Corporal Gilad Shalit was only 19 years old when he was captured on June 25th 2006 by armed Palestinian groups, including Hamas’s military wing.
He is 24 years old now. On June 25th, it will be over five years since Aviva and Noam Shalit, Gilad’s parents, have been able to touch their son or speak to him directly – even by mail. It has been nearly two years since they’ve even seen him on video or received any other proof of life.
“As the days go by, we begin to despair of the day when we will see our son again. I know neither where he is held nor how he fares … or whether he is even alive.” (Noam Shalit, Gilad Shalit’s father, addressing the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, July 6, 2009)
UPDATE Friday, 3/18/11, 7:35pm: The UN appointed Committee of Independent Experts released their updated assessment of the Israeli and Palestinian domestic investigations into violations of international law committed by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups during the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict. It is this assessment which is going to be reviewed and debated by members of the Human Rights Council Monday, March 21st. (See below).
UPDATE Friday, 3/18/11, 7:25pm: Amnesty Int’l just released their updated assessment of the Israeli and Palestinian domestic investigations.
Original Post: Next Monday, March 21st, the Human Rights Council (HRC) will consider a critical report. The report assesses the Israeli and Palestinian investigations into serious violations of international law committed by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups during the 2008-2009 Gaza conflict.
This report is expected to match a similar assessment submitted to the HRC last September that concluded that both the Israeli government and the Palestinian side have failed to carry out investigations that are credible, independent and in conformity with international law.They have also failed to demonstrate a commitment to prosecuting perpetrators. AI’s assessment concurs with these findings.
Despite clear documentation last September that both Israel and Hamas, the de facto administration in Gaza, were falling short of their obligations, Amnesty was shocked and dismayed to see the Human Rights Council fail to outline a clear plan for accountability and instead opt for delay.
Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) issued a press release late Friday (2/18/2011) after the United States, a permanent member of the UN Security Council vetoed a UNSC resolution reaffirming that Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are illegal and demanding that Israel cease all settlement activities in the OPT, including East Jerusalem.
Amnesty believes the U.S. veto gives Israel a ‘green light’ to continue building settlements in the OPT. Israel welcomed the veto while Palestinians were disappointed, angry and frustrated saying the veto has set back the peace process.
This past December 27th marked the second year anniversary of the Israeli air strikes over the Gaza Strip that killed and injured hundreds, including over 300 children as the initial attacks took place as children were leaving school.
More Palestinians were killed in that one day than in all 60 years of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories; it also was the first day of 22 long, torturous days of death and destruction.
Over 1400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed during the conflict in Gaza and southern Israel – three of the Israelis and the majority of the Palestinian fatalities were civilians. In September 2009, a UN-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (UN FFM) led by Justice Richard Goldstone published its findings that found both Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups had committed grave violations of international law, including war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during the conflict. The report recommended that the relevant authorities should investigate the crimes it identified and that, if they failed to do so, the UN Security Council should refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
A coalition of student groups from the Arizona university system invited me recently to talk to the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) about Caterpillar, Inc’s role in violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Although an unusual setting, I accepted for a number of reasons.
Although Amnesty International (AI) hasn’t focused on Caterpillar (CAT) in an action since our 2004 report, there has been a frightening surge in home demolitions and forced evictions in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem recently, as well as demolitions in ‘unrecognized’ villages like Al-‘Araqib inside Israel – which has a current AI Urgent Action in effect. Over the past 3 weeks, the IDF has demolished dozens of structures in the OPT and the Israeli authorities continue to use CAT equipment regularly to carry out these demolitions, so AI continues to have longstanding and ongoing concerns.
Grandfather and grandchild watch home in Sur Baher east Jerusalem being demolished by CAT machinery March 2007. Keren Manor/ActiveStills.org
The day before I left for Arizona, the IDF demolished 10 residential structures and the village school in the West Bank village of Khirbet Tana. Sixty-one (61) people including 13 children were left without shelter.
Hamas, the de facto administration in the Gaza Strip, released a video of 23 year old Gilad Shalit. Gilad, an Israeli soldier, was seized by armed Palestinian groups over three years ago in June 2006 in a cross ‘border’ raid. The video is significant as armed Palestinian groups have been detaining him incommunicado except for a couple of letters and an audio tape released over two years ago. Gilad has been denied communication with not only his family, but also the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which contravenes international law. Since his capture, Amnesty International has consistently called for his releaseand for the ICRC to have access to him. AI has done this using both public actions and behind the scenes dialogue.
Negotiations for Gilad Shalit’s release have intensified under the current government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahuand Gilad’s family as well as the nation has been increasingly concerned about his condition and treatment. The following video, although in Hebrew, shows a pale, but otherwise healthy looking Gilad Shalit holding a paper from September 14th.
In exchange for the video, which Israel requested as ‘proof of life’, Israel released 19 Palestinian women prisoners; another female prisoner is due to be released sometime next week. Israel holds several thousand Palestinians, including hundreds of children, in Israeli prisons against international law. Hundreds of detainees are also held without charge or trial under administrative detention orders which can be repeatedly renewed and often includes children. Currently, one child is held under administrative detention, Hamdi Al-Ta’mari. Amnesty International is working on his case. More information available at http://www.dci-pal.org/english/display.cfm?docID=1096&categoryid=16.
Others have been convicted in unfair trials in military courts. It is a major concern that prisoners are held in Israeli prisons instead of in the occupied Palestinian territories which is against international law. Since detainees are held within Israel proper, it is very difficult for families to visit minors in detention or other family members.
This video produced by B’tselem explains how the imprisonment of Palestinians inside Israel proper affects families, including the children:
This exchange, although bringing temporary relief to the Shalit family and joy to the families of the 20 detained female prisoners just highlights the concern Amnesty International outlined in the document ‘Detainees used as bargaining chips by both sides in Israel/Gaza conflict’ published in March 2009. Gilad Shalit, it is believed was taken as leverage in future negotiations with Israeli authorities and many believe Palestinians are regularly taken by Israeli forces for many reasons other than security and one of them is for leverage as well. Hostage taking, that is threatening to harm or continue to detain a detained person in order to compel a third party to do or abstain from doing something as a condition of their release is expressly prohibited under international law. Such practice threatens the fundamental right to life, personal integrity and liberty and is expressly prohibited by international humanitarian law. Under no circumstances is the taking of hostages justifiable.
Negotiations continue with Israel wanting Gilad Shalit released immediately and the Palestinians asking for at least 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to be released and/or an end to the punishing blockade of the strip.
Amnesty International said yesterday that the recommendations of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict, if implemented, offer the best hope for justice and accountability. The UN-mandated report by Judge Richard Goldstone found that both Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups committed grave violations of international law, including war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity, during the Gaza conflict this year.
The report supports Amnesty International’s own findings of war crimes committed by both sides.
Donatella Rovera, who headed Amnesty International’s fact finding mission last winter in Israel and the Gaza Strip, said:
“The UN Security Council and other UN bodies must now take the steps necessary to ensure that the victims receive the justice and reparation that is their due and that perpetrators don’t get away with murder. The responsibility now lies with the international community, notably the UN Security Council, as the UN’s most powerful body, to take decisive action to ensure accountability for the perpetrators and justice for the victims. The Security Council must refer the Goldstone findings to the International Criminal Court Prosecutor if Israel and Hamas do not carry out credible investigations within a set, limited period.”
Note: The United States holds the Presidency of the United Nations Security Council for the month of September.
Despite powerful evidence of war crimes and other serious violations of international law which emerged during and in the aftermath of the conflict, both Israel and Hamas have failed to carry out credible investigations and prosecute those responsible. The UN Security Council condemned attacks against civilians during the conflict and urged both sides to respect international law, but so far it has turned a blind eye to the allegations of war crimes and other grave violations committed by both sides.
The report’s findings are consistent with those of Amnesty International’s own field investigation into the 22-day conflict during which some 1,400 Palestinians and nine Israelis were killed (four other Israeli soldiers were killed by their own side in ‘friendly fire’ incidents).
Most of the Palestinians killed by Israeli forces were unarmed civilians, including some 300 children. Amnesty’s investigations also found Israeli forces carried out wanton and wholesale destruction in Gaza, leaving entire neighborhoods in ruin, and used Palestinians as human shields. Amnesty’s findings also agree with the Goldstone report in that the rocket fire into southern Israel by armed Palestinian groups, including Hamas, was indiscriminate which constitutes a war crime.
Key findings of the Goldstone report include:
• Israeli forces committed violations of human rights and international humanitarian law amounting to war crimes and some possibly amounting to crimes against humanity. Notably, investigations into numerous instances of lethal attacks on civilians and civilian objects revealed that the attacks were intentional, that some were launched with the intention of spreading terror among the civilian population and with no justifiable military objective and that Israeli forces used Palestinian civilians as human shields.
• Israeli forces committed grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, notably wilful killing, torture and inhumane treatment, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, and extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly. As grave breaches these acts give rise to individual criminal responsibility.
• Israel violated its duty to respect the right of Gaza’s population to an adequate standard of living, including access to adequate food, water and housing. Notably acts which deprive Palestinians in Gaza of their means of sustenance, employment, housing and water, that deny their freedom of movement and their right to leave and enter their own country, that limit their access to an effective remedy and could amount to persecution – a crime against humanity.
• Palestinian armed groups violated the principle of distinction by launching rocket and mortars attacks which cannot be aimed with sufficient precision at military targets and that their attacks into civilian areas which had no intended military target constituted deliberate attacks against civilians. Such attacks constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity.
• Palestinian combatants did not always adequately distinguish themselves from he civilian population and they unnecessarily exposed civilians to danger when they launched attacks close to civilian or protected buildings.
• The Fact-Finding Mission found no evidence that Palestinian armed groups directed civilians to areas where attacks were launched or that they forced civilians to remain within their vicinity, nor that hospital facilities were used by the Hamas de-facto administration or by Palestinian armed groups to shield military activities, or that ambulances were used to transport combatants, or that Palestinian armed groups engaged in combat activities from within hospitals or UN facilities that were used as shelters.
The Middle East Quartet are set to meet this Friday, June 26, in Trieste, Italy. The meeting comes at a critical time with hopes of re-starting peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. President Obama has repeatedly stated his position that the Jewish only settlements in both the West Bank and east Jerusalem are ‘illegitimate’ to the chagrin of Israeli officials use to a ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ policy where they do what they want concerning settlement activities while the U.S. looks the other way. This tacit behavior was the norm during past administrations. The U.S. position on the illegitimacy of settlements is in line with international law and international consensus which has long viewed settlements as illegal. Israeli authorities, including Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, have repeatedly stated their intentions to continue what they call ‘natural growth’ building.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to Trieste soon and AIUSA has sent a letter to her and cc’d Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell urging her to stand firm in the U.S. position on a complete settlement freeze and also containing a few more pressing concerns that we hope Sec’y Clinton remembers in discussions with other members of the Quartet (the EU, the UN and Russia).
The letter to Clinton not only re-iterates the illegality of the Jewish-only settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but outlines the effect that settlements have had and are having on the local Palestinians living there. Not only have settlements negatively impacted the Palestinians’ standard of living, housing, education, health and work, but are inherently discriminatory in nature. Settlements, land surrounding settlements and by-pass roads built for easy commutes to Israel are exclusively for Israelis. Not only is water accessed in the OPT being re-directed to settlers and Israel at a 4:1 ratio, security measures taken by Israel, including over 600 roadblocks, checkpoints and the wall/fence much of which is being built on Palestinian territory have long been detrimental to any peace negotiations.
AIUSA believes previous attempts at resolving the conflict failed in part because they did not address these key issues. And actions must include more than just dismantling recently established settlements, referred to as “unauthorized outposts”. Israel should never have transferred its civilian population into the OPT and given that successive Israeli governments have consistently encouraged Israeli civilians to move to the OPT, Israeli authorities should now provide compensation for settler evacuations and assist them to re-settle. A study conducted by Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) in 2003 found that the majority of Israelis living in settlements would re-locate if offered an adequate economic incentive.
The letter also addresses our continuing concerns about human rights violations in areas under Palestinian Authority control despite training provided under the leadership of Lt. General Keith Dayton, U.S. Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Arbitrary detentions, disregard for due process and ill-treatment and torture of detainees in PA detention centers continue to be reported.
We asked that these issues be raised and that U.S. training of PA security forces results in a professional force that respects human rights while providing security.
Over 10 years ago, I worked in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. As a legal advisor, I researched Israeli policy and practice of demolishing the homes of Palestinians. In the night, bulldozers would appear before a Palestinian home and raze it to the ground. Often, the occupants were able to flee in their nightclothes. Sometimes, they could not. I stood in countless piles of rubble during my time there, witness to inhumane and senseless destruction. One of my most harrowing visits to the crumbled ruins of a 92 year-old woman’s home haunted me for many nights. In dreams, as she had in life, she clung to me sobbing, “Please help us. Please help us. Please.”
I was there as part of an interfaith peace initiative that placed budding lawyers in the OPT, with the hope that by bearing witness to the human rights atrocities, we would return to the U.S. and shed light on shaded perception. It was an optimistic initiative, counting on us Jews, Muslims and Christians to reach beyond our identities into our shared responsibility for justice. Where this happens, I find the greatest hope.
After the past weeks, hope in the OPT is in short supply, but it came again when I received an email from my dear friend, Michael Ratner. It is not a message from a Jew to a Muslim about a holiday honoring a Christian. It is a message about the deep principles of justice and mutual obligation to shed loyalties to labels and honor that which is fundamentally human. Human rights have no tribe, no religion, no skin color, no ethnicity and no price tag. Its only loyalty is to the principle that we are each owed the dignity of an even, humane standard.
In these days, the situation in the OPT can sometimes feel overwhelmingly bleak, if you need a little hope, listen to King’s speech and read Michael’s words.
A note from Michael Ratner:
On the celebration of King’s birth I often read or listen to the anti-war speech that he gave at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967—A Time to Break the Silence. It was a powerful statement of his opposition to the Vietnam War. He spoke of how he was told to not oppose the war because his opposition would anger President Johnson and harm the civil rights movement. He was warned that “Peace and Civil rights don’t mix.” King admitted he held back because of this possible consequence for too long and failed to speak out earlier.
I bring this up today when I think about Israel’s recent invasion of Gaza. While we are celebrating King’s birth and the inauguration of Barack Obama, Israel invaded Gaza killing over 1200 people, men women and children, and injured thousands. It targeted UN buildings, homes, mosques, police stations, universities and media outlets. Thirteen Israeli soldiers were killed—a ratio of one hundred Palestinians for each Israeli. The international law violations have been well documented: disproportionate military force, attacks on civilian targets, collective punishment. The killings of the three daughters of a Palestinian doctor gave a face to those killed in way that numbers could not. Members of my broader family knew the doctor, had visited him in Gaza and heard from during the Israeli onslaught. He was terrified for his family, but had no way out.
When I heard the news of the murders of the doctor’s children I was at the Sundance film festival and had just viewed an amazing and moving film about radical lawyer Bill Kunstler called Disturbing the Universe. The film shows Bill in Chicago during the 1969 Chicago 8 trial. During the time of the trial Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was murdered by the Chicago police. Bill was appalled by the murder, but he did not just blame the Chicago police. He blamed himself and all white Americans. For it was white Americans that for too long had remained silent and accepted the pervasive racism and the murder of Blacks in our society.
This brings me to Gaza and role of American Jews and, in fact, of almost all Americans. For too long, and I do not exempt myself, most of us have stood silently by or made only a marginal protests about the massive violations of Palestinian rights carried out by Israel. I recall a conversation I had some years ago with the political artist Leon Golub, famous for his outsized oil paintings of torture carried out by American mercenaries in Central America. Leon told me that he had been invited to attend a panel to address what it meant to be a Jewish political artist. He said he had never thought of himself as a “Jewish political artist” but only as a “political artist.” Then he thought some more. Of the works of art he had made, none concerned Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. And then he knew, at least for himself and probably many others: to be a “Jewish political artist” was to be an artist who avoided depicting the horrors inflicted on Palestinians. Of course, that is true for more than just artists. Many Jews who are very involved in human rights, ending poverty and war, and fighting for the underdog avoid criticism of Israel. They wrongly think that human rights are divisible; or that like ostriches they can hide their heads and pretend not to see what is clearly staring them in the face and makes them uncomfortable: the inhuman treatment of Palestinians.
Some of our willful blindness and refusal to act is a result of our ambivalence about condemning the actions of a people that have experienced pervasive antisemitism and the holocaust. Some of our hesitation to act results from the condemnation and opprobrium anyone, but especially Jews, encounter with even mild criticisms of Israel. Organizations that take a position against Israeli actions subject themselves to a loss of funding from foundations and individuals. Few can afford to do so. As long as this silence continues, so will the U.S. billions in aid and arms that facilitates the killings of Palestinians. As long as this silence continues, more and more settlements will be built. As long as this silence continues, there will be more and more Gazas and more and more children murdered.
The lesson here is simple, but difficult to act on. We are, each of us, responsible for the murders in Gaza. Our silence is betrayal. Each time we hesitate to speak out; each time we moderate our condemnation we become accomplices in killing. The time, if there ever was one, to show courage is now. Yes it will be difficult for many. As King said about the reluctance of some to oppose the Vietnam War:
“Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainly; but we must move on.
We must take King’s words to heart. We, each of us, “must move on.” We must begin somewhere even if it just means saying the issue is not off our agenda. Begin the discussion; begin to act; show that you care. And remember, “A Time Comes When Silence is Betrayal.” That time has come.
Action for Human Rights. Hope for Humanity.