We shall overcome: Israel’s adherence to human rights principles

Israel declares itself to be a light unto the nations. It also violates 15 of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

By Yesh Din, written by Yossi Gurvitz

Eliezer Kaplan, with Moshe Shertok and David Ben-Gurion looking on and Zeev Sharef standing behind them, sign the Declaration of Independence at the Museum in Tel Aviv. (Zoltan Kluger/GPO)
Eliezer Kaplan, with Moshe Shertok and David Ben-Gurion looking on and Zeev Sharef standing behind them, sign the Declaration of Independence at the Museum in Tel Aviv. (Zoltan Kluger/GPO)

When Israel was established, its founders made sure to emphasize, in its Declaration of Independence, the universal values of Jewish tradition: “The State of Israel […] will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Later on, the Knesset voted to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Furthermore, Israel is in the habit of calling itself “the only democracy in the Middle East”, and since its earliest days, its leaders were partial to the term “a light unto the nations.” As we mark Human Rights Day, we should examine whether Israel stands by the high rhetoric of its founders, and whether it fulfills the Declaration of Human Rights.

As every person living here knows, assuming their eyes are open and  hearts are not blocked, Israel and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have a rocky relationship. In the beginning of 2010, Gideon Sa’ar’s Ministry of Education decided to stop teaching the Declaration at schools (Hebrew), since it informs tender children of their right to convert to another religion and even, heaven forbid, live somewhere other than Israel. However, this is just a minor problem; reading the text of the Declaration shows that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories violates 15 of its articles. Given that there are only 30 of them, that’s quite impressive.

Let us begin. The first violation comes with the first operative article of the Declaration, Article 2. It states, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.” Only, as everyone knows,  after “no distinction shall be made”, the text is irrelevant in the territories occupied by Israel. Article 2 is sort of an umbrella article; the following will note specific violations.

Article 3 of the Declaration states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Except that those living under Israeli rule in the West Bank are entitled to none of the above. The indictment rate for Israeli soldiers who have killed Palestinian non-combatants is negligible. Since 2000, only seven soldiers have been put on trial and convicted for crimes involving the death of Palestinians; the number of Palestinian deaths since 2000 is estimated at over 5,000. IDF soldiers need no warrant to break into Palestinian homes; they are authorized to arrest them without any explanation, and from time to time enforce curfews on Palestinian towns and villages.

Next. Article 5 of the Declaration states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Anyone familiar with the way our security services operate, or with the fact that, on many occasions, IDF soldiers beat up Palestinian detainees, knows that this article is often violated. Furthermore, it’s hard to see the standard procedure of blindfolding prisoners as anything but “degrading treatment.”

The fourth violation of the Declaration comes with Article 7: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” Except, the whole essence of the occupation is creating two populations in the same region, with two different sets of rights and two different legal systems. Discrimination manifests itself not just in the laws themselves, but also through unequal enforcement. To put it mildly, the Jewish victim of a crime in the OPT is significantly more likely to see justice served than would a Palestinian living in a neighboring village.  .

The fifth violation also comes from the legal world: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile,” declares Article 7. Except for the fact that the occupation forces maintain the right to hold a person in administrative detention, that is, held without charges and deprived of the right to defend himself in court. It’s hard to imagine a more “arbitrary arrest or detention” than that. Furthermore, from time to time Israel exiles Palestinians – in the last few years mostly from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, but it used to exile them to Lebanon and other countries, not to mention the internal displacement looming over South Hebron residents.

Article 10 of the Declaration states that “[e]veryone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal.” But it’s doubtful whether you can call our military courts “an independent and impartial tribunal” with a straight face. Their conviction rate is 99.7 percent. The British courts in India used to take pride in the large number of Indians who served there as judges; in Israel’s military courts, Palestinians naturally have nary a chance of being sentenced by a Palestinian. Israel once recruited police officers from among the occupied population, but it never imagined allowing them to sit in judgment. Israel’s military courts are a foeman’s court, conducted in the foeman’s language.

As far as the military courts are concerned, Article 11 of the Declaration is also troublesome: it says that, “[e]veryone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.” My emphasis. Israel’s military courts are notorious for allowing “secret evidence” presented to the judges by the prosecution, the content of which the defendant has no knowledge, nor is able to contradict. This means that the conviction of a defendant relies, at least in large part, on evidence that he has not had an opportunity to refute, and whose  absurdities or lies he cannot expose. Such “secret evidence,” fabricated to the gills, was the crux of the Dreyfus Affair. The French court, when exonerating Captain Dreyfus, ruled that the admission of “secret evidence” is incompatible with the right of a person to a legal defense. Dreyfus would in time be decorated by the thankful republic with its highest decoration, the Légion d’honneur, for “by defending his own honor, he defended the nation’s” and prevented it from jailing an innocent man. It’s been almost 120 years since Dreyfus’ infamous court-martial, and the Israeli military courts are yet to absorb this simple lesson.

Article 12 states, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation.” As noted above, Palestinians have no defense against arbitrary search of their homes. In fact, their houses sometimes serve as military training sites.

Onwards! Article 13 declares, “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” However, Israel enforces a rigid “permit regime” in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and it operates checkpoints which cut the West Bank into fragments. Our colleagues at Gisha can tell you more about just how fastidious Israel is about the right of Palestinians to move from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip and vice versa. Some Palestinians are even barred from travel outside the West Bank at all. And of course, residents of East Jerusalem, which though Israel may have forgotten is part of what the world views as occupied territory and is contiguous with the West Bank, risk losing their ability to return to their homes should they leave for a few years – say, for familial, economic or educational reasons – even if they only leave to the West Bank.

Article 15 declares plainly that “[e]veryone has the right to a nationality.” We shan’t belabor that point. Article 17 also seems to be so simple as to be self-evident: “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” It is, however, anything but. Ask the villagers whose land is slowly being devoured by illegal outposts; ask the residents of Dura al-Qara, whose land was confiscated in what the State now stammers is a “frozen military need”, and left unused.

While Article 19 states that ” [e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,” Israel has employed brutal censorship for years towards the occupied people. The IDF responds harshly to protests across the West Bank, resulting in many of Yesh Din’s complaints of unwarranted injuries, and it still detains people from time to time for “holding inciting material.” The military orders in force in the West Bank effectively make every demonstration an illegal one. For this reason, Article 20 of the Declaration – ” Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association” – is dead letter in the West Bank.

Article 21 declares that “[e]veryone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” Palestinians living in Areas B and C are effectively subjects of the Israeli government, which they never elected and which they have no way of electing or being elected to. Also, given that Israel forbids Hamas to participate in the Palestinian elections, which grant limited powers to a Palestinian government, and given that it maintains the right to detain Palestinian politicians as it sees fit, one can hardly speak of “the will of the people.”

But perhaps the most painful violation is that which should be most obvious: “[m]otherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection,” says Article 25. Anyone who has seen detained children, quite a few of them under the age of discretion; anyone who has compared the special rights given to accused minors in the Israeli system with the almost dearth of comparable rights granted to Palestinian minors in the military courts; and anyone who has observed our brave troops raiding a house at night, handcuffing a child and blindfolding him; and anyone who understands the psychological damage to children witnessing their parents brutally arrested at gunpoint at night in their beds knows just how the most obvious is anything but that in the territories under Israeli occupation.

Yet these many violations, we should remind you, are not a force of nature, do not stand of their own power; they are no ancient, unbreakable law; they are man-made, they are an act we fund, carried out by those we empower to act and whose actions we approve – admittedly, mostly by averting our eyes. But we can mend this; and we shall.

We shall overcome.

Written by Yossi Gurvitz in his capacity as a blogger for Yesh Din, Volunteers for Human Rights. A version of this post was first published on Yesh Din’s blog.