Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

Witnessing occupation, apartheid and resistance in Palestine/Israel

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By Urooj Rahman

On a recent trip to the West Bank, I struck up a conversation with a member of the Waqf—the Jerusalem Islamic Trust, which manages the edifices of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound—while waiting by the entrance of the mosque. “Here we have no haquqal-insan [Arabic for human rights],” he said. His truthful and cynical remark was a response to my statement on what I was doing there in Palestine/Israel. I knew, even as I told him that I was there to do human rights work, he would find it amusing, though he still thanked me so as not to be rude. And who can blame him for finding human rights work in Palestine inconsequential? My fieldwork confirmed for me that the lives of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories as well as inside Israel are seen as expendable and less valued by the Israeli government. The systematic oppression they face is viewed as a necessary consequence to keep the Israeli military state in power and to assert dominance over the indigenous Palestinian population.

I witnessed this oppression quite vividly on my initial visit to the West Bank. I was greeted by heavily armed Israel Defense Force soldiers (aka the Israeli Occupational Force) ushering people through Qalandia Checkpoint, one of the main points of entry into Ramallah in the West Bank from Jerusalem and a potent symbol of Israeli occupation. While taking part in one of the largest protests in the West Bank since the second intifadah this past July, I saw how peaceful protests at Qalandia (and other places) can turn into violent clashes when IDF soldiers provoke violence using tear gas, stun grenades, rubber-coated steel bullets and, often, live ammunition at civilians exercising their free speech. Over 40,000 strong, this protest was composed of youth, families, women, men, children and grandparents, all of whom marched together from the center of Ramallah to Qalandia checkpoint on the road to Jerusalem. What started out as a peaceful demonstration of resistance to the occupation and in solidarity with fellow Palestinians in Gaza—who were at this time facing aerial bombardment while under an occupational blockade with nowhere to escape—turned into an all-out clash. Young Palestinians were forced to resort to throwing rocks, their only form of self-defense, as IDF soldiers fired tear gas and skin-penetrating bullets into a peaceful crowd.

With the reelection of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised that no Palestinian state would form under his leadership, and the continuing brutality faced by Palestinians living under an illegal occupation, it is more important than ever to reexamine the situation of human rights in occupied Palestine.


Palestinians are the indigenous people of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean what is now present-day Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At the time of the creation of the state of Israel between 1947 and 1948, also known as the Nakba [Arabic for catastrophe, signifying the loss, theft and ethnic cleansing of Palestinian land], many Palestinians were forcibly removed or were forced to flee historic Palestine—present-day colonial Israel—out of fear of persecution from the invading Zionist forces. Many became either internally displaced within present-day Israel or refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and many other countries throughout the world. Today, approximately five million Palestinians remain refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, unable to return to their former homes and land in present-day Israel, even though the right of return for refugees is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and under U.N. Resolution 194.

Approximately four million Palestinians live in the occupied territories collectively, including the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. They have their lives and daily movements controlled by a government they did not vote for while living under a military occupation that oppresses and dehumanizes them. In addition to controlling the land, borders, air space, water, housing, electricity and other crucial aspects of life under occupation, Israel solely controls how identity cards, which hold the key to freedom of movement and right to work, are issued. The human rights abuses faced by Palestinians living under Israeli occupation include daily and nightly raids of refugee camps, housing demolitions, arbitrary and indefinite detention (increasingly of children), torture, collective punishment, restrictions on freedom of movement and the violent stifling of protest or dissent. This is in addition to the killings of and attacks on Palestinians on nearly a weekly basis in the West Bank and the aerial bombardments of Gaza every few years. Palestinians have almost every aspect of their lives controlled by the Israeli occupying forces with very little power or political clout to resist the occupation and oppression they face.


According to the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, apartheid is defined as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.” This definition is consistent with what I witnessed for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, with separate and segregated roads, buses, schools and infrastructure—one set for use by Palestinians and another for Israeli colonial-settlers. Palestinians are also often deprived of their rights to life, liberty, freedom of movement and non-discrimination. Even more evident is the intentional use of the law and the application of two different and unequal legal standards to subjugate and dominate Palestinians with ease. Israeli military law is applied to Palestinians in the West Bank, while Israeli civil law is applied to Israeli settlers. This dual legal system allows for harsher penalties and less due process for a Palestinian, in comparison to their Israeli peers. Moreover, the unequal treatment of residents on an ethnic-national basis has led to systemic discrimination that affects almost all aspects of Palestinians’ lives. Much legal scholarship, including a report from South Africa, has documented apartheid in Israel and occupied Palestine. This segregation is not only unjust, but it also exacts a heavy toll on Palestinian residents.

One of the most grueling reminders of apartheid is the separation wall dividing the West Bank from Jerusalem and Israel along the Green Line, which demarcates the 1967 armistice line between Israel and the Palestinian territories. The building of the wall was seen by many as an illegal act under international law and received condemnations from the International Court of Justice. Further highlighting the illegality of the wall is how the Israeli government has built the wall several feet off of the actual Green Line in an attempt to grab more land, on top of the illegal, unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967.


Aside from many forms of non-physical violence, Israel continues to wage a campaign of relentless physical violence against Palestinians. Prior to the aerial bombardment and ground offensive on Gaza in July of 2014, the Israeli government and the IDF conducted an indiscriminate, all-out raid in the West Bank while searching for three kidnapped Israeli settler youths near the city of Hebron, though it was believed that Israel already knew of their fates before conducting the raids. During the search, the Israeli government rounded up and arbitrarily detained many innocent civilians for indefinite periods of time and killed at least 19 Palestinians during the months of June and July as a form of collective punishment.

Later in July, the IDF engaged in an aerial bombardment and ground offensive that disproportionately targeted civilians in Gaza. Israel engaged inter alia in the indiscriminate bombing of residential neighborhoods, killing over 2,200 Palestinian civilians, including nearly 500 children as well as first responders, according to the U.N. Additionally, the IDF targeted civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, power plants and UNRWA schools, in violation of international humanitarian law. Some of these structures were serving as U.N. designated shelters for those displaced by violence.

As an occupying power engaged in hostilities, Israel must abide by its obligations under international humanitarian law, which are set out primarily in the Regulations Annexed to the 1907 Hague Convention respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. This includes ensuring the safety and welfare of civilians living in occupied territory. However, the actions taken by the IDF in the months of June and July of 2014 run counter to these obligations and are expressly prohibited under humanitarian and human rights law. A new report by the U.N. Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict found evidence that Israel (and Palestinian armed groups) committed war crimes during the 2014 conflict. Nonetheless, impunity continues to be the norm, as noted by the U.N.


Another major point of provocation is the constant expansion of illegal settlements throughout occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as the often-accompanied housing demolitions of Palestinian homes. The prohibition on deporting or transferring parts of a State’s own civilian population into the territory it occupies is set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention and its Additional Protocol I. Under the Statute of the International Criminal Court, “the transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies” constitutes a war crime in international armed conflicts. During a six month period in 2014 alone, 7,500 new Israeli settlers moved into the occupied West Bank, alongside the 382,031 Israeli settlers who already reside in illegal settlements that surround various Palestinian towns and villages, effectively making the Palestinian-controlled West Bank an archipelago of small land islands. As the new settlers continue to slowly take over the small parcels of land left for Palestinians, there are rising reports of violent attacks on Palestinian civilians, including kidnapping, torture and murder of Palestinian youth, and the destruction of olive trees that have been planted by Palestinian farmers.

In Hebron, for example, local Hebronites are faced with abuse, assaults and harassment from both Israeli settlers and the IDF. There are multiple internal checkpoints within the city restricting the movement of Palestinian residents, while Israeli colonial-settlers who have moved into Palestinian homes in Hebron are allowed to attack Palestinians and their businesses with impunity. The settlers often throw stones at the Palestinian Hebronites, insult them, throw garbage down on their shops, assault or intimidate them, all while the IDF soldiers sit idly by, making the city an occupied territory within an occupied territory.


This all comes at a time where the Palestinian Authority (PA) has acceded to the Rome Statute, thereby giving the International Criminal Court (ICC) jurisdiction to investigate possible war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties. This step was not taken lightly, as the PA knew the backlash it would receive from the Israeli government.

While the many nations of the world—including our own, which provides nearly $8 million a day in military aid to Israel—allow this oppression to go on, Palestinians have now joined the ICC as its 123rd member. We will wait to see if any justice, or at least recognition of Palestinian suffering, will at all be achieved from this move.


The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Urooj Rahman is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire. She was also a 2014 Leitner Center Summer Fellow, who spent her summer interning with Mada Al-Carmel and Palestine Works in Israel/Palestine, where she conducted research, fact-finding and advocacy work on political, social, economic and legal issues affecting Palestinian citizens of Israel.

This post was originally published on June 23, 2015.


Author: leitnercenter

Rights Wire is the human rights blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.

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