An annual report by the U.S. Department of State on human rights in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza paints a stark picture of human rights conditions among minority populations in Israel, and Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza.
“Principal human rights problems were institutional, legal, and societal discrimination against Arab citizens, Palestinian residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip… non-Orthodox Jews, and other religious groups,” begins the segment dealing with Israel and the Golan Heights.
The 100-page document, one of 194 country reports that the department issued on April 8, provides a detailed review of findings and complaints by human rights organizations, NGOs, government agencies and other groups. Its review of the human rights practices of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which controls Gaza, also details numerous abuses.
Just under half the report is dedicated to conditions in Israel and the Golan Heights, the balance to conditions in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Among other things, the report highlights allegations of abuse of foreign laborers and asylum seekers, and discrimination against Arab citizens in Israel; excessive use of force by Israeli military and police in the West Bank; poor treatment of prisoners by the Palestinian Authority, and, in Gaza, abuses by Hamas forces and strict restrictions on speech and religion.
The Embassy of Israel in Washington did not have a prepared response to the report. A P.A. representative reached after hours in Ramallah could offer no immediate comment.
The State Department reports include no recommendations or analysis, but instead note specific instances and general trends. NGOs and other groups are cited as sources in many, though not all, of the instances reported.
Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which produced the documents, noted that the reports are not policy papers. “It’s a document to give us a clear and honest picture of what’s going on and a basis for a range of decisions by this government and others in terms of how to address human rights challenges we face in the world,” Posner said at a press conference announcing the release of the country reports.
The State Department’s annual human rights report, first issued in 1977 under congressional mandate, has over time become a highly regarded publication among human rights experts. It is an evolution in which Posner had a role. As executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, now known as Human Rights First, Posner was a prominent critic of the early annual reports. Starting in the late 1970s, Posner’s group would publish annual extended critiques of the department’s assessments. Critics alleged that reports in those years were often politicized and ideological.
Eventually, however, changes made by the department led human rights groups to drop their objections. Posner’s group ceased publishing its critiques in the mid-1990s.
“It has become the authoritative report on human rights on an annual basis to which people can refer,” said Peter Rosenblum, a professor of human rights law at Columbia Law School. “There is no other systematic update of human rights practices country by country. It really is true that the quality, overall, of these reports has improved greatly.”
The newly issued 2010 report on Israel notes multiple human rights issues facing foreign workers and asylum seekers in the country. Citing outside sources in some instances, the report states that:
• Some foreign workers were forced to live in conditions “that constituted involuntary servitude.”
• Laws regarding employment conditions were not enforced for foreign workers.
• The board that processes applications for asylum by refugees recommended granting asylum in just three of 3,211 cases before it between 2008 and 2009.
• Refugees living in Israel were targeted in violent attacks, including a beating in December of three young daughters of African refugees in Tel Aviv.
• Government officials referred routinely to asylum seekers as “infiltrators” in public statements in an atmosphere of increasing public protest against refugees. [In a speech last January, subsequent to the period the report covers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, referring to asylum seekers, “The infiltrators conquered Eilat and Arad, and they are conquering Tel Aviv from north to south.”]
The report also notes instances of discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews. “Many Jewish citizens objected to exclusive Orthodox rabbinic control over aspects of their personal lives,” the report states.
But the report pays particular attention to discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens and residents, stating that “citizens of Arab origin and Palestinian residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem living in the country faced discrimination in public and private life.” Among other instances, the report notes that:
• Spending on public education for Arab children was substantially lower than for Jewish children. The average Arab classroom had four more students than the average Jewish classroom.
• Only 70 students from the West Bank may attend graduate school in Israel at any one time.
• Arab citizens “regularly complained of discrimination and degrading treatment” at airports.
• Despite a law requiring representation of minorities in the civil service, the numbers of Arab citizens in civil service jobs were disproportionately low.
• The unrecognized Bedouin town of al-Arakib was demolished eight times during 2010 in what advocacy groups said was an expropriation of land that historically belonged to the clan that lived there.
A separate section of the Israel report, on conditions in the occupied territories, discusses policies and practices there under Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
The report takes note of torture practiced in Gaza by Hamas. It reports that in Gaza, the Hamas Executive Force tortured security detainees, individuals associated with the P.A.’s rival Fatah faction, suspected collaborators with Israel and those “considered to engage in immoral activity.” Gunmen associated with Hamas committed 32 unlawful executions in 2010, and Hamas “carried out extrajudicial detentions based on political affiliation.”
Treatment of detainees by the P.A. was also a concern. Claims of mistreatment of P.A. prisoners were “common,” the review stated, citing one human rights group as its source. Another group reported 163 complaints of torture of P.A. detainees during the year. Other accounts the State Department deemed credible told of harassment and prosecution of journalists for their reporting, and of severe overcrowding in P.A. prisons for civil prisoners. The report noted that P.A. forces disrupted a political meeting of activists and others discussing negotiations with Israel, though Prime Minister Salam Fayyad later apologized.
Finally, the report spends significant time on the activities of Israel in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. “Palestinians faced violence and discrimination in the occupied territories” from Israel, the report states. Its findings, some of which cite outside sources, include:
• Reports of killings of civilians by Israeli forces in the occupied territories.
• Concerns about the handling of 147 investigations by the Israeli military police of killings or injuries of Palestinians by Israeli security forces in the occupied territories. Few ended in convictions, the report noted. And human rights groups reported that many investigations began long after the incidents took place.
• A report that Israeli security forces had tortured children in detention, according to one NGO. The NGO found 28 children who were beaten and kicked by Israeli forces in the second half of 2010, and three who said that electric shocks had been applied to their bodies.
• Accounts of civilians, including three children, who were allegedly used as human shields by Israeli forces.
• Claims that Israeli forces did not respond sufficiently to settler violence against West Bank Palestinians.
The State Department review also noted that, in 2010:
• Israel performed 353 demolitions of buildings in the West Bank, up from 191 in 2009.
• Palestinians accused of security offenses were tried in military courts, where they were “rarely acquitted.”
• Israeli civil courts “generally” ruled against Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem.
• The display of Palestinian political symbols in East Jerusalem was illegal and could be punished by fines or jail time.
• Only individuals with humanitarian cases were allowed out of Gaza, and many Gazans were denied requests to leave for medical treatment outside Gaza.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.