Declaration of the Arab Association for Human Rights on International Human Rights Day 2012

Nazareth – 24 years ago, the Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA) was established with the mission to protect and promote the human rights of the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel.  Today, the condition of human rights inequality in Israel is no less dire.  This past year has seen a gross violation of human rights in the form of Israel’s assault on Gaza, it has seen the Haifa District Court reject the appeal for justice on behalf of the family of Rachel Corrie, and it has seen the upgrade of Palestine’s status in the United Nations to non-member observer. On International Human Rights Day this year, the HRA would like to highlight the major developments in the human rights situation for the Palestinian minority in Israel.

In October, the European Union Parliament voted to pass the ACAA protocol. This trade agreement may set a precedent for further advancement of EU-Israel trade and it represents a significant missed opportunity for the EU to exercise its institutionalized conditionality of human rights concerns in all trade deals.

Over the course of the year, a spate of new legislation, proposed policies, and actions of lawmakers affected the condition of the Palestinian Arab minority’s human rights. In January, the Israeli High Court upheld the “Nakba Law”, which denies funding for any organization that recognizes the “Nakba”. Also in January, the “Prawer Plan” for Bedouin relocation was accepted.  It will force the relocation of 70,000 Bedouin from their lands in the Naqab.  On the 11th of January, the Supreme Court denied the petitions of many human rights organizations to revoke the discriminatory “Citizenship Law” which divides families of Palestinians in Israel. Also in July, MK Michael Ben-Ari published a video of himself ripping a Christian Bible in half; a clear polemic against religious minorities in Israel and an extremely troubling indicator of racism among public officials.

These developments, international and local, are each troubling in their own right; however, the effect on the Jewish Israeli public is much more frightening. As a result of institutional discrimination, the Jewish Israeli population has become polarized and racism has become a mainstream political opinion.  This process was the subject of an illustrative poll taken in September of Jewish Israelis in Tel Aviv. It found that 42% of Jewish Israelis do not want an Arab child learning in the same classroom as their own child, 33% favor legally blocking Palestinian citizens from voting in the Knesset, 59% favor preference for Jews in government hiring, and 42% do not want an Arab family as a neighbor.

With the region as politically and socially tumultuous as ever, this should be an occasion to remember the Human Rights inside Israel as well.  There are some disturbing trends that show no sign of stopping. Looking forward to the challenges we face in the future, the support of the international community will be as important as ever.  This International Human Rights Day, the HRA reaffirms its dedication to the principles of freedom and equality. Our organization will continue advocating Israeli adherence to international humanitarian law and we will continue protecting and promoting the human rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel.

HRA Welcomes Corries to Nazareth

Nazareth – The Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA) held an event last Friday night to recognize Rachel Corrie and her family. It was an evening of stirring speeches and emotional tributes to the Corrie family’s ongoing struggle. Last month in a Haifa district court, Judge Oded Gershon denied the Corrie family’s most recent call for justice when, in his verdict, he decided Rachel Corrie was responsible for her own death.  This decision is the most recent event in the ongoing court case over Rachel Corrie’s death at the hands of the Israeli military in Gaza in 2003. Many advocacy groups, including the HRA, have denounced this ruling with a common complaint that it reinforces the “culture of impunity” for discriminatory Israeli institutions and practices.

In their visit to Nazareth, the Corrie family met with local dignitaries, including Mayor Ramiz Jeraisy. Mayor Jeraisy welcomed the Corrie family to the municipality building.  He took the occasion to say a few words to Craig and Cindy Corrie, “someone came to express the struggle against the occupation, and then her death came as a great shock.  It gives huge support for you to continue struggling.”  He continued, “a high price is paid every day, and the highest is the life of the people.”  Craig and Cindy graciously accepted the mayor’s welcome and kind words.  Mr. Corrie described his family’s efforts “when we join your struggle, we join the struggle for human rights everywhere.  We do not support Palestinian rights; we support human rights.  If they are being violated in Palestine, South Africa, or the United States, that is where we all need to defend them.”

Later, the HRA sponsored an evening program of distinguished speakers for a supportive crowd.  The program began with a heartwarming video of a young Rachel Corrie dipping her toes into the pool of international progressive issues and advocating for public health and the safety of the world’s children.  Another video showed an interview Rachel Corrie gave two days before her death.  In it she describes the devastation in Gaza caused by the Israeli occupation and displays compassion for the Gazans she had come to know.  Following the short videos a series of speakers recognized both the Corrie Family and Rachel’s dedication.  Such prominent community leaders as Mohammad Zeidan, head of the High Follow-Up Committee, the head of the Northern District Committee of the Israel Bar Association, Khalid Zoabi, and Ibtissam Mualem, chairperson of the HRA took turns speaking. Hussein Abu Hussein, the Corrie family’s lawyer and a board member of the HRA, described litigation process and the prospects of an appeal.  A feeling of solidarity pervaded the speeches and there was a consistent sense of communal support for both the Corrie family and the cause they have, through their diligent pursuit of justice, come to symbolize.

The HRA was honored to welcome them to Nazareth and will continue to support them personally and through their appeal in the Israeli justice system.

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Rachel Corrie: Blaming the victim

This article originally appeared in Haaretz on 9/2/2012.  It can be viewed here.

-Hussein Abu Hussein

On Tuesday, Judge Oded Gershon of the Haifa District Court dismissed the civil lawsuit I brought on behalf of Rachel Corrie’s family against the State of Israel for the unlawful killing of their daughter, an American peace activist and human rights defender who legally entered Gaza to live with Palestinian families in Rafah whose homes were threatened by demolition.

While not surprising, the verdict is yet another example of impunity prevailing over accountability and fairness and it flies in the face of the fundamental principle of international humanitarian law – that in a time of war, military forces are obligated to take all measures to avoid harm to both civilians and their property.

It is not the first time courts have denied victims of Israeli military actions the right to effective remedy. Just ask the many Palestinians who have faced a myriad of legal hurdles and fought for decades simply to have their day in court. Thousands of legitimate claims continue to be denied based on the controversial legal theory – which Judge Gershon adopted – that soldiers should be absolved of civil liability because they were engaged in military operational activities in a war zone.

Rachel’s case is unique because she was the first foreign national to be killed while protesting Israeli occupation, though she was hardly the last. Tom Hurndall, a British peace activist, was shot in the head and killed by an Israeli sniper less than three weeks after Rachel was killed. And less than a month after that, James Miller, a British cameraman was also shot and killed by the IDF in Rafah.

In reaching his decision in Rachel’s case, Judge Gershon accepted virtually all of the government’s legal arguments and either ignored or distorted critical facts in order to reach his decision. For example, he concluded that Rafah was a closed military zone, as declared by the Israeli military’s southern command (never mind that no such order was presented in court, and the ground unit commander testified he was unaware of the area’s designation as a closed zone). And that conclusion had implications.

When the former Gaza Division’s Southern Brigade Commander Colonel Pinhas (Pinky) Zuaretz, who was in charge in 2003, testified, he confirmed that the rules of engagement at the time Rachel was killed were to “shoot to kill any adult person on the [Philadelphi] route.” As another Israeli colonel who testified put it: “There are no civilians in a war zone.” By accepting the testimony of Zuaretz and others, Judge Gershon essentially accepted that the “shoot to kill” order was acceptable, which violates the fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law, mandating that soldiers distinguish between combatants and civilians.

We knew from the beginning that it would be an uphill battle to find truth and justice, but we are convinced that this verdict not only distorts the strong evidence presented in court, but also contradicts fundamental principles of international law with regard to protection of human rights defenders. In denying justice in Rachel Corrie’s killing, this verdict is part of a systemic failure to hold the Israeli military accountable for continuing violations of basic human rights. As former U.S. President Jimmy Carter put it: “The court’s decision confirms a climate of impunity, which facilitates Israeli human rights violations against Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Territory.”

The Corrie family has always stressed that the purpose of this lawsuit was larger than compensation for their loss. For them, it was about understanding exactly what happened to Rachel and exposing the injustices their daughter and her friends in the International Solidarity Movement stood against. They filed suit on advice of Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who, on behalf of the State Department, told the family in 2004 that the United States did not consider the investigation into Rachel’s death to be “thorough, credible and transparent.”

The U.S. government has repeatedly reiterated its position regarding the failed investigation, and after nearly seven years of mounting evidence since the case was initially filed, it has become even clearer that the military conducted its investigation not to uncover the truth of what happened, but rather, to exonerate itself of any blame.

In his decision, Judge Gershon concluded that because Rachel put herself in harm’s way, she is to be blamed for her own death. That conclusion puts at serious risk the lives of human rights defenders and it creates yet another dangerous precedent regarding the protection of civilians in war. Not surprisingly, the court avoided any analysis of international law obligations.

The verdict ensures that the Israeli culture of impunity will continue unchecked. Rachel Corrie lost her life standing non-violently with those who have been subject to Israel’s systematic policy of destruction and demonization. Like the Freedom Riders in the United States who, during the civil rights movement, joined oppressed black communities in their struggle for equality, Rachel and her friends in the ISM presented a new challenge and model of non-violent activism, solidarity and resistance to the longest military occupation in modern history.

In a country in which the judicial system has enabled the occupation for almost 50 years, I suppose it’s not surprising that the judicial system blamed the victim for her own death.

Hussein Abu Hussein is a human rights lawyer and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights. He represented the Corrie family in their case against the Israeli government and the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

Rachel Corrie trial verdict a failed attempt to criminalize solidarity

This article was posted originally on Electronic Intifada on 8/31/2012.  It can be viewed here.

This week the Haifa District Court rejected the Corrie family’s appeal to the state of Israel for its responsibility in the death of their daughter, Rachel. Rachel was killed in 2003 by an Israeli army bulldozer in the Rafah area of the Gaza Strip. International and local media have covered the ruling extensively; their focus has brought back to the surface issues of human rights violations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

From a human rights perspective, this verdict highlights three major issues. These are not restricted to the specific case of Rachel Corrie, but also display the low status that international law and principles of human rights have in the Israeli political and legal institutions.

The first issue is the attempt to undermine the group Rachel belonged to. Judge Oded Gershon opened his verdict with an attack on the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), of which Rachel Corrie was a member. Members of the ISM travel to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, where they attempt to prevent human rights violations using their physical presence. The ISM ethos dictates that a civilian and nonviolent presence will, first of all, provide an eyewitness, and second, that the physical presence of their members will prevent the violation from occurring in the first place.

Yet the verdict states: “The ISM provided physical, logistical and moral support to the Palestinians, including the terrorists and their families.” It adds: “This movement manipulates human rights and moral standards to cover their violent actions.” By condemning the ISM in this manner, the Israeli legal system joins the wider political effort to demonize this international, peaceful presence. This effort is part of broader campaign which validates and legitimizes the attacks on, and even the killings of activists and journalists (such as Tom Hurndall and James Miller) who are seen by this verdict as “members of a terrorist organization” or “supporting terrorists.”

Israeli courts undermine international law

The second issue was major holes in the verdict. Firstly, it makes absolutely no reference to international law, human rights conventions, or universal values. This absence is not an accident, neither is it a result of Gershon’s personal views. Rather, it is a manifestation of the political, military and legal culture that dominates all Israeli institutions. The prevailing majority belief is that international law does not apply to Israel and its activities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The verdict shows that universal values do not constitute a credible reference as far as the Israeli legal system is concerned.

Also absent in the verdict is any sympathy towards the Corrie family, who had dutifully attended every hearing of the case and deserved human and moral consideration for the loss of their daughter. The verdict essentially says to the family bluntly that their daughter was a part of an organization that “supports terrorists” and that by entering a “military area” she took full responsibility for her own death.

The third issue brought up by the verdict is a re-emphasis of a decades-old attitude that has prevailed in the Israeli courts. The courts enforce no accountability on the army and they maintain impunity for Israel’s security and military infrastructure. The army operates without fear of consequence for their crimes and human rights violations. The verdict not only provides legal legitimization for the actions under review, but also a sense of understanding for the conspicuous efforts undertaken to destroy evidence relating to the case.

Evidence that “simply do[es] not exist anymore”

There were audio cassettes recorded during the autopsy, but Judge Gershon accepted the state explanation which claimed that “The tapes simply do not exist anymore because of financial problems at the Institute of Forensic Medicine.” The fact that evidence from this important trial could be lost to simple malpractice calls into question the priorities of the institute. All tapes that contain critical information for ongoing legal proceedings should be exempt from the apparently strict recycling policies.

But the verdict has failed to accomplish the goals of its underlying motive — the attempt to criminalize the ISM failed to prevent expressions of international solidarity. In fact, solidarity grew despite the killing. Also, in failing to perform its sole function of providing justice, the Israeli legal system has created the necessity for appeals to international forums where there is no statute of limitation on war crimes.

To the Corrie family we say: your nine-year struggle to follow the case has been an inspiration to the Palestinians and people around the world striving for justice and defending human rights. The efforts to silence your voices and deny you justice will only galvanize your supporters, inspiring greater efforts to the cause your daughter stood and died for.

Mohammad Zeidan is the General Director of the Arab Association for Human Rights.