15 May 2003
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today started its examination of a second periodic report presented by Israel on its implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Presenting his country’s report, Yaakov Levy, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that since its creation Israel had faced severe challenges to its very existence at military, political, economic and other levels. The Government and society had to function within extreme international and regional constraints.
Mr. Levy said that notwithstanding those challenges, including terrorism, Israel remained committed to the continued improvement of human rights protection, though it was difficult to continue normal life under such trying circumstances. He added that Israel had made considerable progress both in terms of its policy and legislation in the economic, social and cultural spheres.
Also presenting the report were Osnat Mandel, Director at the High Court of Justice, State Attorney’s Office, Ministry of Justice; and Michael Atlan, Senior Deputy Legal Advisor, Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. They briefed the Committee on legislative measures taken by the State to implement the treaty.
During the meeting, the Committee Experts queried the Israeli delegation on a number of issues pertaining to the applicability of the Covenant to the occupied Palestinian territories; the policy of the demolition of houses; social and economic disparities between Jewish and Arab citizens; the situation of “unrecognized villages of Bedouin” in Israel; the high rate of unemployment among the Arab population; unequal pay for men and women for equal work; and the rate of poverty, particularly among Palestinians whose economic situation had been deteriorating due to Israeli blockades.
The Israeli delegation was also composed of Boaz Oren, Deputy Director of the Department for International Agreements and International Litigation, Ministry of Justice; Eynav Golomb, Senior Assistant to the State Attorney, Ministry of Justice; Ilana Zailer, Director of Educational Institutions Administration, Ministry of Education; Avishai Cohen, Head of Division for Policy Implementation, and Guy Bar-Natan, Head of Division for Policy Implementation, Prime Minister’s Office; Ady Schonmann, Legal Officer, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Tuvia Israel, Deputy Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission of Israel at Geneva; and Teizu Guluma, Advisor at the Permanent Mission of Israel in Geneva.
As one of the 146 States parties to the International Covenant, Israel, which ratified the treaty in August 1991, is obligated to submit periodic reports to the Committee on how it is giving effect to the provisions of the treaty.
When the Committee reconvenes at 10 a.m. on Friday, 16 May, it is scheduled to continue its discussion on the second periodic report of Israel.
Second Periodic Report of Israel
The report of Israel (E/1990/6/Add.32) describes information pertaining to changes that have occurred since the initial report was submitted in November 1997. On the applicability of the International Covenant to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, an issue raised by the Committee in its concluding observations on Israel’s initial report, the report says that Israel has consistently maintained that the treaty does not apply to areas that are not subject to its sovereign territory and jurisdiction. The position was based on the well-established distinction between human rights and humanitarian law under international law. In Israel’s view, the Committee’s mandate cannot relate to events in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, inasmuch as they are part and parcel of the context of an armed conflict as distinct from a relationship of human rights. Israel cannot be internationally responsible for ensuring the rights under the Covenant in these territories.
Economic, social and cultural rights continue to be widely recognized in Israel, whether directly by law, regulations or case law, or by administrative programmes, the report notes. The Israeli Government is concerned about the need to eliminate gaps between Jews and Arabs in Israel. The Government regards itself as obligated to act to grant equal and fair conditions to Israeli Arabs in the socio-economic sphere, in particular in the areas of education, housing and employment. It also regards the socio-economic development of the Arab-sector communities of Israel as contributing toward the growth and development of all of Israel’s society and economy.
The report notes that the Israeli Law of Return personifies the very essence of the State of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic State”. The Law of Return of 1950 and the Nationality Law of 1952 provide a right for Jews to immigrate to Israel and to automatically acquire Israeli nationality. That privilege, granted as part of Israel’s immigration policy, is clearly a domestic matter, subject to the sovereign discretion of the State. However, non-Jews are not prevented from immigrating to Israel, nor are there any restrictions on any particular group. Non-Jews who wish to acquire Israeli citizenship may apply for such citizenship in accordance with Israel’s Nationality Law.
Presentation of Report
YAAKOV LEVY, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that all government ministries viewed seriously Israel’s commitments and duties regarding the fulfilment of its obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The questions and ideas emanating from the interaction with the Committee could be useful and conducive to further improvement in legislation and implementation of economic, social and cultural rights in Israel.
Israel marked just over a week ago its fifty-fifth year of independence, Mr. Levy said. Being a young multi-cultural, self-critical and democratic country, the homeland of the Jewish people after millennia of exile, persecution and the horrors of the Holocaust was where all its citizens enjoyed equal rights. Many of the positive developments in Israel could be seen as emanating from the activities of social and political lobbies, numerous non-governmental organizations and an energetic dialogue between those groups and the Government. However, the creation of this new pluralist and vibrant society had not taken place in a vacuum, but rather against the difficult security situation in which Israel found itself.
Since its creation, Mr. Levy went on to say, Israel had faced severe challenges to its very existence at military, political, economic and other levels. Its Government and society had to function within extreme international and regional constraints. Since the beginning of the current year, for example, Israel had been threatened by a possible non-conventional attack from the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein of Iraq. At the same time, Israel had been living under another kind of unique and constant threat of terrorism, including suicide-bombers. No other society had faced over a period of two and half years such a brutal and massive wave of daily terror attacks aimed at the indiscriminate murder of the civilian population. Snipers and suicide-bombers had aimed to take the lives of as many as innocent Israelis as possible.
Mr. Levy noted that notwithstanding those challenges, Israel remained committed to the continued improvement of human rights protection, though it was difficult to continue normal life under such trying circumstances. Israel had made considerable progress both in terms of its policy and legislation in the economic, social and cultural spheres.
OSNAT MANDEL, Advocate, Director, High Court of Justice Division, State Attorney’s Office, Ministry of Justice of Israel, said that Israel was a Jewish and democratic State; one would not say that there was never tension between those two terms, but there was most certainly no contradiction. Israel was a true representative democracy in which the enjoyment of rights by all of its residents and citizens had improved significantly over the years. Life expectancy had risen for all citizens, as had the level of education and of health care. Infant mortality had decreased dramatically. The rate of improvement was significantly greater within the Arab population than in the Jewish population, through certain gaps still existed.
Ms. Mandel said that Israel had no formal written constitution; its constitutional framework was set out in a series of Basic Laws. It did not yet have a full Bill of Rights, but it did not depend on a constitution in order to guarantee human rights. In the forefront of human rights protection were the courts of Israel, and particularly, the Supreme Court sitting as the High Court of Justice. Any person, regardless of citizenship, residency or other status, who felt that his or her rights were unlawfully denied or infringed could petition the Supreme Court. Over 2,400 petitions a year were filed by individuals.
Ms. Mandel said that the ultimate constitutional guardian of individual rights was the judiciary, which was completely independent. Judges were chosen by a special committee, on which politicians were a minority, and they served with security of tenure until the mandatory retirement age of 70. During the past two years, the Supreme Court had continued to develop its jurisprudence, including in the field of gender equality, and equality among the various ethnic groups in Israeli society.
The official said that Israel was facing today a twofold crisis: an armed conflict imposed by the Palestinians and a serious economic crisis. Those fighting against Israel were terrorists; they were not members of a regular army; and they did not wear uniforms. Since September 2000, 769 Israeli citizens and residents had been killed; and 5,376 had been wounded. In one month alone, March 2002, 120 Israelis were killed in attacks and hundreds were wounded.
In the economic field, Ms. Mandel said that since October 2000, the growth rate had declined by more than 6 per cent due to the global economic slow-down, which had reduced investments in the country’s start-up companies and in the high-tech industry in general, and also due to the adverse effects of terrorism. However, even during those difficult times, the Government was seeking a proper balance between human rights and its national and personal security as well as the country’s economic needs.
MICHAEL ATLAN, Advocate, Senior Deputy Legal Advisor, Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs of Israel, said that in its remarks in 1998, the Israeli delegation had candidly admitted the fact that the Israeli Arabs and Bedouin had, in general, been disadvantaged over the years, in various aspects relevant to the Covenant. Israel could not claim that no instances of inequality could be found. However, a new approach towards the Arab minority, one of affirmative action to achieve equality of opportunities, could be clearly seen over the last years. That represented a strategic change, which had been endorsed by all Governments in office, regardless of their political orientation. The State’s efforts already made in that regard should not be ignored, especially in the context of a genuine constructive dialogue with the Committee.
Mr. Atlan said that the multi-year plan and the special plans for Bedouin were the continuation and amplification of that policy of affirmative action. The multi-year plan, adopted in October 2000 by the Israeli Government to narrow the gaps between Jews and Arabs in Israel, provided for four billion Shekels to be allocated during the years 2001-2004. That was done notwithstanding the serious economic crisis which had hit Israel at the end of 2000. An overall cutback of 8 per cent of the State’s total budget did not affect the multi-year plan’s budget.
In conclusion, Mr. Atlan said that the various activities undertaken by the Israeli Government demonstrated a real and tangible change of attitude on the part of the State towards its Arab and Bedouin minorities. Affirmative action was now the rule, not the exception.
At the beginning of the dialogue, Committee Experts made comments on the introductory statements of the delegation. One Expert said that the discussion on the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights would inevitably lead to political issues. Concerning the expression that Israel was a Jewish country, the Expert said that such a position might deny the rights of other entities living in the country. The Iraqi Constitution, for example, affirmed that the country was an Arab and Kurdish State.
With regard to the occupied Palestinian territories, the Expert said that since Israel had been exercising effective occupation of those territories, it had the obligation to see that the provisions of the International Covenant were implemented there. The Expert also asked if the rights set forth in the Covenant were made justiciable in Israel, including its wide dissemination among the population of Israel and people under occupation. The economic and social gap between the Jews and Arabs in Israel had been continuing for 55 years.
Another Expert said that since Israel had no constitution, it could not present a catalogue of rights to be protected by the constitution. However, the existence of a Basic Law was invoked by the delegation. The Expert asked if the Supreme Court had explicitly recognized in its jurisprudence economic, social and cultural rights.
An Expert said that the delegation had made reference to the Iraqi crisis and the armed conflict with the Palestinians; however, the people under occupation — Palestinians — had suffered most. The Palestinians were not in a position to exercise their economic, social and cultural rights.
Another Expert said that the members of the delegation, in their statements, had politicized the debate by referring to the Holocaust and terrorism. Although the Experts sympathized with the victims of the Holocaust, for 55 years, the Palestinians had been suffering under the hands of Jewish nationalists.
An Expert said that the Israeli Government had the primary obligation in implementing the provisions of the International Covenant, and it should not be left to the Supreme Court for interpretation. The basic rights, including the principle of non-discrimination, set forth in the Covenant, could not be derogated even in time of war.
Other Committee Experts also raised a number of questions on issues pertaining to the insufficient budgetary allocation for non-Jewish areas; the rights of disabled persons; the applicability of Israeli law and the Covenant to the Israel settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories; the situation of Bedouin; the legal protection provided to migrant workers; the problems faced by Palestinians due to the check points built by Israel; the difference between the Jewish nationality and Israeli citizenship; discrimination against ethnic minorities; the application of the law on return for Palestinians; and allocation of land to Palestinians and Jews.
Responding, the Israeli delegation said that the expression “Jewish State” was a result of the philosophical evolution of religious and secular connotations. The country cited by one of the Experts had not respected the human rights of its people despite the existence of that country’s Constitution.
Israel did not just “wake-up” now to realize the gaps existing among its citizens, the delegation said. Israel had been faced with a series of difficulties for many years, among which was the wave of migrants coming daily to the country. About 970,000 Jews had immigrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel, in addition to the 60,000 from Ethiopia; and 20,000 more migrants were also expected to arrive soon from Ethiopia.
Since the mid-1990s, special courses had been provided in Israeli universities, the delegation said. A series of seminars for judicial staff and lawyers had been held on the economic, social and cultural rights situation of citizens. In addition, the Government was closely working with a number of non-governmental organizations.
All children, without any form of discrimination, were entitled to special education organized by the State, the delegation said. Every child eligible to be admitted to special schools enjoyed all rights attached to special education. Among the 30,848 students in special schools in 2002, 25 per cent were children of Arab, Druze and Bedouin origin. Other disabled children were admitted to normal schools where they received additional study hours to close the gaps that might arise in their needs. Children with mild disabilities from minorities were also integrated in normal schools.
On the issue of raising consciousness on the provisions of the International Covenant, the delegation said that the maximum had been done to publicize the treaty among the population. However, the use of the media, which devoted much of its time and space to other daily events, was not the appropriate means. The State had used a series of programmes that had added to the people’s awareness of the Covenant.
Israel was building its constitution on a stage-by-stage basis, the delegation said. However, a number of laws had been enacted guaranteeing the rights of citizens in many fields. A law conferring equality between men and women was among the legislation enacted by the Government.
With regard to the Bedouin people, the delegation said that many of them had been resettled and provided with the necessary rights as citizens of Israel. The recognized Bedouin villagers were entitled to all social and economic facilities, while those “unrecognized” Bedouin in the Negev region still had to be provided with more services essential for their living. Because of the refusal by some Bedouin to be resettled in other areas, some services were not provided as required. Their particular living conditions did not allow them to enjoy their full rights as required under the Covenant. However, many Bedouin children enjoyed educational rights along with the rest of Israeli children.
The recruitment of foreign workers was governed by the law on employment, the delegation said. In the past, foreign workers used to be hired to carry out specific jobs. However, recent legal measures had introduced relaxed rules to allow foreign workers to be engaged in various employment areas. Any foreigner unhappy with his initial work could now change his job.
The Israeli State was created by the international community and by UN resolutions, the delegation said. It was established to serve as a Jewish, democratic State, homeland for the Jewish people. In the aftermath of the horrors of World War II, and following the establishment of the State of Israel, Israel’s founders enacted the Law of Return to give formal expression to the central tenets underlying the establishment of the State as the only homeland for the Jewish people.
The Law of Return aimed at giving Jewish people around the world the right to return to Israel, and it provided them with automatic citizenship, the delegation said. Since there was no “Jewish or Arab citizenship”, all Israeli citizens had the same rights in all matters, including the right to elect and to be elected. Members of the Knesset included representatives of minorities in the country, including Arab Israeli citizens.
As to the effect of religious affiliation on the enjoyment of rights under the Covenant, Israeli law distinguished between religious status only for matters of marital status, where the King’s Order in Council applied, the delegation said. The law also provided exclusive jurisdiction to officially recognized religious tribunals in Israel over matters of marital status within their respective religious communities.
The quality of rights for persons with disabilities had been improved in recent years, the delegation said. Integration programmes had been carried out in sectors to enable disabled persons to enjoy their full rights. The 2002 law on disabilities had provided for further rights which allowed persons with disabilities to access facilities in public transportation, buildings and workplaces. The Government had been doing all it could do in order to uphold the rights of disabled persons.
In follow-up questions, Committee Experts asked if couples of Arab and Jewish origin were allowed to acquire properties, such as real estate, in Jewish areas; why one religious group was given preference over others; and why there were discrepancies between Israeli law and the provisions of the Covenant.
One of the core obligations under the Covenant was the principle of non-discrimination, an Expert said. What was the State’s policy on demolitions which were carried out without compensation? Such demolitions left many families without roofs over their head or shelter.
Another Expert said that Palestinians were prevented by Israel from exercising their economic, social and cultural rights. The State did not take measures to prevent the obstacles that impeded the Palestinians from enjoying these rights. The lack of respect by Israel of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of the civilian population in times of war was also raised.
Responding, the delegation said that there was no contradiction between the domestic law and international treaties. Israeli international obligations were not compromised because of a domestic provision. Prior to the implementation of a given treaty, the necessary legal ground had to be paved to facilitate its ratification.
On the demolishing of houses, the delegation said that houses built without appropriate permits and houses squatted by individuals could be demolished following administrative decisions. The individuals had the right to appeal to courts against the decision and could receive compensation if they won the case.
The applicability of the Covenant to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip had been a subject of debate in Israel and by the Committee, the delegation said. Israel had not reacted to the issue because of the legal arguments. The Covenant ratified by Israel could not be applied beyond its sovereign jurisprudence. Although there were connections between human rights and economic, social and cultural rights, the two systems of treaties could not be interlinked according to current practices; and they could not be implemented simultaneously.
In the absence of a specific status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip vis-à-vis Israel, such as trusteeship, the Covenant could not be implemented by Israel, the delegation said. Israel had no monitoring mechanism within those territories of the implementation of the treaty. Israel had no effective control of the territories, which would have allowed it to confiscate the many weapons used by the Palestinian terrorists. Pursuant to the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement of 1995, the overwhelming majority of powers and responsibilities in all civil spheres, including economic, social and cultural fields, had been transferred to the Palestinian Authority.
The Committee Experts went on raising questions, among other things, on the restriction of Palestinians working in Israel from joining Israeli trade unions; the reasons for the high unemployment rate among the Arab and Bedouin population of Israel; the status of migrant workers; the lack of adequate funds for the prevention of domestic violence; unequal pay for men and women for equal work; the rate of minimum wage; why Israel did not ratify International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour; the rise of poverty among children, with 50 per cent of poverty among Arab children; the level of poverty in the occupied Palestinian territories, which had deteriorated because of the Israeli blockades; and the extent of homelessness.
An Expert said that with 10,000 incidents of rape per year in the country, Israel had a serious problem in that area. He asked if there was a national plan of action against the phenomenon of rape, including the situation of prostitution, which was reported to be widening.
Another Expert asked for the legal provision that allowed the building of walls around the West Bank and the legal regime that confiscated 10 per cent of the Palestinian land. He said that such measures had further impeded the Palestinian people from enjoying their economic, social and cultural rights. Concerning the administrative order for the demolition of houses, the Expert asked how the victims could appeal for the restriction of the order before the courts.
Many Palestinian workers were still crossing into Israel to work, the delegation said. Israel had provided permits to 120,000 Palestinians to come and work on a daily basis in Israel before the imposition of restrictions. The restrictions were established to protect the country from the threat of terrorism. The curfew had been partially lifted recently and at present 30,000 work permits had been issued to Palestinians to cross into Israel.
On the issue of health care in the occupied territories, the delegation said that there had been a marked decrease in complaints relating to access to hospitals and movements of ambulances. Visiting missions and sources close to the United Nations had reported on the situation. The restriction against the movement of ambulances was due to the use of such vehicles for transporting arms used by terrorists.
In the context of self-defence, Israel was entitled to take any measures that would ensure its security, the delegation said. The decision to build a wall around the West Bank was among the measures that Israel had taken to protect itself. It was not aimed at marking future boundaries between Israel and Palestine. However, special measures had been taken to allow Palestinian farmers to have access to their lands situated beyond the walls. The initiation to build the wall was imposed on Israel by the Palestinian terrorists.
No new permits were being issued for workers wishing to come and work in Israel, the delegation said. The freezing of new permits was to give employment priority to unemployed Israeli citizens.
Children were entitled to equal and compulsory education without any distinction, the delegation said. In Tel Aviv, 90 per cent of children in kindergarten were of foreign origin. The Government was endeavouring to provide quality education to all children in application of article 13 of the International Covenant.
The delegation said that Government was preparing the legal grounds for the ratification of ILO Convention no. 182 on the worst forms of child labour.