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Israel and Human Rights: Using the Law to Justify the Illegal
The international community recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, marks a defining moment for humankind. For the first time in history, all nations agreed upon a set of rights inherent to all human beings. Milestones inspire introspection, and this anniversary provides a perfect opportunity to step back and reflect broadly on how Israel has fared in the crucial area of human rights. The most disturbing thing about human rights in Israel is neither the scope nor the gravity of the human-rights violations themselves. Scores of governments and police forces around the world have more brutal human-rights records than Israel's. Yet, what is most disturbing - and what renders Israel's abuses unique - are its relentless efforts to legitimize blatantly illegal acts: to justify what cannot be justified. "There are two ways of fighting," Niccolò Machiavelli holds in The Prince, "by law or by force."1 All too often in its short existence, Israel has used the former in order to justify the latter.

Torture, Hostage-Taking and Assassinations

Israel's justification of the use of torture is the most notorious example of its efforts to legalize reprehensible acts. Amnesty International once stated that torture is the one form of violence a state will always deny and never justify. Israel has proven Amnesty wrong - it stands as the only country in the world that has legitimized torture, both rhetorically and judicially.
Palestinians interrogated by the General Security Services (GSS) are routinely subjected to the following interrogation methods:
• sleep deprivation for days and even weeks;
• tying up in painful positions for lengthy periods;
• sensory deprivation by hooding and playing of loud music;
• exposure to extremes of heat or cold;
• degradation and threats;
• violent shaking.
The GSS justifies these violent methods of interrogation by pointing to the Landau Commission Report. Headed by former Israeli Supreme Court president, Moshe Landau, the Commission was established in 1987 to look into GSS interrogation practices. It concluded that the GSS could use "non-violent psychological pressure during intense and continuous interrogation" as well as a "moderate measure of physical pressure."
In Israel, torture is institutionalized, insofar as it is governed by detailed regulations and written procedures. A wide contingent of public officials participates in the practice of torture. In addition to the GSS interrogators who directly perpetrate the torture, a ministerial committee headed by the prime minister oversees the procedures; doctors determine whether a detainee is medically fit to withstand the torture; state attorneys defend the practices in the courts; and the High Court of Justice, without having ruled on its legality in principle, has effectively legalized torture by approving its use in individual cases.2
Hostage-taking is another example where Israel drapes a cloak of legality over a breach of basic standards of international law. Israeli authorities currently hold some 20 Lebanese nationals in administrative detention inside Israel. Most of these "prisoners" have not been charged and given a trial; others are held beyond the expiry of their sentences; some have been locked up for periods of up to 11 years. In November 1997, Israel's High Court of Justice upheld the administrative detention of 10 of these Lebanese nationals as "bargaining chips" to be exchanged for the return of missing Israeli soldiers. In other words, the court said that it is legal to hold people as hostages.3
It is a bitter irony that the Israeli government - usually at the forefront of the international struggle against terrorism - has adopted a practice that is one of the trademarks of terrorist groups around the world.
Another notorious example of Israel's attempt to legitimize illegal acts is the practice of extra-judicial executions. Both in the occupied territories and throughout the world, Israeli security agents have allegedly been responsible for killing suspected terrorists, such as Abu Jihad, Fathi Shikaki and Yihya Ayyash. Israel acknowledged responsibility for the attempted assassination of the Hamas leader Khaled Mesh'al, in September 1997 in Amman. Although the government immediately set up a Commission of Inquiry, this commission's mandate was limited to examining why the assassination attempt failed, instead of questioning why the attempt was made at all. After the botched assassination, senior Israeli officials publicly admitted and defended Israel's policy to assassinate terrorists, claiming that in its uncompromising and just war against terrorism, Israel will not refrain from killing suspected "guerrilla leaders ... wherever they are."

Organized Dispossession in the Occupied Territories

This pattern of imbuing Israel's violations of human rights with a halo of legitimacy also informs its policies in the occupied territories. In over 30 years of occupation, Israel has built an entire legal and administrative system that has enabled the implementation of policies that perpetuate Israeli control in the occupied territories. The establishment of Israeli settlements constitutes the most pervasive of such policies. To establish permanent civilian settlements in the occupied territories is to defy international humanitarian law that prohibits an occupying power from moving population from its territory into the territory that it occupies. Yet, resorting to various bureaucratic means - ranging from the expropriation of private land to the proclamation of Palestinian lands as "state land" - Israel has, in effect, seized some 20 percent of the Gaza Strip and over a third of the West Bank from its Palestinian owners, to the benefit of Jewish settlers.4
Legal procedures also legitimize Israel's related policy of house demolition in the West Bank. Israel's argument is simple: Palestinians often build without a permit, a practice considered intolerable by any planning authority; therefore, the demolition of these houses is legitimate. But this line of reasoning ignores the fact that the rules governing the granting of planning, zoning and building permits in the West Bank have for years been tainted with overwhelming geopolitical considerations. Today, thousands of Palestinians are unable to obtain a permit to build on their land. In order to limit Palestinian construction, urban planning in Palestinian towns and villages has been virtually frozen. Planning schemes over 50 years old determine the approval, or in most cases, the rejection, of applications for building permits. For 30 years, land registration has been frozen, so landowners are unable to provide proof of ownership. Furthermore, Israelis, not Palestinians, administer the building authorities. Palestinians who want to build with a permit on their own land in Area C must undergo a lengthy, complex, and expensive process - a process usually ending in rejection.
Faced with such a situation, and lacking any other option, many Palestinians build homes without permits to provide shelter for themselves and their families and, as a result, become subjected to the policy of mass demolition. Since 1988, Israel has demolished over 2,200 Palestinian homes. In contrast, Israel has granted permits ex post factum for thousands of buildings built without a permit in the Jewish settlements.5

Jerusalem: City of Light, City of Tragedy

Israel's policies in East Jerusalem, over the last 30 years, clearly demonstrate the pervasive, insidious way in which the state uses its bureaucracy as a tool for political domination and exclusion. Since the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, the urban development of the city has been based primarily on politics, rather than on public welfare. Systematic discrimination rather than equality has been the norm, as authorities have consistently forced Palestinians to leave the city instead of acting to improve their welfare. Under both the Likud and Labor governments, one central goal has dictated Israeli policies in the city: to establish a demographic and geographic reality that will preempt any future challenge to Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem.
To realize this objective, Israel's planning policy encourages Jewish immigration to, and Palestinian emigration from, Jerusalem. Jewish neighborhoods have been massively constructed on Palestinian land in East Jerusalem. In fact, Israel has expropriated more than one-third of East Jerusalem's land since 1967. Although Palestinians owned most of this land, some 40,800 housing units have been built for Jews on it. At the same time, not one housing unit was built for Palestinians, who comprise nearly a third of the population of the city. City planners and architects estimate that the housing shortage among Palestinians exceeds 20,000 units.
Another strategy has been less conspicuous but no less effective. Through myriad planning decisions made far from the public eye, Israeli officials have choked development of the Palestinian neighborhoods and limited the natural growth of the Palestinian population, thereby entrenching Israeli control in Jerusalem. For example, Israeli planning authorities have systematically approved only a small number of housing permits in Palestinian neighborhoods, blatantly ignoring the present and future needs of the Palestinian population.
This ongoing policy of discrimination has deeply affected housing conditions within the Palestinian neighborhoods. At the end of 1996, the average housing density among Jews in Jerusalem was 1.1 persons per room, while among Palestinians it was 2.1 persons per room. This gap of almost 100 percent is double the gap that existed in 1967. Nearly one-third of Palestinians in Jerusalem live in extremely crowded conditions of three or more persons per room. Fewer than 3 percent of Jews live in such overcrowded conditions.6
Since December 1995, Israel's efforts to underpin its sovereignty in East Jerusalem have taken on a new, more severe character. Cloaked in bureaucratic procedures of forms, courts judgments and regulations, Israel is carrying out a quiet deportation from East Jerusalem. True, there are no soldiers loading people onto trucks. Still, Israel has forced thousands of Palestinians to leave their homes, denying their fundamental right to live in the city of their birth.
The Interior Ministry oversees and implements this quiet deportation, largely by revoking the residency status of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Most Palestinians living in Jerusalem are classified as permanent residents, and this status grants them the right to live in the city. Before 1996, Palestinians lost their status as permanent residents if they lived in a foreign country for more than seven years or if they became a citizen of another country. Palestinians moving from Jerusalem to other parts of the occupied territories did not put their residency status in jeopardy. Now this policy has changed. When Palestinians cannot prove that their "center of life" has been exclusively confined to Jerusalem, the Interior Ministry revokes their permanent residency status.
Loss of residency status does not just prevent Palestinians from living in the city of their birth; it also denies them the social welfare benefits to which they are entitled. The National Insurance Institute (NII) acts to achieve the same objectives as the Ministry of Interior: to force residents of East Jerusalem out of the city. The NII is predisposed to suspect that every resident of East Jerusalem applying for an allotment does not actually reside in the city - and therefore is not entitled to allotments or health insurance. Because of current NII policy, Physicians for Human Rights estimates that some 10,000 Palestinian children in East Jerusalem are not covered by health insurance. In sum, then, the NII has changed from an entity aiming to advance social welfare to any entity serving an illegitimate political goal.7

* * *

In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela recalls how, during his career as a lawyer and activist, he evolved "from having an idealistic view of the law as a sword of justice to a perception of the law as a tool used by the ruling class to shape society in a way favorable to itself."8 Sadly, Israel relies on the law to trample basic rights - from sanctioning torture to taking hostages, from establishing settlements to demolishing houses, from deporting hundreds of Palestinians to deliberately discriminating against the Palestinian population in all matters relating to land expropriation, planning, and building.
Taken together, these policies reveal that the misuse of the law to justify human-rights abuses has become ingrained in the Israeli occupation. Through flagrant violations of international law, Israel has undermined the principles that have been established with painstaking efforts over the last 50 years. The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights marks a critical opportunity for introspection and commitment to changing the law from a sword of oppression to a sword of justice.


1. See Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (Penguin U.S.A., 1979), p. 99.
2. For further information on the institutionalization of torture, see B'Tselem, Legitimizing Torture: The Israeli High Court of Justice Rulings in the Bilbesi, Hamdan and Mubarak Cases, an Annotated Sourcebook, January, 1997; B'Tselem, Routine Torture: Interrogation Methods of the General Security Services, Report, February, 1998.
3. For a translation of the Court's decision, see www.btselem.org/PRESS/980511.htm
4. For further information on Israel's settlement policy, see B'Tselem, Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories as a Violation of Human Rights: Legal and Conceptual Aspects, Report, March, 1997.
5. For further information, see B'Tselem, Demolishing Peace: Israel's Policy of Mass Demolition of Palestinian Houses in the West Bank, Information Sheet, September, 1997.
6. For further information on Israel's housing and planning policies, see B'Tselem, A Policy of Discrimination: Land Expropriation, Planning and Building in East Jerusalem, Report, January, 1997.
Demolition of a house in Ras al-Amud, East Jerusalem PHOTO BY MAHFOUZ ABU TURK
7. For more details on Israel's residency policies, see B'Tselem and HaMoked, The Quiet Deportation: Revocation of Residency of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, Report, April, 1997; B'Tselem and HaMoked, The Quiet Deportation Continues: Revocation of Residency and Denial of Social Rights of East Jerusalem Palestinians, Report, September, 1998.
8. See Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (London: Abacus, 1995), pp. 308-309.

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