Human rights dilemmas in the never-ending peace process

Jessica Montell
24 September 2014

For over two decades, Israelis and Palestinians have been engaged in on-again, off-again peace negotiations known as the Oslo Process. Most Israelis say that Oslo is passé, no longer relevant; yet the Oslo agreements still dictate the reality on the ground. The walls, fences and bypass roads in the West Bank, the division of responsibilities between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the artificially-defined Areas A, B and C, and indeed the Palestinian Authority itself—all of these are products of the Oslo Accords. Moreover, I believe the Oslo Process still shapes our consciousness no less than the physical reality around us. This is true for opponents as well as supporters of the process. And it is true of the human rights community as well.

Israeli human rights organizations go to great pains to distinguish human rights from any political agenda. Human rights are neither left nor right, we argue. Regardless of your views on the Israeli-Arab conflict and how to end it, for example, everyone must support universal human rights. Thus, Israeli human rights organizations do not advocate for the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – the political position underlying the Oslo Process. Yet, the logic of the peace process has seeped into our thinking and shapes our work in subtle ways.

Israeli settlements are one example. Human rights organizations oppose all Israeli settlements as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and the source of violations of Palestinians' rights.  However, we do not treat all settlements alike. The planned construction of E-1, a settlement that will divide the West Bank in half and render any future Palestinian state unviable, receives much greater attention from the human rights community than other settlement construction. This may partly be a tactical move: given the international community's heightened concern over E-1, it is smart for human rights organizations to capitalize on this interest. But there are other ways where the assumption of a future two-state future influences the current human rights agenda.


Kati Krause/Flickr (Some rights reserved)

A Palestinian woman looking at a Jewish settlement in the Old City from the roof of her home. Hebron, June 2014.

The right to political participation is a good example. The fate of Palestinians under occupation is determined by the Israeli military, the Israeli Knesset and the Israeli government. Palestinians have no voice in these bodies, to say nothing of the right to serve in them. The obvious remedy to this blatant violation of the right to participation would be that all those governed by these bodies should have a say in electing them. In our context this sounds like a radical political agenda—demanding voting rights for Palestinians within the Israeli state seems like advocating a one-state solution to the political conflict. Yet one might also argue exactly the opposite: demanding the right to participation is not at all political, it is a basic human right. The position colored by political constraints is to refrain from this very obvious correction to a clear violation of universally recognized human rights.

Yet the human rights community has not demanded that Palestinians have the right to vote and hold office in Israeli institutions. This is largely because, according to the logic of the peace process, the current situation is temporary and ultimately Palestinians will enjoy political participation in their own political system.  

In fact, the whole idea of the temporary nature of the occupation constrains our work. Human rights organizations spend much more time addressing the various manifestations of the occupation (restrictions, military courts, violence) than we do addressing the occupation itself. While occupation is the inevitable source of human rights violations, we are not actually advocating for an end to occupation.

This approach is understandable as ending the occupation is a political project that requires addressing issues far outside the human rights mandate: should Israel negotiate with Hamas? Should there be two states or one state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River? What about the arrangement in Jerusalem? These questions are essential to the nuts and bolts of actually ending the occupation, and human rights organizations cannot answer them using their usual methodologies (i.e., judging behaviour against international human rights standards)

Yet taken to its logical conclusion this approach is somewhat absurd: it means continuing to treat the symptoms, and not the disease itself. How can we address the heart of the human rights problems – the occupation – while remaining true to the non-political nature of human rights?

In his recent post, Noam Sheizaf proposes abandoning political activism for a two-state solution, and focusing instead on a struggle for human and civil rights. But, as I have highlighted here, the human rights struggle also needs to free itself from the logic of Oslo. Moreover, actually implementing such a change poses challenges.  

Take, for example, the right of political participation discussed above. The Palestinian national movement rejects integration into the Israeli polity. In East Jerusalem, the only part of the occupied Palestinian territory where Palestinians have the right to participate in Israeli elections, Palestinians overwhelmingly boycott municipal elections. It is problematic for Israeli human rights advocates to prioritize the demand for Palestinians' right to participation, a right they themselves reject.

The demand for equality poses similar challenges. The demand for equal treatment of all people living in the same territory appears straightforward. Yet its application in the West Bank (i.e. equality between settlers and Palestinians) conflicts with the fact that, under the 4th Geneva Convention, the settlements are illegal. The current demand of human rights organizations is that settlers must be removed. The demand for equality between settlers and Palestinians accepts the settlers' continued presence in occupied territory.  

I believe that these tensions can be surmounted. It requires dialogue and coordination between Israeli and Palestinian activists, and a willingness to challenge our current assumptions. The result will be a stronger, more effective Israeli-Palestinian human rights community. It is not at all clear that a human rights agenda that insists on full equality in the short-term runs counter to a longer term political agenda of conflict resolution. In fact, equal rights and benefits for both populations may be the most effective way to challenge the entrenched status quo of occupation.

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