The United Nations in Geneva on Monday rejected Israel’s claim that a major human rights treaty was not applicable to its treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
“No, [Israel] is not responsible for those violations that are committed by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, quite clearly not,” the chairman of the UN Human Rights Committee, Nigel Rodley, told a high-level delegation of Israelis.
“But it is responsible for those violations that are outside the control of the administrating Palestinian authorities and Hamas but are within the control of the state party,” Rodley said.
He spoke at the tail end of a day-long periodic review of Israel’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Israel ratified the covenant in 1991 and was one of the initial signatories to the treaty when the UN first adopted it in 1966.
Israel traditionally works hard to show compliance to the Human Rights Committee, a body that is composed of 18 independent international human rights experts, including one from Israel.
The committee last heard testimony from Israel in 2010.
Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Justice Ministry director-general Emi Palmor said she was relieved that the delegation had not been extensively quizzed about the IDF’s military actions in Gaza this summer under Operation Protective Edge.
Israel had imagined that committee members would focus on that issue.
It’s an achievement that this did not happen, Palmor said. She noted that, still, the issue had hovered over their heads throughout the debate.
In advance of Monday’s meeting in Geneva, Israel submitted a detailed 72-page report in December 2013 on a vast array of largely domestic issues that relate to the covenant, including gender equity, gay rights, torture, rights of the child, protection of religious minorities, civil burial, migrants and asylum- seekers.
But it has a legal disagreement with the committee because it believes the covenant is not applicable to its actions in the West Bank and Gaza.
In its written reports to the committee, Israel refrains from focusing on its actions in the West Bank, which is under Israeli military rule.
Israel holds a similar view with respect to Gaza, particularly given that Israel militarily withdrew from that territory in 2005.
In its December 2013 report it wrote, “Israel believes that the Convention, which is territorially bound, does not apply, nor was it intended to apply, to areas beyond a state’s national boundary.”
Israel has also argued that the covenant is inapplicable in situations of armed conflict.
Rodley chastised Israel for relying on oral testimony for issues relating to Gaza and the West Bank. Had Israel presented the same answers in writing, there would have been more time to hold substantive debates on the issues, Rodley said.
“The covenant is not a matter of auto-interpretation by every state party,” Rodley said. Such interpretation is done by the committee, he said.
Committee members quizzed the Israeli delegation about many issues relating to the West Bank, including “price-tag attacks,” water issues, housing demolitions, treatment of Palestinian prisoners and detainees and Israeli use of Palestinian land.
Throughout the day, committee members posed questions to Israel about settlement activity, including the Gva’ot project, which involved the reclassification to state land of 400 hectares of property in the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank.
“It is not for this committee to deal with the general issues of the legality of the settlements, although it cannot ignore the fact that the whole of the rest of the world considers them unlawful,” Rodley said. “Still they are at the heart of the other problems we have had to discuss.”
Yuji Iwasawa, an panel expert from Japan, said the resumption of a policy of punitive demolition of houses was a concern.
“We have reports of Palestinians and Beduin compelled to give consent to demolition in a coercive environment as a result of [Jewish] settlers’ harassment and violence.
“We have information that Palestinians have been evicted from their agricultural land, which impacts on their livelihood and access to food,” he said.
Colonel Noam Neuman, head of the IDF International Law Department, said in response that since 2013 there had been an increasing number of militant actions by Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank.
“Israel’s policy of using house demolition for the purpose of deterrence is implemented only in exceptional circumstances,” he said.
The Israeli delegation reminded the committee that it had already withdrawn from Sinai and Gaza in search of peace, and in each instance it had destroyed Israeli settlements.
Israel’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Eviatar Manor said, “Israel places great importance on respect for human rights.” But he told the committee that Israel’s security challenges often strained the balance between protection of human rights and protection of the lives of its citizens.
“Israel remains committed to peace. We are willing to make historic and painful compromises to realize the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state living alongside a Jewish one,” Manor said.
The Israeli delegation also included Deputy Attorney- General for International Law Roy S. Schondorf.
With future Gaza war crimes allegations on everyone’s minds, both Palmor and Schondorf significantly emphasized the state’s quasi- governmental Turkel Commission report (its second report) on the legality of the state’s apparatus for self-investigating allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses.
Besides calling the Turkel Commission a unique body that had probed the state’s compliance with international law, finding it overall compliant, and the very concept of what international law says about investigations on a deeper level than any prior body, the officials described the state’s implementation of improvements recommended by the commission.
Schondorf emphasized the new fact-finding assessment mechanism by high-ranking IDF experts in checking around 100 post-Gaza war complaints against the IDF.
He said that 47 initial investigations have already been completed and presented to IDF Magistrate Advocate-General Maj.-Gen. Danny Efroni for a decision, showing greater promptness than in the past.
Also, the commission had heavily criticized the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) for not having an outside investigator of complaints by Palestinians that their interrogators tortured or abused them.
Schondorf praised the state’s reforms, including the appointment of a Justice Ministry- based and more independent investigator of the Shin Bet, Jana Modgavrishvili.
In July The Jerusalem Post reported from sources close to Modgavrishvili that she expected to have decisions on most backlogged cases (some dating back to 2011) by the end of 2014, with all old cases being decided on by May 2015.
The officials also defended the state from criticism of its treatment of illegal migrants, mostly regarding detention policies and its restarting of house demolitions after a hiatus since 2005.
The officials noted the High Court of Justice’s recent second striking down of state migrant policy as a show of commitment to human rights.
However, they had no real answer as to what the state’s new policy would be or why the state had tried a second detention policy, just with shorter detentions, after the first detention-based policy was struck down by the High Court in September 2013.
Compliance with the covenant falls under the auspices of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. But its Human Rights Committee bears no relationship to the more contentious and better known body that is also under that office, the UN Human Rights Council.
The Human Rights Council, which was first created in 2006, is composed of representatives from 47 UN member states, which have censured Israel more than any other country.
The Human Rights Council is conducting a probe into the Gaza war, headed by Canadian human rights expert William Schabas, who has already publicly stated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be brought before the International Criminal Court.
Israel is not cooperating with that probe, whose results will be presented to the Human Rights Council in March.
The Justice Ministry told reporters prior to the meeting that at this stage, the Human Rights Committee is the only UN body before which Israel would address issues that arose from Operation Protective Edge.
Reuters contributed to this report.