In his speech last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said much of what one might have expected at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. But what was most telling was the one word he didn’t utter: occupation.
It wasn’t just Netanyahu who steered clear of the word. So too did U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in his comments the night before. It is this act of repeated omission that adds so much confusion to the simple question of what concerned Americans must do to advance human rights in the region.
Ultimately, the UN Security Council should impose an international arms embargo on Israel, Hamas, and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza. But that shouldn't stop the U.S. from suspending military support to Israel now. The human rights violations and abuses perpetrated by Hamas or armed Palestinian groups do not justify Israel’s violations in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
For those living under Israeli military occupation in the Palestinian West Bank, there is a two-track system of law for two different populations. The hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews who reside in illegal West Bank settlements live under Israeli civil law with the protection of Israeli security forces. Palestinians, however, live under a separate system of Israeli military law that eviscerates their human rights to freedom of expression and association. This military rule is enforced – sometimes lethally – by the very Israeli security forces which protect those illegal Jewish settlers.
Perhaps the best example of this is Israeli Military Order 101, which prohibits all gatherings of 10 or more people “for a political purpose or for a matter that could be interpreted as political” or even “to discuss such a topic.” Any such gathering is illegal without the permission of the Israeli military commander in the area.
When Palestinians inevitably violate Order 101 or other similar rules, they risk a violent response from Israeli soldiers and police. In our latest report, “Trigger Happy: Israel’s Use of Excessive Force in the West Bank,” Amnesty International details just how Israeli soldiers and police in the West Bank use everything from live ammunition to tear gas to violently crack down on Palestinians engaged in largely peaceful acts of protest.
According to the UN, Israeli forces killed more West Bank Palestinians in 2013 than the combined totals for 2011 and 2012. Forty-five were killed in the past three years. During the same period, at least 261 Palestinians in the West Bank, including 67 children, were seriously injured by live ammunition fired by Israeli forces. Since January 2011, over 8,000 Palestinians in the West Bank, including 1,500 children, have been wounded by other means. These include rubber-coated metal bullets and the reckless use of tear gas.
Some Palestinians in the West Bank do throw rocks at Israeli security forces enforcing the occupation. However, such acts generally do not pose a serious risk to Israeli security forces, given soldiers’ distance from protestors and the heavily protected nature of their positions. The Israeli army’s penchant for responding to rocks with lethal violence flies in the face of international law.
Against this backdrop of violence by the military,
Israel reportedly doubled the construction of Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank between 2012 and 2013. This settlement construction frequently involves the forcible confiscation of Palestinian farmland, villages, and roads, which often involves even more violence against Palestinian protestors.
All of this brings us back to the original sin – leaving the word occupation out of the public conversation. The fact of the matter is that Israel maintains complete control over 60 percent of the West Bank. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has limited jurisdiction in some 230 separate enclaves that are each surrounded by other areas under full Israeli military administration.
Instead of obscuring this reality, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry must be transparent in their language. Not only that, but the role of U.S. military aid in subsidizing Israeli human rights violations must also be acknowledged. The human rights abuses perpetrated by Hamas or Hezbollah are no justification for Israel’s violations in the West Bank. And as the largest outside source of arms to Israel, the Obama Administration must acknowledge this. It is time for a real “peace process” that addresses American military complicity in Israel’s human rights violations in the occupied West Bank.
Bery is advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA.