central Gaza Strip to demolish two housing blocks at Martyrs’ Square (Netzarim Junction), at the site of the infamous battles against Palestinian civilians, where IDF snipers shot Muhammad al-Durra and his father.  In clashes with local Palestinian civilians, IDF forces have shelled and damaged at least five private Palestinian homes in Rafah, near the Egyptian border.  The Jabaliya-based economic rights monitors at al-Mizan so far have counted 50 Palestinian homes and apartments in the Gaza Strip, 41 in the West Bank, and eight other structures shelled by IDF or attacked by settlers since 29 September, with 42 of the total 99 struck by missiles.   One recalls that Israeli forces initiated the demolition of homes with antitank missiles at Dayr al-Balah in 1993.  With the Intifada 2000, in that sense, we have come full circle.

In Hebron, Dr. Taysir Zuhda built two additional floors to his family home in order to open a maternity clinic for the local community.  For more than two years, IDF soldiers have set up camp on the Zuhdas' roof, using it as a shooting platform from which they fire on the indigenous Palestinian neighbourhood abutted by the Tel Rumeida Jewish settlement.  These IDF snipers regularly force entry into the Zuhda home, beat up family members and guests, cut off utilities, urinate in the family's water tanks and hurl their garbage and feces from their rooftop perch. Before the current crisis began the international observer force, TIPH, helped negotiate the soldiers' departure.  However, the soldiers have now forced their way back to the Zuhda family's roof, where they remain today. This individual case is only part of the larger program of settlement accelerated during the so-called  “peace process.”  Following its inquiry into the 1994 massacre of worshippers at Hebron, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination observed that Jewish settlements negate Palestinians’ security, and determined “Israeli settlements in the occupied territories as not only illegal under international law, but also an obstacle to peace and to the enjoyment of human rights by the whole population in the region” (CERD/C/304/Add.45).

The demolition of hundreds of Palestinian villages and the forced eviction of their indigenous inhabitants is an inconvenient truth that is the hallmark of Israel's genesis, and that practice continues on incrementally against the state's most vulnerable Palestinian Arab citizens.  It is no mere coincidence that the Galilee, engulfed by Israel in 1948, has become the scene of civil unrest over Israeli practices and policies and that Israeli forces are killing Palestinian citizens there again. Especially over the past 25 years, that region of historic Palestine has been the special target of Israel's policy of confiscating Palestinians' lands for exclusive use by other citizens who enjoy the superior status of "Jewish nationality." Notably, the Galilee is also part of the ongoing government program of incremental demolition of and population transfer from some 170 "unrecognized" Arab villages inside 1948 Israel.  Since 1948, this pattern has exemplified the relationship of the Jewish state to the indigenous Palestinian community.

In the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT), Israel's forcible confiscation of Palestinian lands and demolition of Palestinian homes on dubious pretexts has been recorded as continuing and, in fact, increasing throughout the period of the political process initiated in 1993.  Over the continuum that spans the history of the Palestine question, the scale of this human rights violation has been so vast that it eludes monitoring efforts to quantify the losses. Some of the economic reports of the UN Special Coordinator in the Occupied Territories (UNSCO) have managed to measure the economic consequences of certain Israeli practices, such as its closure of the OPT.  Those reports, for example, indicate that the ten days of closure in September 1998 alone created a loss to the Palestinian economy equivalent to all the aid disbursements to the PA areas by the international community for that year to date. By quantifying the losses that arise from denying economic rights, we can see how human rights violations create costs.  What this suggests also is that the manifestation of political will by the international community to encourage Israel to meet its human rights obligations and ultimately to democratize may serve material and social development at least as effectively as direct financial contributions.  Likewise, international efforts to protect Palestinian society from Israel's grievous violations of the right to housing, violations that include land confiscation and house demolitions, would constitute a low-cost, but tremendously fruitful, contribution to regional peace and development.

European and other donor countries have been an active force in economic development as a complement to the peace process.  However, the diplomatic and financial investments to date will only bear fruit if managed with the concomitant political will to implement the binding legal framework. It is more clear now  than ever that the right recipe for a peace process is the commitment to justice and the respect for human dignity, which the human rights norms were adopted to guarantee in law.  Political efforts should be directed toward that long-term purpose, particularly while the message from the ground reminds us that formula has not yet been pursued.

A group of non-Western states in the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Commission's Special Rapporteur on violations in the occupied territories, and several human rights organizations have proposed immediate actions, including:

1  Correcting the behaviour of Israeli forces (settlers and military) in the OPT through orders to the field and providing remedial training and disciplinary action to ensure compliance;
2  To avoid further assaults on the occupied population, urgently mobilizing real protection forces and mechanisms on the ground, including the Fourth Geneva Convention's High Contracting Parties taking serious and yet-untried enforcement measures provided in the Convention, as well as under the UN Charter (e.g., activating the World Court or initiating sanctions) to "ensure respect" for the provisions of humanitarian law;
3  To establish an international human rights review body to guide the peace process according to human rights and humanitarian norms throughout the interim period;
4  The creation of an ombudsman, like those employed in other parts of the world, to address violations and receive complaints;
5  Immediately to establish an independent, UN-based Commission of Inquiry with competence for determining accountability for the crimes and violations committed in the recent period;
6  Encouragement of the UN treaty-monitoring bodies urgently to consider information within their competence related to the present phase of Israel's occupation of Palestine, noting that Israel is due to provide "additional information" to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at its November 2000 session concerning progress toward rectifying its breaches of the Covenant, including those cited here;
7  To mobilize the Commission's thematic rapporteurs to give special consideration to occupied Palestine within their competence, and to cooperate as appropriate.
 Just in time to pre-empt an independent resolution by the Commission, the reports came from leaders meeting at Sharm al-Shaykh that they support a U.S.-led "fact-finding" mission to investigate the sources of the present crisis.  However, that news, like the Security Council Resolution 1322 (2000) of 7 October, offers no assurance that the human rights norms will be applied with the requisite degree of objectivity. The Sharm al-Shaikh pronouncements do not supplant the need for the human rights community, including states represented in the Commission on Human Rights, to take initiatives that uphold humanitarian criteria and the framework of human rights.

The indispensable human rights ingredients are so far lacking in the much-hailed peace process led by the United States and despite the clarification supplied by events since September, the Sharm al-Shaikh meeting apparently still has missed this point.  Tragically, the tendency of many states is to remain effectively inert, deferring to the vicissitudes of a political process emptied of human rights content by design, distorted by a grotesque power imbalance, and unwelcoming to the substantial involvement of other states with legitimate contributions to make and interests at stake.  That dynamic is precisely what has led us to the present crisis.

On 19 October 2000, the UN Commission on Human Rights finally voted to dispatch an independent UN Commission of Inquiry, seven thematic rapporteurs and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to the area, all of whom will report back to the Commission before its next session in spring 2001 (Resolution E/CN.4/S-5/L.2). Regrettably, the vote of 19 for, 16 against, 17 abstentions, and one absence recalled Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations." Nonetheless, it has marked a victory if only a numerical one, by putting human rights back on the map of Palestine. Yet this victory will remain only symbolic, until there is a far-sighted peace process that integrates human rights at its core.

(Submitted 19 October 2000)

© The Arab World Geograppher

Forum / Editorial / Nolte / Khashan / Mustafa / McColl / Newman / Halper / Schechla / Khamaisi / Taylor

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