Palestinian rights advanced in 2009, still need improvement: report

Palestinian rights advanced in 2009, still need improvement: report

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[JURIST] Israeli human rights group B'Tselem [advocacy website] on Monday released its annual report [text, PDF; press release], noting an advancement in the rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories [UNICEF backgrounder] but calling for greater improvement. The report, examining the human rights situation of Palestinians since the conclusion of Israel's Operation Cast Lead [GlobalSecurity backgrounder; JURIST news archive] in January 2009, found that fatalities had declined by 80 percent compared to the previous year, excluding fatalities from the military operation, and the quality of life had improved in the West Bank. This was due to the reduction of checkpoints, fewer administrative detainees and fewer roadblocks. The report also cited the reduced pace of construction of the separation barrier [B'Tselem backgrounder] as an improvement, which it described as an "annexation in the guise of security." The report went on to criticize the West Bank settler communities [B'Tselem backgrounder], which it described as civilian enclaves in a territory that is otherwise under military rule. This system, according to B'Tselem, is one in which a person's rights depend upon their nationality and violates the Palestinian right to their property. The report also argued that settlements preclude any possibility of a future Palestinian state and violate international humanitarian law, stating:

Under international humanitarian law, occupation is a temporary situation. Accordingly, it is forbidden to create "facts on the ground" in the occupied territory. The occupying state holds the territory only as a "trustee," and is required to ensure the wellbeing of the local population and to refrain from exploiting the natural resources for its own population. Also, the occupying state is forbidden to transfer its citizens to the occupied territory or to encourage them to move there.

The report called on Israel to dismantle all settlements, saying that merely halting new settlements is insufficient. The rights organization also chided Israeli security forces for not adequately protecting Palestinians from violence at the hands of Israelis, criticizing a "history of leniency" against the perpetrators of that violence. Additionally, the report was critical of the blockade on the Gaza Strip [BBC backgrounder], which prevented the creation of a stable economy in Gaza and allowed Hamas [CFR backgrounder] to maintain complete control over the Gazan economy through its control of the tunnels used for smuggling items under the Gaza-Egypt border.

Israel has faced rising criticism over the human rights situation in the Occupied Territories. On Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross [official website] called for an end [JURIST report] to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, which it labeled a violation of international humanitarian law. International pressure to lift the blockade has increased significantly since the May 31 Israeli raid of several ships bound for Gaza. The Gaza naval blockade began in 2007 after Hamas forcibly expelled [BBC report] their chief rival, Fatah [CFR backgrounder] from Gaza. In 2006, Hamas was elected [JURIST report] as the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority after unbroken rule by Fatah. In January 2008, then-UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Louise Arbour also described the blockade as collective punishment [JURIST report]. In March, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon [official profile] called Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank "illegal" [JURIST report], and supported a plan by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad [BBC profile] to build the institutions of an independent state by 2011. Two weeks prior, Israel announced the construction of 1,600 new housing units [Haaretz report] in East Jerusalem [GlobalSecurity backgrounder], where Palestinians hope to establish the capital of their future state. Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories were held to be illegal [opinion, PDF] under international law by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) [official website] in 2004. Shortly after construction of the separation wall began in the West Bank in 2002, the ICJ held that it also violated international law [opinion, PDF; JURIST report], amounting to a "de facto annexation."