UN anti-racism panel to examine Israel

Issues include failure to indict those responsible for October 2000 riots.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Israel expects the UN's top anti-racism committee in Geneva to take it to task this week for denying residency rights to Palestinians married to Israelis, and for failing to indict those responsible for the deaths of 13 Israeli Arabs in the October 2000 riots. These are just two of the many issues regarding Israel's treatment of its Arab citizens and Palestinians in the territories which Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva Yitzhak Levanon anticipates defending when he appears this Thursday and Friday before the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). "We do not have anything to hide. We are coming in good faith," Levanon told The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview from Geneva. It will be the first time in nine years that Israel will formally appear before the committee to defend its compliance with the convention against racial discrimination which Israel signed in 1979, said Levanon. Israel was one of 173 countries to have ratified this treaty and as such, like all parties, was subject to periodic compliance reviews, he added. Its opinion was important because "within the system of human rights, CERD is one of the bodies that carries a lot of weight," said Levanon. In the past, this committee had been more balanced in its approach toward Israel than other UN bodies, he added. To show how seriously the government takes this issue, he will be joined in Geneva by some seven to nine officials, including professionals from the Justice Ministry, who are flying from Israel to help him address the committee. In addition, Israel has submitted a 122-page report to the UN detailing its efforts to combat discrimination. But the committee does not just rely on state information when determining compliance. It has also received negative reports from a number of Israeli human rights and advocacy groups, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI); Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel; and B'Tselem. Members of all these groups were also heading to Geneva to speak with committee members even though they could not formally address the UN during the hearing, said ACRI executive director Rachel Benziman. Advocates from ACRI and Adalah told the Post they hoped to inform the committee about a host of discriminatory Israeli practices, such as land distribution, housing demolitions, freedom of movement, failure to protect Muslim holy places and racial profiling. They also planned to speak about the lack of equitable funding for Arab citizens with respect to education and other municipal services as well as issues with respect to the treatment of Beduin. ACRI added that it also planned to specifically highlight the problems of Palestinians living in Hebron. Benziman said that while the committee's conclusions were not binding, they could be used as the basis for legal appeals on these issues both here and abroad. The conclusions were an important tool in lobbying to change the system in Israel, said Benziman. Adalah staff attorney Sawsan Zahar, who herself is heading to Geneva, said she hoped the international arena could help resolve some of the issues which the Israeli courts had failed to address. But Levanon said that he planned to show just the opposite. He said that Israel had taken many measures in the last four or five years to address and improve issues of discrimination, including access to education. "I am going to give them some facts that no one can deny," Levanon said. He added that he also planned to tell the committee that it needed to look at Israel's record on issues relating to racial discrimination within the context of the terror threats that it faced from the Palestinians. Levanon has levied harsh criticism against the UN's Human Rights Council in the past, which he said was politicized and biased against Israel in that it focused most of its energy on highlighting human rights abuses here. "This has nothing to do with the Human Rights Council," Levanon said. But he is hopeful that Israel would get a fairer hearing before CERD, which he said is made up of 18 international professionals in the field of human rights. Israel, in this case, is one of a number of countries under review by CERD when it meets from February 19 to March 9. It was true, he said, that there had been some recent problems with the committee, such as its decision this summer to hold a special session on Israel's actions in Lebanon during its war against Hizbullah. The Egyptian member of the committee, former diplomat Mahmoud Aboul-Nasr, had attacked Israel in the past, said Levanon. But, he added, Aboul-Nasr was the exception and not the rule. While its reports have highlighted problem areas, they have also tended to mention positive steps that Israel has taken against discrimination, as well as made specific recommendations as to how Israel can improve its compliance record. "I am expecting harsh questions. But I am expecting the committee will listen to the Israeli point of view," said Levanon. Israel believed in the values set forth by the committee and took it obligations to the convention against racism very seriously, Levanon said. "We want everyone to know how good Israel is in this field," he added.