The Special Committee believes that the peace process has reached a decisive stage and that if negotiations are not resumed and the agreements that have already been reached are not fully implemented, the cycle of violence and conflict would continue, thus threatening the peace and stability of the region.
The Special Committee expressed the view that the momentum of the peace negotiations has to be maintained and that the Oslo agreement should be implemented in full by both sides. The repeated delays in the implementation of the accords can only endanger the peace process further and could lead to its complete breakdown, which would be dangerous for the whole region. The Special Committee indicated that the principle of land for peace underlying the peace agreements should be complied with.
The Special Committee comprises Ambassador Herman Leonard De Silva, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in New York, as Chairman; Absa Claude Diallo, Permanent Representative and Ambassador of Senegal to the United Nations Office at Geneva; and Abdul Majid Mohamed, Ambassador at Large of Malaysia.
Background on Special Committee
The Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories was established by the General Assembly by resolution 2443 of 19 December 1968 and is mandated to investigate Israeli practices affecting human rights in the territories occupied by Israel -- these are the Gaza Strip, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and the occupied Syrian Arab Golan -- and to report thereon through the Secretary-General to the General Assembly.
In the 29 years since its establishment, the Special Committee has repeatedly requested the cooperation of the Government of Israel in order to gain access to the occupied territories, including those now under Palestinian authority. It has consistently been denied such cooperation. The Committee has, however, received the full cooperation of the Governments of Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
Since 1968, the Special Committee has presented 29 reports to the General Assembly. Without direct access to the occupied territories, the Special Committee has been obliged to rely on, among other things, reports and articles appearing in the Israeli press as well as on those appearing in the Arab press published in the occupied territories. The Committee also received communications from governments and from non-governmental organizations concerned with the promotion of human rights. In addition, the Special Committee has included in its reports excerpts of testimony gathered during visits to neighbouring States from persons having first-hand and recent experience of the human rights situation in the occupied territories, who have revealed disturbing facts and provided the Committee with many useful insights. During the mission, the Special Committee heard the testimony of 31 witnesses.
Meetings in Cairo, Amman, Damascus
In Cairo, the Special Committee met at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs with Kassem Sayed Al-Masri, Assistant Minister of State for Foreign Affairs; with the head of the Human Rights Department, Naila Gabr; and with the deputy head of the Department for Palestinian Affairs, Isham Shokeir. The Special Committee visited the Palestine Red Crescent Hospital, where it heard the testimony of several residents of the occupied territories. The Special Committee also had the opportunity to hear witnesses from the West Bank and Gaza.
In Amman, the Special Committee was received by the Director General of the Department for Palestinian Affairs of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Ibrahim Tarshihi. The Special Committee also met with Salim Al-Zanoun, President of the Palestinian National Council in Jordan; with Mr. Zuhair, head of the International Organizations Department; and with other representatives of the Palestinian National Council. The Committee heard the testimony of witnesses from the West Bank and Israel. The Special Committee also visited King Hussein Bridge, where it heard the testimony of Palestinians who had just crossed over from the West Bank.
In Damascus, the Special Committee was received by the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Nasser Kaddour, and by the Director of the Department of International Organisations, Clovis Khoury. The Special Committee visited Quneitra province bordering the occupied Syrian Arab Golan, met with the Governor of Quneitra, and also heard the testimony of a number of witnesses.
During the mission, the Committee focused its attention on the development of the situation with regard to human rights since the adoption of its twenty-eighth report to the General Assembly in September 1996. It is with regret that the Committee records that many witnesses testified that the human rights situation in the occupied territories had deteriorated during the period under review.
According to witnesses, the most disturbing aspect of the current human rights situation in the occupied territories is the Israeli settlement policy and thereby the change in the demographic balance in the area. The most serious development in this regard was the beginning of construction on 18 March of the so-called Har Homa settlement on Jabal Abu Ghneim in East Jerusalem. This constitutes the construction of the first new settlement since the lifting of the freeze on settlement construction which had been imposed by the previous Government of Israel in 1992. However, the confiscation of land, expansion of settlements, construction of bypass roads and of quarries has continued unabated during the period under review. The construction of the new Har Homa settlement is all the more serious since it completes the chain of Israeli settlements hermetically encircling Arab-populated East Jerusalem.
The overwhelming majority of witnesses drew the attention of the Special Committee to the extremely serious situation of the Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem, whose identity cards have recently begun to be confiscated on a massive scale. Witnesses have described this policy as amounting to a silent deportation or even ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem's Arab population, who are described as being treated like resident aliens. The policy is applied through measures regulating dual citizenship, the rights to family reunification, birth registration of children -- which has serious repercussion on health insurance and schooling -- as well as through restrictions imposed on the housing and the freedom of movement of Palestinians. It is estimated that 60 to 80 thousand Palestinian Jerusalemites are threatened with losing their residency rights, which has been conducive to a pervasive insecurity among the population. The attention of the Committee has been drawn to the fact that Israelis holding dual citizenship are not similarly affected.
The Special Committee has heard several persons who were seriously injured or were witnesses to the violent clashes in September 1996 between Palestinians and Israeli troops in the wake of the opening of an archaeological tunnel beneath the compound of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. The Special Committee heard the evidence of an ambulance driver from Gaza, whose clearly marked vehicle was deliberately shot at by Israeli soldiers. They also heard the testimony of a person who witnessed the killing of a medical doctor and of a paramedic who had come to the rescue of wounded Palestinians. It was reported that live ammunition, including explosive and high velocity bullets, was used, and that helicopters and snipers were deployed. Witnesses stated that more than 70 per cent of the injuries were sustained in the head or the upper parts of the body, clearly demonstrating a deliberate intent to kill on the part of the Israeli forces.
Closures of the occupied territories, including internal closures of Palestinian cities and their agglomerations, have continued to be imposed during the period under review. It is estimated that the standard of living of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories had declined by more than 30 per cent since the signing of the peace agreements. The resulting restrictions on the freedom of movement of the population had serious repercussion on the health of the residents of the occupied territories. Patients suffering from life-threatening diseases and in serious condition have continued to be denied access to medical institutions in areas outside those in which they live. A number of women in advanced states of pregnancy were compelled to give birth on the roadside near checkpoints, for lack of permits to cross into another part of the occupied territories or into Israel. The Special Committee's attention has been drawn in particular to the plight of the children in the occupied territories as the result of the closure. In addition to health, their education has also been seriously affected in a negative manner. As has been the case in the past, the population of the Gaza Strip continued to be the most seriously affected by the closures. In addition to shortages of medical supplies, medical personnel has encountered numerous difficulties in reaching their place of work.
The economic condition of the people in the occupied territories is alarmingly affected by the repeated closures. The majority of workers who used to hold jobs in Israel were unable to cross the Green Line. A number of workers described the harassment and hardships to which they were subjected on a daily basis on their way to work. Most of them had to get up at 2:30 or 3 a.m. in order to begin work in Israel at 7:30 a.m. -- a trip that would take one-and-a-half hours under normal circumstances. They indicated that out of the existing 24 passages through which workers pass in order to have their permits and their documents checked by the Israeli authorities, a maximum of 8 to 10 operated on any given day, and the Israeli soldiers were often deliberately slow in processing the documents, thereby causing enormous hardship.
The Special Committee's attention was drawn in particular to the difficulties faced by a number of Palestinian farmers who were granted loans for agricultural activity. According to a witness, their land was confiscated by the Israeli authorities and declared a closed military zone, precisely at harvest time, since there was a surplus of the same type of crops they produce in the Israeli market at that time. Difficulties were also cited regarding the issuing of export licenses, and it was alleged that perishable produce was often deliberately delayed at the border, leading to its spoilage.
The Special Committee was informed that, contrary to the Oslo agreements, there is a still a high number of Palestinian prisoners, including administrative detainees, incarcerated in Israel -- which is also a violation of international humanitarian law. Their conditions of detention are said to have deteriorated further during the Committee's current reporting period, and protests by the prisoners have on occasion been violently repressed, even to the extent of the throwing of tear gas canisters into their cells. The number of administrative detainees whose periods of detention have been renewed several times is a source of great concern.
Witnesses have informed the Special Committee that Palestinian detainees continue to be subjected to measures which amount to torture or ill-treatment, especially during the period of interrogation. The Special Committee took note of the conclusions and recommendations of the Committee against Torture in pursuance of the special report submitted to it by Israel, indicating that interrogation -- which included the use of "moderate physical pressure" during interrogation of persons suspected to be in possession of information of imminent attacks against Israel -- constituted breaches of the Convention against Torture. The Committee against Torture recommended, among other things, that the provisions against torture be incorporated by legislation into Israeli law, and that interrogation procedures pursuant to the so-called "Landau rules" be published in full in any event.
During its visit to Syria, the Special Committee visited once again the province of Quneitra and heard the testimonies of a number of witnesses originating from the occupied Syrian Arab Golan. The Committee observed that one of the most striking features of the occupation was the severance of family ties. The Special Committee was informed that the measures taken by the Israeli authorities against the citizens of the occupied Syrian Arab Golan who express nationalistic sentiments regarding Syria were repressed more harshly than before. Particular complaints were voiced in connection with the efforts of the Israeli authorities regarding education, the dismissal of qualified teachers and their attempts to alter the educational curricula regarding the political geography of the area and of the historical identities of the ethnic communities of the Golan.
The Special Committee was informed that land in the occupied Syrian Golan continued to be confiscated for the expansion of Israeli settlements and the construction of bypass roads, and that agricultural produce and cattle were also subjected to confiscation. According to the witnesses, the Israeli authorities continued to exercise tight control over the water resources available to the inhabitants of the Golan, including rainwater. Complaints were also expressed against the environmental degradation caused by toxic waste from Israeli factories. Witnesses informed the Special Committee that high taxes were levied on the population of the Golan, that tuition fees had been increased considerably, that Syrian diplomas were not recognized and that unemployment in the Golan was widespread. In addition, tight control was exercised by the Israeli authorities over the marketing of agricultural produce and of handicrafts manufactured by the population of the Golan. The witnesses also complained about the difficulties in obtaining proper medical attention by the inhabitants of the occupied Golan.
In conclusion, the Special Committee wishes to reiterate its view that occupation itself constitutes a violation of human rights. It would be futile to envisage the successful conclusion of the peace process that started with the Oslo agreement until the basic fact of the illegality of the occupation is fully recognized and the rights of the Palestinian people are restored.
The Palestinian people are currently facing an unprecedented double challenge: a virtual breakdown in the peace process, and an escalation of human rights violations on the ground in the occupied territories. The signing of the Oslo accords had generated great expectations and hope among both the population of the occupied territories and the international community. Many believed that a new era of peace, security, understanding and hope for the people of the entire Middle East would be ushered in, enabling the peoples of the region to live in harmony, dignity and with mutual respect. A number of positive events -- such as the signing of the so-called "Oslo II" agreement, the elections for the Palestinian Council and chairmanship of the Palestinian Authority in January 1996, as well as the redeployment of the Israeli army from the West Bank cities of Jenin, Tulkarm, Nablus, Kalkiliya, Bethlehem and Ramallah and finally Hebron -- should, however, be mentioned. Unfortunately, the hopes entertained regarding the continuation of the peace process have virtually evaporated.
In light of the above, it is vital that a dialogue between the parties be maintained and that the peace process continue. All parties concerned should respect the spirit and letter of the Oslo accords and show renewed commitment to the peace process by an immediate resumption of the peace talks. The frustration and despair of Palestinians have almost completely eroded their trust in the peace process, which is at a standstill. Only tangible progress in peace talks, with consequent changes on the ground, can bring about a just, comprehensive and lasting peace to the Middle East. All parties concerned must work together to safeguard the peace effort.
The repeated delays in the implementation of the accords can only endanger the peace process further and could lead to its complete breakdown, which would be dangerous for the whole region. The international community cannot be indifferent to the current situation, and must take an active and positive role in safeguarding the peace process and giving it a new impetus. The climate of strife and bitterness of the past would then lead to the beginning of a new era of peaceful co-existence in the whole region, the Committee concludes.