As a non-governmental organisation committed to the promotion and protection of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), Al-Haq would like to respond to the recent briefing issued by the Government of Israel’s Office for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (CoGAT). The briefing, entitled “Key Measures for Easing the Daily Lives of the Palestinian Population,” purports to provide a general overview of recent Israeli measures aimed at improving the Palestinian population’s “fabric of life” within the OPT.
The aforementioned briefing, aside from being vague and incomprehensive, is a purely cosmetic exercise, designed to distract attention from the reality on the ground. The humanitarian, economic and financial situation in the OPT today is worse than ever before. Israel’s almost 40-year-old occupation continues to create “facts on the ground” through settlement expansion, the construction of the Annexation Wall, and increasingly oppressive movement restrictions. Combined with economic disintegration, lack of protection of civilians and attacks on Palestinian democratic institutions, these measures have perpetuated the suffering of the Palestinian people, exacerbated tensions and escalated the Israeli / Palestinian conflict.
The CoGAT briefing makes no reference to core aspects of the occupation which have a severe impact on the daily lives of the Palestinian civilian population, including Israel’s excessive use of force. Israeli military actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip systematically violate fundamental norms of international humanitarian law, notably the principle of proportionality, the prohibition on collective punishment and the prohibition on targeting civilian persons and objects. Since January 2006, Israeli military operations in the OPT have resulted in the deaths of 687 Palestinians, including 126 children, and injured thousands more. During the same period, Al-Haq has documented that 79 Palestinians were killed in targeted assassinations. Many of those killed were civilians not participating in hostilities. There are no justifications under international law for Israel’s clearly disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force against Palestinians.
The CoGAT briefing also overlooks the issue of the destruction and confiscation of Palestinian private property, most importantly houses and land. Throughout the OPT, Israeli authorities continue their policy of land confiscation and levelling in order to either expand existing Israeli settlements and their associated infrastructure, or construct the Annexation Wall in defiance of the International Court of Justice’s 2004 Advisory Opinion. On 31 January 2007, it was reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has approved the moving of the Annexation Wall deeper into the West Bank to encompass two Israeli settlements of some 1,500 settlers. The proposed amendment to the route will shut about 20,000 Palestinian villagers into two enclaves, irrevocably disrupting their daily lives.
With regard to those topics actually dealt with in the briefing, there is a significant gap between the picture presented by CoGAT and the reality on the ground. The briefing talks of assisting movement, however, it fails to properly address the question of physical movement restrictions in the form of checkpoints and various kinds of road blocks. There are currently more than 520 of these in the West Bank. The difficulties posed by the system of checkpoints and road blocks are compounded by the system of separate roads. The presence of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has led to the creation of a network of restricted roads which connect the settlements to each other and with Israel. These roads are accessible only to Israelis or to Palestinians with special permits, which are very difficult to secure. In addition to the above, restrictions on movement between the northern, central, and southern areas of the West Bank have intensified, and have been particularly acute in the areas between the Green Line and the Wall and in the Jordan Valley, which can only be reached with a special permit or with an ID indicating Jordan Valley residency. The effect of all this is to divide Palestinian communities from one another, making economic and social interaction extremely difficult. The system of permits, separate roads and road blocks is discriminatory and ultimately aims at fragmenting the West Bank into a series of isolated communities.
In addition to controlling movement within the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Israel controls all access to the OPT. At present, an undeclared Israeli policy is in effect, whereby foreign passport holders who want to visit, live or work in the OPT are increasingly denied entry and/or re-entry. Since the beginning of 2006, many thousands of foreign passport holders, particularly Palestinians, have been arbitrarily turned away at Israeli ports of entry, through which they must transit to reach the OPT. The affected individuals have been separated from their families, homes, jobs and places of education. The CoGAT briefing, which states changes in Israel’s policy of denying entry to foreign nationals travelling into the OPT, leaves many questions unanswered and the crisis unresolved. Since the procedures outlined in the briefing were introduced, foreign passport holders have continued to be denied entry under circumstances that indicate the implementation of the newly announced procedures remains arbitrary, abusive and unlawful.
Insofar as the CoGAT briefing alludes to strengthening the private sector, the fact is that the conditions of occupation - curfews, movement restrictions, the Annexation Wall, the network of settlements and the accompanying discriminatory infrastructure - are not conducive to the growth of the Palestinian private sector, and have led to a downturn in economic activity. This situation is aggravated by the decrease in job opportunities for Palestinians in Israel. Despite the briefing’s stated claim of increasing the number of Palestinians working in Israel and the settlements, the reality is that since the start of the second intifada, in September 2000, the number of such workers has decreased from 146,000 to 43,000. On top of all this, the Israeli Government is unlawfully withholding from the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) tax and customs revenues amounting to $50-60 million per month that it collects on the PNA’s behalf. Israel’s refusal to transfer Palestinian revenue, coupled with the withdrawal of support by major international donors, has denied over 160,000 Palestinian civil servants their source of income, upon which approximately 1 million Palestinians or some 25% of the population of the OPT depend. The downturn in economic activity, the squeezing of the private sector and the non-payment of public sector salaries have all contributed to an alarming increase in poverty and hardship in the OPT. Roughly 64% of the Palestinian population now live below the poverty line, compared to 20% in 1998.
In conclusion, it is evident from the situation on the ground that Israel has done nothing of substance to improve the Palestinian population’s fabric of life, and that the CoGAT briefing is a cynical political effort to obscure this reality. It is only through adherence to international law, including the ending of the occupation and ultimately the bringing about of the meaningful and effective exercise of the right to self-determination by the Palestinian people, that the living conditions of the civilian population of the OPT will be improved. In this regard, Al-Haq suggests a number of questions you may wish to raise in any future communications with the Israeli Government:
When will Israel make public its rules of engagement, and demonstrate how they are compatible with international human rights and humanitarian law?
What meaningful steps has Israel taken to implement the International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion?
What meaningful steps has Israel taken to remove obstacles to Palestinians’ movement in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem?
When will Israel clarify and consistently apply in a non-discriminatory manner the procedures for granting foreign passport holders, whose life and livelihood is in the OPT, access to the OPT?
When will Israel release the tax funds which lawfully belong to the Palestinian National Authority under the 1994 Protocol on Economic Relations between the Government of Israel and Palestine Liberation Organisation?
Additionally, Al-Haq remains at your disposal for any related questions, comments or requests that you might have. Should you wish to discuss the issues raised in the CoGAT briefing in more detail, Al-Haq would be more than willing to schedule a meeting to do so.