International Human Rights Organizations and the Palestine Question [*]

By Nabeel Abraham, Janice Terry, Cheryl Rubenberg, Lisa Hajjar, and Hilary Shadroui
Middle East Report (MERIP)
Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 12 – 20.
January-February 1988


    Index: HR organization sections discussed in this article
  1. American Committee for Human Rights/Physicians for Human Rights
  2. Amnesty International
  3. Committee to Protect Journalists
  4. Cultural Survival
  5. Human Rights Internet
  6. International League for Human Rights
  7. Lawyers Committee for Human Rights
  8. Minority Rights Report
  9. Watch Committee/Fund for Free Expression
  10. The Future of Palestinian Rights

Unlike the news media, human rights organizations have only limited contact with mass public opinion, but they constitute a primary source of information on human rights conditions around the world. They play a subtle crucial role in shaping the opinions of political leaders, news commentators and other strata of articulate opinion. Their ability to influence political debate and issues can sometimes lead to startling results, as recently happened when 40 US senators voiced their concern over Indonesian atrocities in East Timor [1]. This Achievement was all the more remarkable in that it occurred in the absence of popular outcry and media coverage.

In dealing with Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights, human rights organizations must contend with an unusual set of circumstances. Unlike many countries, including most Arab states, Israel takes accusations of human rights abuses seriously enough to respond to them, often in the form of lengthy and detailed memoranda. In addition, Israel can count on many supporters in the US and other Western countries, who will challenge human rights organizations from within and without. Lastly, Israel’s standing as Washington’s “official friend” makes even the most principled human rights organizations wary of challenging that country’s human rights record.

Another factor concerns the low profile of individuals and organizations devoted to Palestinian human rights [2]. Many human rights organizations have rarely been challenged or, when appropriate, commended on their record regarding abuses of Palestinian human rights. On June 19, 1977, the London Sunday Times published a path-breaking study on torture in the Israeli-occupied territories. In undertaking the investigation, which created a major sensation at the time, the newspaper was doing the work of the international human rights community. In an editorial accompanying the report, the Sunday Times observed that Arabs in the occupied territories can rely only on the international community for protection. Ten years later, that observation rings even truer. Those concerned with the fate of the Palestinians should actively monitor and participate in the work of international human rights organizations. For unless these organizations are challenged on their commitment to defend the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to uphold their respective mandates and principles and to apply consistent standards, their impact on Palestinian human rights will be minimal.

This study looks at how a number of international human rights organizations treat the matter of violations of Palestinian human rights [3]. We evaluate each organization according to its own published record, and the goals and principles it has established for itself. On the basis of this record we determine if an organization either has violated its own mandate by overlooking or disregarding instances of Palestinian human rights abuses or has downplayed abuses of Palestinian rights while emphasizing similar violations elsewhere.

The 11 organizations reviewed here can be broadly grouped into three categories. Category One includes organizations that have not covered the Palestinians in any form or context, or have done so only tangentially. Under this rubric fall the Watch Committees (Americas Watch, Helsinki Watch, Asia Watch), Cultural Survival, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and American Committee for Human Rights and its affiliate Physicians for Human Rights.

Category Two consists of organizations that claim to cover Israeli violations of Palestinian rights but in reality disregard, ignore, or downplay many cases. The International League for Human Rights is the most notable offender. Evidence from other regions suggests that this problem is not limited only to Israel and the Palestinians. On the contrary, it appears part of a general tendency by such groups to “detect and denounce crimes of official enemies,” as Noam Chomsky has remarked, while overlooking or minimizing those of “official friends” [4].

Category Three organizations have demonstrated a genuine effort to cover human rights abuses under Israeli rule. The most consistent in this regard are the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the London-based Minority Rights Group. The fact that both are relatively small groups, not well known outside the international human rights community, casts further doubt on the argument of some organizations that their limited resources prevent adequate coverage of Palestinian human rights issues.

Amnesty International (AI) also falls squarely in this category. The London-based organization has provided accurate and extensive coverage of Palestinian human rights abuses in all three geographical areas – Israel, the occupied territories and the Israeli-occupied Lebanon. Its output on Israel and the Palestinians, as on other regions of the world, is voluminous in comparison to the other organizations under review.

American Committee for Human Rights/Physicians for Human Rights

The American Committee for Human Rights (ACHR) defines its goal as “ensuring that the US honors its commitment to human rights in countries to which it has given substantial economic or military aid.” In 1986-87, ACHR formed an offshoot, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), dedicated to defending “health professionals in all countries,” and working “against torture and the participation of physicians in torture.” By ACHR’s objectives, Israel’s status as the largest recipient of US aid should make it a major concern of the organization. In fact, ACHR has not covered Israel or its violations of Palestinian human rights at all. Instead, ACHR has concentrated its attention on Chile, South Korea, and the Philippines.

In a written response to a query, ACHR head Dr. Jonathan Fine stated that his organization “would be pleased to receive information about Palestinian physicians, dentists and other health professionals in the struggle for human rights.” Fine’s offer definitely should be pursued by Palestinian human rights activists. In late 1987, the ACHR board decided to disband ACHR and concentrate all its resources on PHR under Dr. Fine’s leadership.

Amnesty International

Since it was founded in 1961, Amnesty International (AI) has become the biggest and best-known non-governmental human rights organization in the world. By early 1986 AI claimed an active membership of more than 500,000 in over 150 countries and territories.

Amnesty’s primary focus is on prisoners. It campaigns for “the release of all prisoners of conscience, fair and prompt trials for all political prisoners, and an end to torture and executions” [5]. Prisoners of conscience (POCs) are people detained for their beliefs, color, sex, ethnic origin, language or religion, who have not used or advocated violence. AI strives to “maintain an overall balance between its activities in relation to countries adhering to the different world political ideologies and groupings” [6]. It seeks to implement its mandate through letter writing campaigns, representations to governments, public campaigns and general publicity “irrespective of political consideration.” AI also sends missions to various countries to “have talks with government officials, collect information about human rights violations or legal procedure, or observe political trials” [7].

Once a particular prisoner is designated a “prisoner of conscience,” local AI groups “adopt” the case and work for the prisoner’s unconditional release. Where sufficient evidence is lacking, the case is taken up for “investigation.” Short of a POC designation, Amnesty calls for fair and prompt trials for all political prisoners, and opposes all torture and executions.

AI has refused to accept Israel’s argument that membership in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) by itself constitutes the advocacy or use of violence and is therefore a punishable offense. “According to Amnesty International’s information, some members of the PLO are engaged in exclusively non-violent political activities. Some may also have specifically dissociated themselves from acts involving the use or advocacy of violence” [8].

Amnesty International’s coverage of human rights abuses in Israel and the occupied territories has been accurate and, in comparison to other human rights organizations, extensive and consistent over time. However, when compared to its own coverage of conditions elsewhere, AI’s treatment of Palestinian human rights violations reveals a number of shortcomings.

One problem is the absence of political context in AI’s reporting. For instance, the 1983 report noted the massacres in the Beirut refugee camps that September, and the detention of more than 9,000 Palestinians and Lebanese by Israeli troops in Lebanon. Curiously, it was reticent about Israel’s invasion per se, save for the parenthetical comment that AI had “received press reports and first-hand accounts alleging that people captured during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and held in temporary detention centers were, at least until the third or fourth week of June, [1982] beaten indiscriminately…” The report’s spare commentary on the invasion of Lebanon suggests a certain inconsistency when compared to treatment of South Africa’s relatively less extensive attacks on neighboring countries that same year. “In early December [1982] South African military forces entered Lesotho and killed at least 30 South African refugees and 12 Lesotho nationals… there were also fatal bomb attacks on prominent ANC supporters in Mozambique and Swaziland which were alleged to be the work of South African security agents, though this could not be proved” [9].

AI did grapple with the problem of detainees in Lebanon. In its annual report for 1984, AI stated it

was concerned that the legal status of these detainees had not been clarified by the Israeli authorities… In April 1983 [AI] expressed its concern to the authorities that detainees were still not being permitted to meet lawyers or relatives, were being denied the right to be confronted with, and refute, the evidence against them, and that they had been held for considerable periods in incommunicado detention…

It is instructive to compare AI’s report to similar reports by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the International Commission of Inquiry headed by AI founder Sean McBride. The AFSC report situated the problem of the Lebanon detainees within a political context, discussed relevant international laws, and made specific recommendations to the governments of Israel, Lebanon and Syria. The International Commission’s report included a detailed discussion of the political and legal aspects of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. It concluded, inter alia, that Israel had…

violated international rules dealing with prisoners, both civilian and fighters, particularly by denying Palestinian and Lebanese fighters prisoner-of-war status… and by subjecting these prisoners to unlawful treatment which included degrading treatment and brutality, on occasion leading to death, during arrest and transportation [10].

There is considerable ambiguity in AI’s reports over who is eligible for prisoner of conscience status in the occupied territories. In Northern Ireland, AI maintains that there are no POCs because all convictions of political prisoners involve the use or advocacy of violence. In South Africa, on the other hand, AI has adopted many POCs. The overall number of POCs is not given, but the impression is that it is quite large. AI apparently designated large numbers of detainees POCs en masse, without benefit of the customary investigation and adoption procedures.

AI’s approach to POCs in the occupied territories lies somewhere between its approaches towards Northern Ireland and South Africa. While it recognizes that some detentions for “security offenses” in the occupied territories are politically-motivated acts of repression. AI has refrained from giving POC status to many of the thousands detained by Israeli security forces as it has in South Africa. By AI’s own definition, all administrative detainees and others subject to restriction orders should fall under the POC designation, but most have not been adopted. Since 1978, AI has adopted several score of POCs in the occupied territories.

In its 1979 annual report, AI noted that it “has repeatedly called for an impartial, independent commission of inquiry into allegations of torture and ill-treatment [in Israel and the occupied territories] but the authorities have so far not responded.” A 1980 report on the results of an AI mission to Israel in June 1979 focused on allegations of torture and ill-treatment based on diplomatic and news sources. The report included a rebuttal from the Israeli government [11].

In its 1983 annual report, AI stated in reference to Israel and the occupied territories that it had:

received a number of testimonies from former prisoners who alleged that they were beaten and subjected to sensory deprivation while in custody or during interrogation. However, Amnesty International was not able to investigate these allegations thoroughly [12].

Amnesty, in a 1979 report on South Africa, cited similar “allegations of torture” but went on to assert “there is little doubt that torture is still used systematically” [13]. The group’s 1982 report on South Africa said that: “the number and diversity of those alleging torture, and the general consistency of their claims, indicated that detainees were commonly treated brutally during interrogation by security police” [14].

This statement should be compared to the following one on the occupied territories, written in 1984:

… the frequency and consistency of these reports indicate that some Palestinians from the Occupied Territories arrested for security reasons and interrogated by the Shin Beth, intelligence services, in a number of different detention centers have been hooded, handcuffed and forced to stand without moving for many hours at a time for several days, and have been exposed while naked to cold showers or cold air ventilators for long periods of time [15].

Exactly why “the number and diversity of those alleging torture” in the occupied territories was not sufficient to indicate here too “that detainees were commonly treated brutally during interrogation” is not entirely clear. It appears that AI feels less constrained about criticizing South Africa than it does Israel [16].

On September 25, 1985, AI released “Background Information on Administrative Detention,” in response to an Israeli Cabinet decision in July to reimpose administrative detention in the occupied territories. AI condemned the practice in the strongest terms to date, but many detainees have not received POC status. AI released a second document on April 25, 1986, “Concerns on Administrative Detention in Israel and the Occupied Territories,” in which it presented its response to a letter from the Israeli government. As far as can be determined, AI has yet to enter representations on behalf of the occupied territories before the various bodies, as it had done in the case of South Africa [17].

AI has been equally concerned with administrative restriction orders, including town arrest, house arrest, travel restrictions, banning, and the requirement to report daily to a local police station. In 1984, AI presented a detailed analysis of administrative restrictions in a document titled “Town Arrest Orders in Israel and the Occupied Territories.” Perhaps AI’s strongest statement on any aspect of human rights abuse in the occupied territories, the document argued that “many people may have been restricted for the non-violent exercise of their right to freedom of opinion and expression” [18].

AI has largely ignored the related issue of forcible deportations. Banning, the South African equivalent of Israeli deportation, has been a concern of AI for many years. In 1980, AI reported that “most banned people were adopted as prisoners of conscience…” [19]. Of the shortcomings noted here, AI’s failure to challenge Israel’s deportation measures is the most glaring.

Committee to Protect Journalists

Founded in 1981, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) focuses on promoting freedom of the press and protecting the professional and human rights of journalists. CPJ publicizes cases and events in the CPJ Updatenewsletter, contacts governments cited for their abuses of the press, and promotes letter-writing campaigns to bring pressure on those governments.

CPJ has actively monitored Israeli repression against the Palestinian press in the occupied territories and the heavy-handed censorship and harassment of reporters working in Lebanon during and after Israel’s 1982 invasion. CPJ has on many occasions contacted the Israeli government about specific incidents. CPJ has consistently called for fair hearings, substantiation of charges, and lifting of all military censorship except where directly applicable to security provisions. In an August 28, 1986, letter to the then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres, CPJ’s Barbara Koeppel protested Israel’s closure of two Palestinian publications Al-Mithaq and Al-Ahd.

We maintain that the permanent closure of a newspaper – when authorities already have the tool of prior censorship to suppress material deemed threatening to security – is at variance with Israel’s often-professed commitment to press freedom.

When Israel closed the Alternative Information Center (AIC) in West Jerusalem and arrested its director Michael Warschawsky in February 1987, Koeppel wrote to protest the move “as a grave attack on freedom of expression and [to] urge the AIC’s reopening and Warschawsky’s release” [20].

Cultural Survival

Founded in 1972 by a group of Harvard social scientists, Cultural Survival (CS) is “concerned with the fate of tribal peoples and ethnic minorities, the traditional concerns of cultural anthropology, are facing extinction today because of the “greed and incomprehension” of advanced societies: “They are destroyed in the name of development programs they are presumed to hinder, or in the name of the nation-state they are assumed to subvert.”

In addition to books, occasionally papers and special reports, CS has since 1976 published Cultural Survival Quarterly. CS has pressed primarily Western institutions to adopt measures protecting the rights of indigenous peoples. For example, the organization has successfully lobbied the World Bank “to make it a condition of their loans that the rights of indigenous peoples and the needs of the environment be protected in areas where the loans would be applied” [21].

In its 15 years, CS has not addressed the issue of the Palestinians in any form, either as a national cultural group or as an ethnic minority subculture, whether in Israel, the occupied territories, or in the Arab countries. Nor, as far as can be determined, have any Palestinian subgroups (Bedouin, Druze, Circassians, women, peasants, refugees) been subject of a CS assistance project, research study, occasional paper or CS Quarterly.

In late 1984, Jason Clay, editor of CS Quarterly, in response to a query from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) asking why CS had not covered the Palestinians agreed to consider an article on the Palestinians. Two American researchers contacted by ADC, Clare Brandabur and Louise Cainkar, submitted an article in early January 1985. A month later a heavily edited version, already set in type, was returned to the authors with a note from Clay stating in part: “Finally, as is required by our Board of Directors, the piece will be sent simultaneously to two readers.” Editorial reviews usually precede setting articles to type. Clay added, “As their reviews come in, if necessary, I will forward their comments to you.” In fact, that was the last the authors heard from Clay, save for his final message that CS Quarterly was “not the appropriate place” for their article. It was never published.

Clay recently acknowledged that one of the readers “thought that the way the piece was written would entangle CS in a number of issues that could easily swamp the organization.” Clay also stated that “the Palestinians do not fall directly into the scope of Cultural Survival’s work. That reason is that the Palestinians as you discuss them (Israel, occupied territories, Lebanon) are more of a geographic designation than a cultural one” [22]. CS Quarterly, though, has run scores of articles on national or regional cultural groups that clearly fall under his notion of “geographic designations,” such as “The Survival of Tibetan Culture” or “Nomads in Syria and Jordan.” In addition, CS has taken an avid interest in the Kurds to the point of sponsoring a special project in their behalf. The Kurds share in common with the Palestinians the status of a stateless people dispersed in several countries which to varying degrees oppose their respective quests for national independence and statehood.

Many issues confronting the Palestinian are regularly dealt with in CS Quarterly: refugees (Guatemala, Ethiopia, Afghanistan), resisting land grabs (Ecuador), military rule (Guatemala), relocation (South Africa), children and war (Uganda), violence against children (South Africa). An entire issue was devoted to “Parks and People,” without mention of Israel’s destruction of Palestinian villages to make way for its famous Canada Park and others, or its practice of declaring large tracts of Arab lands in the occupied territories national reserves [23]

Human Rights Internet

Human Rights Internet (HRI) is an “international communications network and clearinghouse on human rights,” which aims for “the widest possible dissemination of information on the status of human rights and on action taken to further human rights.” HRI’s ambitious program includes serving as an unofficial depository for documentation by non-governmental human rights groups; making such documentation available on microfiche to the public; building a computerized data base to facilitate information retrieval; and compiling regional directories of human rights organizations. HRI also publishes HRI Reporter , which it calls “the most current, comprehensive reference work in the human rights field.”

HRI Reporter regularly lists in its bibliography publications concerned with human rights abuses in the occupied territories, but it rarely elaborates on those sources. In general, reports critical of Israel are listed in the Reporter, but not abstracted [24]. On the other hand, reports sympathetic to Israel are generally abstracted at length. In 1984, for instance, HRI Reporter listed a critique by Law in the Service of Man (a West Bank group) of the US State Department’s Report on Human Rights Practices in the Occupied Territories, but did not abstract any of its specific criticisms [25]. Similarly, HRI gave scant coverage to Amnesty International’s 1984 report on the occupied territories, about three to five lines, but gave almost a full page to the Israeli government’s rejoinder in the May-August 1985 HRI Reporter .

The May-August 1985 HRI Reporter abstracted at length a report on Palestinian women commissioned by the Jacob Blaustein Institute (Israel). The report, which painted Israel’s treatment of Palestinian women in highly favorable terms, was according to HRI “undertaken to provide… a more balanced approach than that contained in the UN Secretary-General’s report” (pp. 718-719). The Reporter summarized the Israeli report, but not the UN report.

HRI Reporter also regularly excerpts official Israeli government responses to critical reports by international human rights organizations, but rarely excerpts from the original reports. In the January-April 1985 Reporter, a full page was devoted to an excerpt on human rights from the Israel Yearbook, a government publication. The same issue also carried an excerpt from the Israeli Attorney General’s response to Amnesty International’s 1984 report, “Town Arrest Orders in Israel and the Occupied Territories.” A summary of the Amnesty report did not appear.

The Reporter often summarizes material from B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League (ADL) publications about human rights abuses in Arab countries [26]. Publications by Arab-American and other organizations concerned with Palestinian human rights under Israeli rule are listed, but not summarized. HRI listed a 1983 ADL handbook, Pro-Arab Propaganda in America: Vehicles and Voices [27], even though it has absolutely nothing to do with human rights; it is essentially an ADL “enemies” list. HRI never issued a retraction or apology in the matter.

Unlike its work in general, which tends to be balanced and useful, HRI habitually understates abuses of Palestinian human rights. HRI Executive Director Laurie Wiseberg’s 1980 report on her visit to Israel and the occupied territories in some respects mirrors HRI’s ambivalent position [28]. She provides a fairly detailed analysis of the legal difficulties encountered by Palestinian lawyers under Israeli military occupation. But when Wiseberg traveled to the town of Ramallah, she did not visit the nearby campus of Birzeit University, a frequent target of Israeli repression. Although Birzeit “is supposed to have a human rights committee,” Wiseberg wrote, the students there are “highly politicized an are often drawn there precisely for ideological reasons.” Her reluctance to meet with the victims of military occupation did not prevent her from soliciting opinions on the subject from Israelis. Her discussions led her to the observation that some of her Israeli interlocutors viewed the occupation as “humane” while others argued that “occupation is occupation,” which brutalizes “Israelis along with the Palestinians.” Wiseberg concludes that the occupation has adversely affected both sides. Only in the case of Israel does HRI wring its hands over the fate of both violator and violated [29].

International League for Human Rights

Founded in 1942 by civil rights activist Roger Baldwin, the International League for Human Rights (ILHR, formerly the International League for the Rights of Man) “pioneered in the efforts to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The League’s stated goal is to “advance the human rights law and to secure redress for those whose rights are violated.”

The League’s record evinces a double standard, where Israel and the Palestinians are concerned. Coverage of violations of Palestinian human rights is minimal [30], and adopts the Israeli government’s point of view and terminology. For instance, the Annual Report of May 1972 discusses human rights abuses in some 25 countries, including Iran, Syria and Turkey in the Middle East. In the case of Syria, the League protested the arrest of 12 Jews for trying to leave the country in late 1971 [31]. Except for summary executions, worse cases of human rights abuses (all well-documented) were taking place under Israeli rule in this period [32]. Yet, Israel and the Palestinians are not mentioned at all in the 1972 Report, even though detailed information on human rights abuses in the occupied territories was reaching the League from its Israeli affiliate.

1973 was one of the rare times when the League’s annual report covered Israel and the Palestinians. Brief mention is made of League’s President Jerome Shestack’s investigation of prison conditions “for terrorist prisoners at Neve Tirza and Ramle prisons in Israel” (emphasis added). The term “terrorist” is found only in reference to Palestinian prisoners. In contrast, the League’s Annual Review for 1976-77 refers to Zimbabwean “freedom-fighters,” while another report mentions 227 Kurds who were executed in 1976, “presumably for their involvement in activities banned by the Iraqi authorities” [33].

In its Annual Report for 1976-77, the League returned to Shestack’s conclusion regarding prison conditions in Israel: despite “certain departures from the standards,” he found “substantial conformity to UN Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners” (p. 12).

Evidence readily available from Israeli and other sources indicates Shestack and the League were less than candid in their coverage of the prisoner issue. In February 1977, months before the League’s report went to press, the Israeli Commissioner of Prisons, Chaim Levi, publicly admitted that “the overcrowding of the prisons has reached intolerable levels.” Levi pointed out that in some Israeli prisons Palestinian prisoners have less than one square meter of living space each [34]. The problem of prison crowding in Israel had been raised by the International Red Cross as early as 1970 [35] and again in September 1977, when it suggested that commissions of inquiry be established to examine prison conditions. Amnesty International also took up the issue in 1977.

The obvious reluctance of the League to question seriously Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights in the face of mounting evidence appears consistent with Shestack’s pronouncement during a 1975 visit that “Israel has a very creditable record as an occupying power, but that its own citizens need a Civil Liberties Union” [36].

The record suggests that the League has not only consistently disregarded evidence of Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, but “has been careful to insulate itself from this information” [37]. On April 20, 1973, the International League’s executive committee voted unanimously to disaffiliate its Israeli affiliate – the Israel League for Human and Civil Rights. The Israel League, especially after 1970 when Dr. Israel Shahak assumed the chairmanship, had been providing the New York-based League with massive evidence concerning violations of Palestinian human rights. The major pretext behind its disaffiliation, according to a May 9, 1973, letter Dr. Shahak received from President Shestack, was ostensibly a “controversy in the Israeli courts with respect to the recent elections” held by the Israeli League. This was a reference to an attempted takeover of the Israeli League on November 16, 1972, by several hundred members of the Labor Party youth group who, on party orders, attempted to join the Israel League en masse, expel its elected leaders, and subvert its work in the area of Palestinian human rights. An Israeli court promptly upheld the legitimacy of Shahak’s executive committee and declared the decisions of the takeover meeting null and void [38]. The International League has not retracted its decision, offered an apology, or restored the Israeli League’s affiliation [39].

Lawyers Committee for Human Rights

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (LCHR) was founded in 1975 by the International League for Human Rights and the Council of New York Law Associates as a “public interest law center that monitors, investigates and reports on violations of human rights throughout the world, including the rights of people seeking refuge in the United States from political persecution abroad.”

Since 1980 LCHR and the Watch Committees have published an annual Critique of the US Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. They also co-published The Reagan Administration’s Record on Human Rights in 1986. These reports have been generally critical of both the State Department and the Reagan administration; however, their coverage of Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights has varied from non-existent to minimal. For example, The Reagan Administration’s Record on Human Rights covers only 31 countries, omitting Israel and the Palestinians as well as the rest of the Middle East.

The 1986 Critique of the State Department is a marked improvement over the 1985 Critique as well as the one on the Reagan administration. The 1985 version was marred by evasiveness and lacked the strong criticism of the State Department report usually found in discussion of similar abuses elsewhere. In the 1986 Critique, thirty-nine countries are surveyed, including Israel and the occupied territories. This report sharply criticizes the State Department for misrepresenting mistreatment of detainees, including the use of torture, by Israel. It also criticizes the State Department for not assessing the credibility of Palestinian complaints of human rights abuses, and for not specifying the kinds of abuse commonly alleged. The report notes:

In fact, there is ample evidence that a variety of forms of physical and psychological abuse are employed on a systematic basis in prisons and detention camps in the Occupied Territories. Prolonged sleep deprivation; enforced standing for many hours at a time; hooding and blindfolding of detainees; subjection to alternation extremes of heat and cold showers – all of these techniques are used as a matter of course to intimidate and disorient Palestinian security suspects in the initial hours and days of detention in the Occupied Territories. Beating with fists, kicking in the groin, and boxing the ears also occur on a significant scale. Reports of more serious forms of physical abuses, such as banging a detainee’s head against the wall or tapping his head with the edge of a ruler, occur less frequently, but they occur too often to be dismissed out of hand (pp. 66-67).

The report argues that the State Department’s most serious omission was its failure to recognize that most human rights violations are committed by Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, rather than the army or police.

Finally, the report notes that most convictions are based on confessions, and that such confessions are virtually impossible to challenge legally under a system where detainees are held incommunicado for weeks at a time. Moreover, the existing laws invite abuse by making confessions an integral part of the legal process in the occupied territories. The report also criticizes the State Department report for ignoring the fact that detention and deportation orders, issued by the military governor, have never been overruled by the Israeli Supreme Court.

LCHR plans to issue a 200-250 page report marking 20 years of Israeli rule in the occupied territories. LCHR has been working with two on-site organizations: Al Haq/Law in the Service of Man and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. According to an LCHR spokesperson, the report will focus on narrow issues, such as the legal apparatus of occupation (military orders, arrest practices, deportations, house demolitions, role of the Supreme Court). Before the report is officially released, it first will be submitted to the Israeli government, to individuals in the US government, and to others in the Middle East. According to the LCHR spokesperson, all of this is standard procedure.

In 1987, LCHR submitted an amicus brief in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, a McCarthy-era law that bars from the US aliens suspected of “communist” leanings. The lawsuit arose from the Los Angeles arrest of seven Palestinians, and the Kenyan wife of one, all resident aliens, on charges brought under the Act in early 1987.

Minority Rights Report

Established in 1960, Minority Rights Group (MRG) is headquartered in London, and has 10 chapters throughout the world, including one in New York. MRG aims to reduce “violations of human rights in all countries,” as well as to secure “justice for minority (or majority) groups suffering from discrimination.”

MRG publishes individually-authored reports on the condition of minority rights in various parts of the world. MRG reports are reasonably priced for mass circulation and for use by schools and community groups. Each report contains a brief historical background and a balanced bibliography. The reports on the Palestinians and Lebanon contain maps and excellent demographic statistics.

Report 12, “Israel’s Oriental Immigrants and Druzes,” treats its subject in an honest and balanced manner. Report 24, “The Palestinians,” bears a similar understanding and empathy towards its subject. The report, now in its fifth edition, is based on first-hand visits to the area. The report also covers economic repression in the occupied territories, which the authors note has “made the Palestinian workforce captive to the Israeli economy” (p. 14). It devotes considerable attention to the seizure of Palestinian lands in Israel and the occupied territories. The report carefully delineates between the status and situation of “Palestinian Arabs in Israel” and those in the occupied territories.

Rarely are reports by human rights organizations so forthright. The report also addresses the political context, describing in some detail the policies of the PLO and the US government.

Watch Committee/Fund for Free Expression

The Fund for Free Expression is the parent organization of the three Watch Committee – Helsinki Watch, formed in 1979, Americas Watch, formed in 1981, and Asia Watch, established in 1985. The Fund’s main purpose is to oppose censorship and the repression of intellectual freedom. It is one of the sponsors of the London-based Index of Censorship which often publishes Middle East and Israel-related material. In 1983, the Fund sponsored the publication of a work on Israeli censorship of the Palestinian press, conducted by the West Bank Data Project in Jerusalem [40].

The Watch Committees have not published any specific studies on the Palestinians, nor do most of their general works on human rights even mention Israel or the Palestinians. The Committees have stated informally that they are in the process of forming new committees to cover the Middle East and Africa. Privately, the Committees say they recognize the pressing need for coverage of Palestinian human rights abuses, and are therefore giving priority to the establishment of a Middle East Watch. The Watch Committees collaborated with the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights on several reports that include discussion of Israel (see Lawyer’s Committee entry).

The Future of Palestinian Human Rights

The last 10 years have witnessed a definite shift in the coverage of Palestinian human rights abuses by international human rights organizations, reflecting new international awareness of the Palestine question following the June 1967 war. Two decades of repression and local struggle against it have made coverage of Palestinian human rights in the occupied territories obligatory for international human rights organizations.

The record of these groups is still quite mixed. Some, like AI, have expanded their coverage of the Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. The Lawyers Committee, the Watch Committees and Physicians for Human Rights have announced plans to include Palestinian rights in their future coverage. We should encourage these trends to the greatest possible extent. Other organizations, most notably the International League and Cultural Survival, maintain a pretense of covering abuses of Palestinian rights or evade the issue entirely. These groups should be pressured to live up to their mandates.

Double standards are still numerous, and with notable exceptions, run across the entire range of the organizations reviewed. The double standard is particularly evident when comparison is made between coverage of human rights abuses by Israel and abuses elsewhere. More importantly, the shift in coverage of Palestinian human rights violations has not for the most part extended to coverage of abuses inside Israel itself, abuses ranging from suppression of free speech and freedom of the press to travel restrictions, town and house arrests, denial of rights of migrant workers from the occupied territories and land confiscations by the state. In Nicaragua, Poland, or the Soviet Union, such abuses would be routinely condemned by all the rights organizations reviewed in this study. When rights organizations treat Israel’s violations of human rights as unflinchingly as they treat South Africa’s abuses, defenders of Palestinian rights will have won a major victory.


Endnotes

Note *:This article is excerpted from a longer study to be published later this year. Nabeel Abraham teaches anthropology at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Michigan. Janice Terry is professor of Middle East History at Eastern Michigan University. Cheryl Rubenberg teaches international and Middle East politics at Florida International University. Lisa Hajjar is an editorial assistant at MERIP’s Washington’s office and is pursuing a PhD in sociology at American University. Hilary Shadroui is a graduate student in history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

  1. See New York Times, August 8, 1987.
  2. The notable exceptions are almost exclusively found in Israel and the occupied territories. They include the Israel League for Human and Civil Rights, Al-Haq/Law in the Service of Man (the West Bank affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists) and the Alternative Press Center (Jerusalem) until it was closed down by the Israeli authorities in early 1987.
  3. Sample selection sought to include the major international human rights organizations like Amnesty International, as well as mainly US-based organizations. The London-based Minority Rights group was added for contrasts.
  4. Noam Chomsky’s introduction to Morris Morley and James Petras, The Reagan Administration and Nicaragua (Monograph Series #1, New York: Institute for Media Analysis), p. 28.
  5. Amnesty International Report 1986, London p. 9; Appendix VII.
  6. Statute of Amnesty International, Article 2(a), (Amended 1983).
  7. AI Report 1986, p. 11. “Since 1961 Amnesty International has sent over 500 missions to countries to carry out on-the-spot investigations, observe trials or meet government officials. In 1985 a total of 54 missions were sent to 32 countries, more than in any previous year.” (AI Report 1986, Appendix VII).
  8. AI Statement, London, June 24, 1987. This statement concerns that the administrative detention of Faisal Husseini, director of the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem. AI expressed concern about his detention even though he “admitted that he had been actively involved in violent opposition to the Israeli government 20 years earlier for which he was tried and imprisoned for a year.”
  9. Annual Report 1983, London.
  10. Lebanon: Toward Legal order and Respect for Human Rights (Philadelphia: AFSC, 1983); International Commission, Israel in Lebanon (London: Ithaca Press, 1983), p. 189.
  11. Report and Recommendations of an Amnesty International Mission to the Government of the State of Israel, 3-7 June 1979 (1980).
  12. AI Report 1983, p. 314.
  13. AI Report 1979, p. 34.
  14. AI Report 1982, p. 78.
  15. Torture in the Eighties, Amnesty International, London, 1984, p. 234.
  16. See discussion in Introduction, p. 3; notes 3 and 4.
  17. AI Report 1986, p. 93.
  18. “Town Arrest Orders in Israel and the Occupied Territories,” AI/USA, New York, October 2, 1984, p. 4.
  19. AI Report 1980, p 78; AI Report 1981, p. 82. In the following year (1981), AI “continued to adopt banned people as prisoners of conscience and campaigned throughout the year for the unconditional withdrawal of all banning and banishment orders” (AI Report 1982, p. 80).
  20. Quoted in News from Within (Jerusalem), III, 5-6 (March 31, 1987).
  21. CS Quarterly, 11, 1 (1987), p. 1.
  22. Letter, March 9, 1987. Follow-up letters to Clay, to CS President David Maybury-Lewis, and to another Board Director, seeking clarification of Clay’s statements, have gone unanswered.
  23. See Meron Benvenisti, 1986 Report (Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 1980).
  24. For example, the December 1983-February 1984 HRI Reporter lists a report by Minority Rights Group on Lebanon and another by the National Association of Arab-Americans on Ansar prison camp, but doesn’t not abstract either one.
  25. HRI Reporter , September-December 1984.
  26. See HRI Reporter , December 1983 – February 1984; January – April 1985.
  27. HRI Reporter , December 1982 – March 1983, p. 301.
  28. Laurie S. Wiseberg, “Report on a Visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories,” HRI Reporter, June-July 1980, p. 77.
  29. Compare HRI’s approach to Israel to its discussions of other occupations in the Baltic states, South Africa, and Ethiopia; HRI Reporter , January-April 1985; April-June 1983.
  30. In 1977 the International League announced it was preparing a report on “Israel’s Arab minority.” However, it is not known if that report was ever completed; queries to the League have gone unanswered.
  31. In Arab countries, the League appears mainly preoccupied with the well-being of ethnic minorities (principally Jews and Kurds), to the virtual exclusion of the Arab peoples as a whole.
  32. See Felicia Langer, With My Own Eyes: Israel and the Occupied Territories 1967-1973 (London: Ithaca Press, 1975).
  33. Annual Review 1979-1980, p. 20.
  34. Ma’ariv and Jerusalem Post, February 4, 1977. Cited in Treatment of Palestinians in Israeli-Occupied West Bank and Gaza, Report of the National Lawyers Guild, 1977 Middle East Delegation, New York, 1978, p. 91. (Hereafter, NLG Report).
  35. “The Middle East Activities of the International Red Cross June 1967-June 1970,” in International Review of the Red Cross, September 1970, p. 504. Cited in NLG Report, p. 92
  36. Jerusalem Post, May 19, 1975. This article was reprinted in the League’s Annual Review
  37. Noam Chomsky, Letter to League Honorary President Roger Baldwin. (Major excerpts from Chomsky’s long letter later appeared in the Palestine Human Rights Bulletin, No. 2, August 30, 1977, published by the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, Chicago, IL).
  38. See exchange of letters to the editor between Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz in the Boston Globe, April 29, May 17, May 25, June 5, 1973. Dershowitz was recently elected to the International League’s Board of Trustees.
  39. As Chomsky pointed out in his letter to Baldwin (see note 37), “By similar standards, the International League might as well suspend the Moscow Human Rights Commission when it comes under government attack.” (p. 3).
  40. Meron Benvenisti, Israeli Censorship of Arab Publications, Jerusalem: The West Bank Data Project, 1983.