In May, the State of Israel celebrated the 60th anniversary of its independence. Earlier this month, we marked another momentous 60th anniversary: On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Both anniversaries offer cause for celebration. That these two monumental events are inherently connected makes their commemoration even more poignant: Both were symbols of the post-World War II era and came about with the goal of ensuring that the massive human rights abuses committed during the war would never be repeated. Both proclaimed to the world: “Never again.”
This double birthday is a good time to reflect on the place of the Universal Declaration in the flourishing State of Israel, which at 60 has reached an age of maturity but is not yet too old to change.
Certainly, Israel has accomplished a great deal as far as human rights are concerned. There is a democratically elected government and a functioning judicial system, overseen by an independent Supreme Court. Israeli citizens enjoy an array of freedoms: freedom of movement, expression, assembly and others. We can also be proud of our vibrant social and cultural life, characterized by a pluralism that reflects the important ingredients of our democracy. There is still room for improvement, of course. Discrimination against Arab citizens, violence against women and oppression of foreign workers mar the picture. Yet the overall health of Israeli democracy puts it on par with the democracies of North America and Western Europe.
But our celebrations become somewhat bittersweet when we consider Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians who have lived under its military occupation for more than 40 years. While Israel celebrates its growth and commemorates its 60th birthday, it continues to neglect the universal human rights standards it has adopted as its own when it comes to the Palestinians. This should be cause for concern for anyone who cares about Israel.
In the occupied territories, the principles of human rights and of the rule of law are barely an aspiration. The roughly 2.5 million Palestinian residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem have very limited freedom of movement: In any given month, they face more than 750 checkpoints and physical obstructions, in addition to Israel’s separation barrier, which, taken together, prevent smooth movement even between neighboring villages. Privately and publicly owned lands are taken for illegal settlements and their future expansion, for the creation of separate roads, and for the construction of the separation barrier. (Although the barrier’s aim is to separate Israel from the West Bank, more than 80% of it runs within the West Bank rather than along the Green Line.) Consequently, the rights to access medical treatment, to earn a living and to participate in social and cultural life — all rights explicitly enumerated in the Universal Declaration — are all too often violated.
On top of all this, the concept of rule of law crumbles under a lack of accountability in the territories. According to reports by B’Tselem and other human rights organizations working in the area, since the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000, out of 1,246 complaints filed against soldiers for abuse of Palestinians and their property, only 78 — or 6% — resulted in an indictment. Those cases that do go to trial sometimes make a mockery of the legal system. A commander who ordered his soldier to shoot a handcuffed Palestinian and the soldier who obeyed his illegal order were merely charged with “unbecoming behavior.” And this incident only made it to court because B’Tselem’s video footage of the incident aired on Israeli television and led to a public outcry. The lack of accountability for Israeli security forces’ violence against Palestinians is compounded by settler violence, which has dramatically escalated in recent weeks with only a half-hearted response from Israeli law enforcement.
Sadly, the Supreme Court, which so vigorously defends Israeli democracy within Israel’s borders, provides only scant remedy when it comes to the occupied territories. It declines to take up the overwhelming majority of cases originating in the territories on the basis of an often unexplained “security rationale.”
So where does this leave us?
As an Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem, I am, of course, very concerned about possible attacks against Israeli citizens. Israel is entitled, and indeed has a responsibility, to take security measures to protect its citizens. But to mark this double birthday, I hope we will reflect on how we can live up to the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And I dream that well before Israel reaches the age of 120, a full respect for the Universal Declaration will provide as much a cause for celebration as the anniversary of our independence.
Maya Sabatello is the United States representative of B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. She teaches at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University.