This Thursday, in what they claim is response to the newly formed Palestinian “unity government” (I use this term incredibly loosely, for from what we’ve seen even thus far, the union is far from tranquil), Israel announced plans to build additional homes in settlement areas of the West Bank. Current member of Knesset and of Netanyahu’s cabinet Uri Ariel stated that “When Israel is spat upon, it has to do something about it.” As someone deeply committed to peace in the Middle East who constantly follows the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is understandable where the Israeli government’s frustration comes from. After talks disintegrate time and time again, increased settlement construction is often acknowledged and addressed by many in the pro-Israel community by little more than a shrug and a roll of the eyes, with a sort of, “it’s annoying, but what can we do?” type of attitude. However, drawing increased attention to the issue of settlements through reactionary moves like this latest one is helpful neither for Israel’s reputation or the achievement of lasting peace.
For the purposes of maintaining the short term, flash pan, decontextualized attention span our day and age demands, let us ignore, for a moment, the fact that most of the newly announced settlement construction will be in areas largely recognized to be a part of an Israeli state in any foreseeable two-state agreement. Let us also ignore that Israeli settlements cover approximately 1.7% of the land of the West Bank, according to both Palestinian and Israeli sources. Let us also ignore that settlements have historically never been the obstacle to peace: despite zero settlements in the West Bank and Gaza from 1949 to 1967, 465 Israelis were murdered by terrorist attacks and Arab armies cut off Israel’s international shipping and mobilized hundreds of thousands of troops, and after Israel completely withdrew from Gaza in 2005, Hamas committed the second intifada and launched over 8,000 rockets into Israel.
My brother and I are 3 and a half years apart and get along quite amicably, but when we were younger, there was fierce competition over the seating positions in the family car. Each time after some temporary solution to the who-will-get-the-back-right-seat-in-the-car dispute of 03’ to 08’ was achieved by a moderating parental unit, whichever party was (unfairly, of course) relegated to the back left seat (I still have no idea why we both preferred the right side) would indubitably, long after we were on the road, have to hurl some well-pondered insult to the other. This usually led to a deluge of passive aggressive (emphasis on the latter) insinuations as to the inferiority of the other, cries for a truce from the front seat, and often eventually ended in both of us glaring off into the respective side windows for most of the trip. This tit-for-tat, I don’t win unless I get the last word in edgewise attitude unfortunately seems to be involved in Israel’s ill-timed announcement. Like a slap to the face after a fight has settled down, these settlement announcements do nothing to help Israel’s case, regardless of what the truth regarding the benefits or disadvantages of these settlements to the Israelis and or Palestinians may be.
More egregiously, these settlement announcements provide a convenient distraction via demonization of Israel and ignoring the real injustices plaguing the Middle East and the area inhabited by Palestinians in particular: flagrant human rights violations and abuse of the Palestinian people by their own government.
Calling for increased scrutiny of Israel after the settlement announcement, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat quipped that “those who fear the international courts should stop their war crimes against the Palestinian people, first and foremost of which is settlement activity.” Unfortunately for Mr. Erekat’s government, and fortunately for the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s increased insistence on recognition by the international community has began to lower the tolerance of a double standard against Israel to be used and has opened the way for more of the abuses by the PA against their own people to come to light. As reported by the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), reported human rights violations by the PA in 2013 increased over 50%, with over 497 allegations of torture and ill treatment received in 2013 compared with 294 cases in 2012, most (397) occurring in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Amnesty International, a group usually extremely critical of Israeli policies, cited rampant and shocking human rights violations in their 2013 report on the PA, including “arbitrary arrests and detentions,” security forces in Hamas-controlled areas who “tortured and otherwise ill-treated detainees with impunity,” “restricted the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association,” used “excessive force against demonstrators,” and both “civilian and military prosecutors [that] failed to act impartially or to prevent the police and security services arresting people without warrants, abusing people and bringing politically motivated charges against them.”
Additionally, the report reminded us of the travesty that women often face in the Arab world: the continuation of honor killings, with at least five cases reported in Gaza. The report also cited the built-in discrimination of the police system in Hamas controlled areas, where “the police failed to protect women who complained of domestic violence and threats to their lives. In Gaza the excuse of ‘honour’ continued to allow for very low sentencing – under 24 months – in rare cases of convictions.” For example, “Randa al-Mahareq, from Samu in the West Bank, sought the protection of the police and other authorities for months until her father and brother were arrested in July on charges of beating her. They were released four days later and killed her soon afterwards, apparently because they disapproved of her divorce.”
From January 2009 to July 2012, ICHR “received 584 complaints of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, including severe beatings, slamming detainees’ heads against the wall, forcing detainees to stand or sit in painful positions for prolonged periods, and sleep deprivation.” Just a day ago, Reuters reported that “Fist fights between PA and Hamas employees broke out and club-wielding Palestinian riot police pushed them away from the cash machines, which were then closed, along with Gaza bank branches, to prevent more violence, according to an Interior Ministry spokesman.”
The consequences for reporting such realities often come at a high cost, with violence directed at many, including a director at Al Mezan Center for Human Rights who was stabbed after publicizing an article critical of Hamas. The PA often beats peaceful protestors and often arbitrarily detains journalists.
According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch and again in an article by the same organization in 2014, not a single official that has been accused of torture or excessive use of force has been judicially sanctioned or held accountable. In the words of their deputy Middle East and North Africa director Joe Stork, “It’s absurd that the Palestinian justice system is prosecuting the victims of police brutality rather than their attackers. Palestine should start living up to its human rights obligations by exonerating the victims and holding the police to account.”
The human rights abuses of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas against their own people and against the Israelis, including tacit approval of terrorist and rocket attacks into Israel which even Amnesty International calls human rights abuses, are clearly out of control. Do they have anything to say for themselves? “Well, you see,” (I can imagine them stammering if pressed) “No need right now, of course, not with Israel’s latest stunts… we need to get back to the issue of the settlements.” A spokesman for PA president Mahmoud Abbas recently said, “the Palestinian leadership will respond to this new settlement activity in an unprecedented manner.” Is this an eerie reference to a third intifada? To the slaughter of even more innocent Israelis and Palestinians? Certainly Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have a reputation of showing no fear of using brutality and terror tactics against their own people or Israeli citizens, or of stopping at nothing to hide their true intentions when faced with external pressure (when Abbas was asked in 2003 by the New York Times why he so flagrantly denounced the Holocaust as Zionist propaganda in his chilling book The Other Side: the Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism, he stated, “When I wrote The Other Side … we were at war with Israel. Today I would not have made such remarks”). Despite the unwelcome distraction of settlement announcements, I can only hope that the almost universal recognition of the unity government by the international community will lead to increased scrutiny of the unity government’s true intentions and human rights abuses in the region, and to an international community who is better equipped to cut through the noise and work towards achieving peace in the Middle East.