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Democracy’s Oasis: A Mirage


Israel’s image as a democratic state took a further heavy battering last week as two separate reports were issued, the first by Amnesty International into Israeli military policies in the occupied territories, and the second by a United Nations watchdog monitoring Israel’s commitment to human rights.

Both reports follow on the heels of a survey last month by the Israeli Democracy Institute, an academic think-tank in Jerusalem, that ranked Israel close to bottom of 32 countries in terms of the value its politicians and citizens put on democratic participation. The results showed a particularly weak identification by the Jewish majority with the values of pluralism, with 53 per cent believing Arabs should be denied equal rights and slightly more, 57 per cent, wanting Arabs transferred out of the country. Only 77 per cent of respondents thought democracy was the best system of governance.

Amnesty’s findings were familiar to those who have followed the events of the past two and half years in the West Bank and Gaza. It documented a catalogue of human rights violations against the Palestinians: the extensive destruction of homes and farming land, the lethal shelling and bombing of residential areas in response to mortar fire from militants, the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields by the army, extra-judicial assassinations that have killed bystanders, the eradication of most economic life through a system of curfews and internal closures, and the torture and mistreatment of thousands of suspects, including children. It also pointed out that the army command rarely investigates or punishes soldiers accused of reckless or intentional firing at non-combatant.

But while Amnesty’s report showed — in Israel’s continuing violent occupation and collective punishment of the Palestinian people — a flagrant disregard for international law, it was the more neglected UN report that more clearly illustrated the mirage of Israeli democracy.

Despite the diplomatic language required of a UN body, the report concludes that it is “deeply concerned by the continuing differences in treatment between Jews and non-Jews” and notes that Israeli law “does not enshrine the general principles of equality and non-discrimination”. It lists many aspects of Israeli life in which the rights of Palestinians and the country’s one million Arab citizens are being violated in favour of the Jewish population.

Israel signed up to and ratified all six of the UN human rights covenants in the early 1990s, during Yitzhak Rabin’s premiership. But successive governments have failed to incorporate any of the treaties into the country’s legal codes.

A large part of the reason, as the latest UN report implies, is that Israel’s founding principles — that it is a Jewish state and that every Jew has a unique privilege to settle in Israel and now, by extension, the occupied territories — are incompatible with the covenants.

Implementation of each of the treaties by ratifying states is monitored periodically by a committee of independent experts. The narrower focus of several of the treaties — on, for example, the rights of children or women, or the use of torture — has caused Israel less embarrassment than the broad-range of human rights.

One report, into civil and political rights, is due later this year and is expected to be highly critical of Israel, particularly over its attacks on the political representatives of the Arab minority.

The other report Israel has been dreading, from the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), was issued on 23 May. The committee monitors land, economic and educational rights. Although it is critical of Israel’s performance on a whole raft of human rights tests, including policies towards women and foreign workers, it reserves its harshest rebukes for the treatment of Palestinians and the country’s Arab population.

In fact, Israel has been foot dragging on reporting to the committee since it signed the economic, social and cultural rights treaty in 1991, partly because implementing its provisions would mean overhauling the system of privileges enjoyed by Jews, both in Israel and the settlements.

According to UN practice, Israel should have submitted its first response to the CESCR in 1994, but it failed to do so. Israel was eventually forced to report after the committee threatened to accept an unofficial document compiled by several Israeli non-governmental organisations instead.

Israel’s first response, submitted in 1998, caused friction with the committee, which is comprised of 18 international academics and economists. They were frustrated by Israel’s failure to provide answers on several important social and economic topics and by the refusal to reveal any information on relevant policies towards the Palestinians.

Israel claimed it was not obligated to reply because the Palestinians were under the rule of the Palestinian Authority and so not its responsibility. The committee, however, rejected the argument saying that as Israel controlled the borders and trade of the occupied territories, supplied their water and electricity, levied many of the taxes affecting Palestinians, set the laws governing building permits and house demolitions in much of the area, and allowed the expansion of settlements on Palestinian land, its record should be monitored.

The UN body demanded that Israel make a special presentation on its rule over the Palestinians in Geneva in 2001, but the single Israeli delegate who attended refused to participate.

Given that the Israeli army has effectively reoccupied almost all Palestinian areas over the past year, the committee was clearly expecting that Israel’s 2003 submission would finally detail what it is doing to protect the Palestinians’ economic and social rights. Again, Israel refused to provide information. At more than one point in the report, the committee “reiterates its request that the state party [Israel] provide detailed information”.

Nevertheless, Israel takes the committee’s hearings in Geneva — and its judgement — seriously. It sent 11 officials to try to persuade the committee members that it had made giant strides since the 1998 report.

“Last time Israel largely failed to provide information to the committee or used the excuse that it did not have time at such notice to provide the sort of figures the committee wanted,” said Mohamed Zeidan, director of the Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA) in Nazareth, who was at the hearings representing one of the Palestinian NGOs from inside Israel.

“On this occasion, five years later, it could not sound so unprepared. The Israeli delegates still refused to comment on what was happening in the occupied territories but they tried to blind the committee with stacks of statistics on the Arab minority. Most were given without context, or comparison with equivalent figures for the Jewish public, and so were entirely misleading.”

The committee was apparently unimpressed: its final report includes a list of sharp criticisms of Israeli policies towards Palestinian populations on both sides of the Green Line, the pre- 1967 border.

Given the lack of information provided about the treatment of Palestinians, the committee’s main rebuke is to express grave concern about “the deplorable living conditions of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, who — as a result of the continuing occupation and subsequent measures of closures, extended curfews, roadblocks and security checkpoints — suffer from the impingement of their enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights enshrined in the Covenant, in particular access to work, land, water, health care, education and food”.

On the issue of Israel’s Arab citizens, the committee finds 10 areas of major concern. These include Israel’s continuing policy of excluding Arab citizens from almost all state land, more than 93 per cent of Israeli territory. It notes — despite claims to the contrary made by the Israeli delegation — that a precedent- setting Supreme Court judgement allowing one family, the Kaadans, to move into a Jewish community has still to be enforced three years later.

Also noted is “the continuing lower-standard of living of Israeli Arabs as a result, inter-alia, of higher unemployment rates, restricted access to and participation in trade unions, lack of access to housing, water, electricity, health care and a lower level of education”.

Israel’s discriminatory policies towards the reunification of Palestinian families, effectively preventing Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza from being united with a spouse who is an Arab citizen or from being able to gain Israeli citizenship, are also condemned.

There is concern about “the persisting inequality in wages of Jews and Arabs in Israel, as well as the severe under- representation of the Arab sector in civil service and universities”.

But the biggest censure is reserved for Israel over its treatment of the Bedouin population, particularly those living in “unrecognised villages”, without proper provision of schools, health care, water, electricity or sanitation.

The committee observes that the Bedouin “continue to be subjected on a regular basis to land confiscations, house demolitions, fines for building ‘illegally’, destruction of agricultural crops, fields and trees, and systematic harassment and persecution by the Green Patrol [an Israeli paramilitary police force] in order to force Bedouins to resettle in “townships”.

The committee also expresses doubt about the true purposes of a five-year plan for the Negev, presented by the Israeli delegation as a way to develop Bedouin communities. The committee says the transfer of the Bedouin population from their villages into concentration townships is being carried out without consulting the villagers and they are being offered “inadequate” compensation. Instead the committee urges that Israel to “recognise all existing Bedouin villages, their property rights and their right to basic services, in particular water”.

The 24 Israeli, Palestinian and international NGOs who were represented at the hearings provided the committee with a barrage of information on discriminatory policies.

Adalah, the legal centre for the Arab minority in Israel, presented information showing that 45 of the 46 communities with the highest unemployment in Israel are Arab and that poverty rates among Arab families were up to three times greater than Jewish families.

On land rights, Adalah figures showed that Arab municipalities in the Galilee controlled just 16 per cent of the land despite accounting for 72 per cent of the population. In the Negev, Arab councils had just under two per cent of the land despite comprising a quarter of the population. Furthermore, in the past year more than 100 Bedouin homes had been demolished and 3,000 acres of crops destroyed.

Similarly, said Adalah, there was blatant discrimination in education rights, with Arab students faring worse in terms of dropout, matriculation and university-entry rates. Although 90 per cent of Jewish three and four-year-olds attended kindergarten, only 50 per cent of Arab children did. Arab schools also received a small fraction of the truant officers, psychologists and education counsellors needed to address such problems.

Several participants also tried to counter misleading information from the Israeli delegation about a $1bn programme for the development of Arab communities. The plan was launched amid much fanfare in late 2000 by Ehud Barak, but most of the money has never been accounted for. One Israeli NGO, Sikkuy, has accused Israel of fiddling the books and re- labelling existing budgets as money from the plan.

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