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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)

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.

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    1. Josef

      Israeli law doesn’t even recognise the legitmacy of it’s own national Declaration of Independence, never mind the UDHR!

      Reply to Comment
      • Michael W.

        The Israeli Declaration of Independence is not law just like the American equivalent is not US law. I don’t think any US law references their Declaration of Independence as a legal document.

        Reply to Comment
        • Wrong. The UN partition of Palestine required both parts to affirm in a declaration the equal protection of social and political rights across gender, ethnicity, race, and religion, that declaration stating that a constitution would be drafted to this end. Ben Gurion et al agreed to this, and the Declaration of Independence so affirmed. A Constituent Assembly was called to write a constitution–which instead transformed itself into the Knesset, failing to fulfill its promised function (the Basic Laws fail the promise, as a constitution binds the legislature, not the other way around). Israel’s founding act binds itself to the language sited in the Declaration, the Declaration thus having constitutional (actually, meta-constitutional) status. The American Declaration of Independence did not form the United States as government but was a declared alliance among independent States; the Continental Congress was an alliance among independent States. As an alliance, the US Declaration could be abrogated or superseded. The status of the US as indivisible State was not decided until the Civil War, effectively under the 14th Amendment.

          Israeli originalism must hold that the Israeli Declaration of Independence, founding the State as such, is a document framing any future constitution through its promises. If a constitution is not forthcoming, the equal protection promised becomes free standing; the High Court can affirm equal protection through the Declaration; that is, the Declaration implicitly provides judicial review for its protection. Israel has a meta-constitution, channeling any full constitution, this perhaps a unique document in modern Western law.

          And I find many Israelis are terrified of it.

          Reply to Comment
        • sh

          To ordinary people for whom that Declaration was an indication of the new country’s intentions and thus the element that clinched their decision to come here, its total flouting has equalled nothing less than betrayal.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Witty

      Important reminder.

      Keep on.

      Its possible to achieve if pursued.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Josh

      Please clarify.. Israel declares itself to be a light unto the nations.
      When was this declaration declared, Where was it declared,Who declared Israel to be a light onto the nations…?

      Reply to Comment
      • CigarButNoNice

        Yeah, and I’d also add the question, Why are secular Marxist unbelievers holding the Jewish nation-state to a Biblical standard? Which dovetails with their use of the religious term “Original Sin” to refer to the results of the war of 1947-9 (the Arab colonists’ failure to nip the fledgling Jewish state in the bud and exterminate all the Jews in the Land of Israel).

        Reply to Comment
    4. Art 13 says everyone can go home. You failed to mention the refugees/exiles from 1948/1967 whom Isrel refuses to allow to return to Israel (certainly to Green-Line-Israel and maybe to Greater-Israel).

      Reply to Comment
      • Michael W.

        Israel can easily argue that these “refugees” haven’t met the conditions set up by the relevant UN resolution – 194.

        Reply to Comment
      • CigarButNoNice

        Jews from everywhere around the world are free to return to the Land of Israel, and Arab colonists everywhere are likewise free to return to their indigenous territory of the Arabian Peninsula. Fairness and justice served.

        Reply to Comment
    5. The Trespasser

      The really important question is whether people who belong to a racist, discriminativ and violent culture should enjoy the very same rights they are refusing others.

      For example: Arabs are killing their female relatives for dating wrong men.

      Be what logict is it wrong to kill Arabs who are dating wrong women, or coming into wrong territory?

      Reply to Comment
      • Haifawi

        you know of course that killing people is a crime in israel (unless you’re in uniform), and that people who kill people in israel go to jail.
        i’m really not sure how your comment is relevant to israel’s enforcement of laws and protections of human rights.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Wonderfully done piece in all respects.

      I believe you are on the road and shall overcome.

      Reply to Comment
    7. directrob

      The Israeli government has rejected the applicability of human rights treaties to the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Vadim

      More of the same. Israel is so bad, look how much bad examples we can conjure, look how much Articles we can cite.

      There are only 2 interesting questions –
      1. What would other states do IN OUR PLACE? How would Germany behave if placed in Israel’s situation? France? The US? Russia? How many states would have behaved much worse? What would the better states have done differently?
      2. What can actually be done to improve the situation?

      When the UN would be able to stop atrocities such as the one taking place in Syria, or would not have Saudi Arabia or Cuba in the Human Rights Council then perhaps it’s documents will be of any interest.

      Reply to Comment
      • Vadim, I think one can make a distinction between the suicide bombing war and present time, although these are separated by just a few years. The Yesh Din reports cover actions of today, and their repair need not violate security needs. The longer all repair is ignored, the stronger the case for even stronger redress. Yesh Din is providing a way out through incremental redress via the courts. Long term, ignoring this option will produce greater blow back. Yes, this piece sets up an ideal full implementation logic; that’s what you do when you’re making a case.

        By ignoring everything, calls for everything gain greater hearing.

        Reply to Comment
        • Vadim

          No, the article doesn’t provide any implementation logic nor does it provide a way out. The article provides lots of self righteous words that have no meaning.

          Greg, the suicide bomb war has ceased for a number of reasons, some of them listed in this article. But though that type of war has ceased, the infrastructure that made it possible – public opinion, organizations, money, equipment is still in place. And again, I ask you to think – what would a better country do differently? Do you think another country would simply forget the psst? While the incitement in the PA and Gaza continues? Do you think another country would give a huge population that don’t recognize our right to exist a full citizenship? Do you think another country would let Hamas and the PA do whatever they like uncontrolled?

          I’ve said it many time, and I’ll say it again – Arabs should finally take their future in their own hands. You want to improve your lives? Start by improving your relationship with Israel. Convince us that you mean us no harm. Yet they make no attempt, everyone should come to them because their situation is EVERYONE’s fault by their. They have no responsibility. I’m not saying we don’t share a part of the blame, but I really don’t know what we SHOULD do while our destruction is on a higher priority than their well-being.

          Reply to Comment