Fifty years after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it controls these areas through repression, institutionalized discrimination, and systematic abuses of the Palestinian population’s rights, Human Rights Watch said today.
At least five categories of major violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law characterize the occupation: unlawful killings; forced displacement; abusive detention; the closure of the Gaza Strip and other unjustified restrictions on movement; and the development of settlements, along with the accompanying discriminatory policies that disadvantage Palestinians.
Many of Israel’s abusive practices were carried out in the name of security. Palestinian armed groups have carried out scores of lethal attacks on civilians and launched thousands of rocket attacks on Israeli civilian areas, also in violation of international humanitarian law.
“Whether it’s a child imprisoned by a military court or shot unjustifiably, or a house demolished for lack of an elusive permit, or checkpoints where only settlers are allowed to pass, few Palestinians have escaped serious rights abuses during this 50-year occupation,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Israel today maintains an entrenched system of institutionalized discrimination against Palestinians in the occupied territory – repression that extends far beyond any security rationale.”
As the occupation enters its second half-century, the focus should be on increasing the protection of the rights of the population of the occupied territory, Human Rights Watch said.
Unlawful Killings & War Crimes
Israeli troops killed well over 2,000 Palestinian civilians in the last three Gaza conflicts (2008-09, 2012, 2014) alone. Many of these attacks amount to violations of international humanitarian law due to a failure to take all feasible precautions to spare civilians. Some amount to war crimes, including the targeting of apparent civilian structures.
In the West Bank, Israeli security forces have routinely used excessive force in policing situations, killing or grievously wounding thousands of demonstrators, rock-throwers, suspected assailants, and others with live ammunition when lesser means could have averted a threat or maintained order.
Armed Palestinian groups also committed war crimes during these conflicts and at other times, including rocket attacks targeting Israeli population centers. Between the start of the first Intifada in December 1987 and the end of February 2017, attacks by Palestinians killed at least 1,079 Israeli civilians, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.
Israeli official investigations into alleged security force abuses during the Gaza conflicts and in policing situations failed to hold the abusers accountable, with rare exceptions. Palestinian authorities have also failed to investigate violations and hold those responsible to account.
Israeli authorities have since 1967 facilitated the transfer of its civilians to the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In 1967, Israel established two settlements in the West Bank: Kfar Etzion and East Talpiot; by 2017, Israel had established 237 settlements there, housing approximately 580,000 settlers. Israel applies Israeli civil law to settlers, affording them legal protections, rights, and benefits that are not extended to Palestinians living in the same territory who are subjected to Israeli military law. Israel provides settlers with infrastructure, services, and subsidies that it denies to Palestinians, creating and sustaining a separate and unequal system of law, rules, and services.
Israeli authorities have expropriated thousands of acres of Palestinian land for settlements and their supporting infrastructure. Discriminatory burdens, including making it nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits in East Jerusalem and in the 60 percent of the West Bank under exclusive Israeli control (Area C), have effectively forced Palestinians to leave their homes or to build at the risk of seeing their “unauthorized” structures bulldozed. For decades, Israeli authorities have demolished homes on the grounds that they lacked permits, even though the law of occupation prohibits destruction of property except for military necessity, or punitively as collective punishment against families of Palestinians suspected of attacking Israelis.
Israel has also arbitrarily excluded hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from its population registry, restricting their ability to live in and travel from the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli authorities have justified these actions by citing general security concerns, but they have not conducted individual screenings or claimed that those excluded posed a threat themselves. Israel also revoked the residency of over 130,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and 14,565 in East Jerusalem since 1967, largely on the basis that they had been away too long.
Gaza Closure, Unjustified Movement Restrictions in West Bank
For the last 25 years, Israel has tightened restrictions on the movement of people and goods to and from the Gaza Strip in ways that far exceed any conceivable requirement of Israeli security. These restrictions affect nearly every aspect of everyday life, separating families, restricting access to medical care and educational and economic opportunities, and perpetuating unemployment and poverty. As of last year, Gaza’s GDP was 23 percent lower than in 1994. Seventy percent of Gaza’s 1.9 million people rely on humanitarian assistance.
Israel also has imposed onerous restrictions on freedom of movement in the West Bank, enforced at checkpoints within the West Bank and at its borders with Israel. Israel’s separation barrier, ostensibly solely built for security, in fact slices through the West Bank significantly more than it runs along the Green Line separating the West Bank from Israel, contrary to international humanitarian law, as confirmed by the International Court of Justice in July 2004.
Israeli authorities have incarcerated hundreds of thousands of Palestinians since 1967, the majority after trials in military courts, which have a near-100 percent conviction rate. In addition, on average, hundreds every year have been placed in administrative detention based on secret evidence without charge or trial. Some were detained or imprisoned for engaging in nonviolent activism. Israel also jails West Bank and Gaza Palestinian detainees inside Israel, creating onerous restrictions on family visits and violating international law requiring that they be held within the occupied territory. Many detainees, including children, face harsh conditions and mistreatment.
The Palestinian Authority, since its creation in 1994, and Hamas, since becoming the de facto authority in Gaza in 2007, have arbitrarily detained dissidents, tortured and mistreated detainees, and, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, executed 41 people pursuant to death sentences after flawed trials.
The law of occupation, designed to regulate the exceptional and temporary situation in which a foreign military power displaces the lawful sovereign and rules by force, grants an occupier broad but limited powers to restrict individuals and their rights to meet security needs.
However, in a prolonged occupation in which occupiers have the opportunity to develop more narrowly tailored responses to security threats, exemptions to rights protections should be reduced and the balance shifted toward respecting, protecting, and fulfilling all fundamental rights of the population. In addition, the occupier’s obligation to restore normal civilian life for the local population increases with the passage of time, as do its obligations to progressively realize the social, economic, and cultural rights of residents of the occupied territory.
After decades of failure to rein in abuses associated with the occupation, the international community should take more active measures to hold Israeli and Palestinian authorities to their obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law. Other countries and businesses should cease activities carried out inside settlements and change policies that support settlement-related activities and infrastructure, in keeping with their respective human rights responsibilities.
Governments should use their leverage to press Israel to end the generalized travel ban for Palestinians from Gaza and permit the free movement of people and goods to and from Gaza, subject to individualized security screenings and physical inspection. The International Criminal Court should open a formal investigation into serious international crimes committed in Israel and Palestine both by Israelis and Palestinians.
“Fifty years of occupation and decades of a fruitless peace process should put firmly to rest the notion that downplaying human rights will ease the path to a negotiated solution to the conflict,” Whitson said. “Concerted action for rights and accountability is urgently needed, including through the International Criminal Court.”
On the occasion of the occupation’s 50th anniversary, Human Rights Watch has made available online publications dating back to the 1980s and early 1990s.