As a lawyer working for a human rights
organisation in Occupied Palestine, I have first hand knowledge of the wide
range of human rights abuses that Palestinians suffer at the hands of Israeli
forces. However, my experiences have also led me to start questioning the
overly legalistic approach that is usually adopted in the field of human
rights, in particular in Palestine, but perhaps elsewhere as well.
There are a large number of human rights organisations – UN, international, Palestinian, and Israeli – doing important human rights work in Palestine. Though mandates and specific working methods differ, the general model of human rights work is the same: organisations gather information, mainly through the interviewing of victims and witnesses, and then compare what appears to have happened with the international obligations of Israel under international human rights law. Violations of international standards of conduct are compiled and published in reports, which are used as advocacy tools vis-à-vis the Israeli authorities and the international community. This is the basic model of human rights work everywhere.
One of the key components of this chain is
the legal analysis. Human rights
lawyers everywhere are trained to believe that their arguments must be legally
sound, i.e. in accordance with the provisions of international law, for them to
be treated with respect. Therefore, a command of international human rights law
is considered vital for proper human rights work, and lawyers (such as myself)
in these organisations spend hours upon hours studying legal interpretations
and the jurisprudence of international courts and committees, so as to ensure
that reports are taken seriously by international decision makers.
Israel, for its part, generally comes armed with its own legal arguments which has become a major industry. Most of these cannot be characterised as anything but sophistry (if not outright lies), but, as one would expect from a sophisticated state with a high level of education and a tradition of legal argument, well dressed and articulate Israeli officials and diplomats present the arguments with finesse. Organisations such as mine do their best with meagre resources to counter such arguments, and so the debate takes on a very legal dimension.
One might argue (and we human rights sorts
like to think) that the very fact that Israel feels compelled to respond with
its own legal ammunition is proof that they feel on the defensive, and that in
principle (though not in practice) they accept the need to abide by
international law. This may or may not be true; however, it also misses much of
the point, for confining the debate to its legal elements fails to capture the
totality of the brutal reality that Palestinians must endure.
A good example is that of the many checkpoints that Israeli forces have throughout the West Bank (as of September 2012, the UN counted 61 permanently staffed checkpoints and 25 staffed on an ad hoc basis). At most of these checkpoints, Palestinians must stop their cars, hand over their ID documents, and submit to questioning as to where they intend to go, what they do for a living etc. They must also disembark their vehicle and open the boot for Israeli soldiers. Young Israeli conscripts rudely bark orders to Palestinians in Hebrew, the unsaid assumption being that the subjugated people must speak the language of the oppressor. Fathers are treated with disrespect in front of their children, causing untold damage to their authority at home. School children’s bags are opened and their contents dumped on the ground, and intimidation and sexual harassment is a daily occurrence.
The situation is at its worst at
checkpoints between the rest of the West Bank and East Jerusalem (which Israel
has unilaterally announced as part of Israel but which every other country in
the world recognises as occupied territory) or checkpoints near Israeli
settlements. At the risk of stating the obvious, Israeli settlers breeze
through special lanes completely unhindered in all checkpoints, belying the
Israeli argument that all of the above are simple security measures with no
Most Palestinians are subject to this practically every time they move; to work, to school, to receive health care or to visit a relative in the next town. Life under such conditions is unbearable; yet under current international human rights law, it is difficult to frame this as a violation of human rights. There is a right to all persons to freedom of movement; however, even in the international conventions this right is subject to limitations on the grounds of national security. And though it is manifest that the way the checkpoints operate is blatantly racially discriminatory, to argue that the entire movement restriction regime is in and of itself a violation of human rights is a stretch, because the magic “security” argument is always available as a tool for the government of Israel.
The same could be stated with regard to the
Israeli settlements that currently house approximately 600,000 settlers
throughout the West Bank. Every single one of these settlements is illegal
under international law – a point made consistently by countless UN bodies and
human rights organisations. In addition, many radical settlers seem to find
great joy in beating Palestinians, torching their cars, and burning their homes
– acts which Israeli troops rarely prevent and practically never prosecute. On
the other hand, Palestinians attempting to defend themselves with sticks and
stones are regularly beaten and arrested by Israeli troops on the scene. The
sheer impunity enjoyed by Israeli settlers, as well as Israeli troops, is
another clear violation of human rights, and is the subject of countless human
However, the oppression brought about by Israeli settlements goes far beyond such issues. Settlements are generally located on strategic locations on hilltops, overlooking neighbouring Palestinian communities. Settlements are modern complexes with glitzy houses, shopping centres, and pools – a stark contrast with the substandard housing conditions that many Palestinians in the West Bank endure. Every time a Palestinian villager looks out of his window, he sees the settlement on the top of the hill – the dominating Lord of the Land, master of all he surveys. Every time that Palestinian turns on the tap, he is reminded that the settlements are provided by the Israeli government with cheap water, whereas the Palestinian communities (who are not connected to any water grid) are forced to buy water by the Israeli water company at inflated prices. And every time the Palestinian finds that the main road near his village has been turned into a “settler only” road and can no longer be used by him, meaning he must make a detour on poor quality secondary roads trebling or quadrupling his travel time, he is reminded of the subjugation of his people on their own land.
It is this daily, constant humiliation that
is the essence of the Palestinian experience. However, law by definition
focuses on specific, concrete events, not on a daily accumulation of seemingly
subjective issues such as humiliation and degradation. Taken in isolation, many
of the issues above do not necessarily amount to violations of international
human rights law. A long wait at a checkpoint, a view of a neighbouring
settlement – expressing these issues in legal language is difficult if not
downright impossible. However, to overlook these issues would be to ignore a
large component of the oppression that Palestinians face under Israeli
As a human rights lawyer steeped in the traditions of my profession, I do not have an answer for this. However, I do believe that a deeper understanding amongst international observers of the plight of the Palestinian people is necessary, if there is to be a truly just solution to their plight. International law – indeed, law in general - is vital as it provides an overall framework for understanding and opposing oppression. However, especially in situations such as the one in Palestine, it cannot approximate the entire picture.