Google the phrase “human rights in Israel and the Palestinian territories” and you’ll get 39.1 million hits, most of them describing human rights violations.
In Israel, dozens of organizations are devoted to causes listed under the umbrella of human rights, some focused on Israeli society while others are concerned with the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, regarding which several experts have said there is some good news for the past year, starting with an unlikely place: Israel’s week-long aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip last month to stop rocket fire its southern communities.
“The last operation in Gaza was conducted with a much greater degree of care for civilian victims,” Yuval Shany, the dean of the law school at Hebrew University told The Media Line. “There has been considerably less harm to non-combatants and fewer civilian casualties, and there seems to be some internalization of what it takes to conduct a military incursion into a complicated situation like Gaza.”
Shany was recently appointed to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, a group of experts from states that have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is only the second time an Israeli expert has been part of the group.
Shany also said that certain attempts by political organizations to restrict the freedom of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Israel, including human rights groups, were either rejected or diluted, another positive development.
“There are still some robust safeguards on human rights including public opinion, media, and civil society that are able to resist pressure, he said. “The fact that nothing dramatic has occurred is good news.”
On the Palestinian side, there is also an extensive civil society and a plethora of human rights organizations in the West Bank and fewer in Gaza. On Monday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad will address a conference dealing with “A National Plan for Human Rights,” which is being currently being drafted.
“The National Plan is an excellent opportunity for the Palestinian people and institutions to show their commitment to human rights, and to set clear goals and targets for improving the human rights situation,” said Troels Gausla Engell, Associate Human Rights Officer at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Ramallah. “The Plan will be one of the first of its kind in the entire Arab world, and, within the context of the Arab Spring, will show the way forward for the region to be guided by human rights.”
However, the human rights situation in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the Islamist Hamas movement, has deteriorated during the past year. Last month, six Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel were publicly executed and left on the streets of Gaza. And while Hamas has not officially embraced sharia -- Islamic law-- there are more restrictions on women than ever before.
“The society is becoming more and more conservative,” Izzam Younis, the director of the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza told The Media Line. “While legally, women can walk around without a headscarf, or smoke a water pipe in a restaurant, there is a lot of social coercion not to do these things.”
In Israel, women constitute a large part of the work force. Excluding Arab and ultra-Orthodox women, 80 percent of the remaining secular Jewish women are working -- one of the highest rates in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], an international group comprised of 34 nations to improve economic and social well-being. But Israeli women still earn about 25 percent less than men.
Some 5000 people marched through Tel Aviv on Friday as part of an event organized by The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). ACRI President Sami Michael spoke about discrimination against women in Israel.
“A society that excludes women from the public sphere is sick and will never truly flourish,” Michael told the crowd. “Our society becomes more and more violent, more and more racist every day. And women – who make up half of the human race – pay the highest price of all, with their bodies and their souls.”
Michael said the wage discrepancy in Israel between men and women is among the highest in the Western world.
“We cannot tolerate this situation,” he said. “Women are entitled to the same pay, not a shekel less.”
Several ultra-Orthodox political parties, including Shas and Yahadut HaTorah, do not allow women to vie for seats in parliament. Francis Raday, the director of the Concord Center for International Law in Israel, has appealed to Israel’s Election Committee to disqualify any political party that does not allow women on their elections slate.
“Israel ranks 67 out of 144 countries in terms of the number of women in parliament,” she told The Media Line. “Only 17.5 percent of parliament members are women, compared to 26 percent for the OECD. When you look at ministerial positions, it is even lower at just nine percent.”
Some Middle Eastern human rights organizations, such as B’tselem, devote themselves exclusively to the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. B’tselem says the number of attacks by extremist Jews on Palestinians, including the burning of mosques, increased in 2012.
“There is a great deal of hostility to human rights and a lack of understanding of the universal nature of human rights,” Jessica Montell, the executive director of the B’tselem organization told The Media Line.
At the same time, she believes there is a significant minority in Israel that is committed to furthering human rights.
“We have a core constituency of 20-30 percent of the public that is embracing our message,” she said. “We want to build on that and increase it.”