Nazareth—Today the global community celebrates International Human Rights Day, which marks the 67th anniversary of the U.N. General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It is also the launch of a year-long campaign to celebrate the 50th anniversary of two preeminent human rights instruments: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Together, these three documents constitute the International Bill of Rights, laying the groundwork for what a just and peaceful global society ought to look like.
The theme of this year’s celebration is straightforward: “Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always,” with a particular focus on the Four Freedoms of speech and of worship, and from want and fromfear. But this commitment is easier said than done. It is worth noting that today, countries around the world are exploiting the fears of their citizens to restrict and to suppress the human rights that are essential to any genuine commitment to justice and human dignity. The Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA) has worked to reveal that when it comes to the Palestinian Arab minority, the State of Israel’s alleged pledge to honor the human rights of all is little more than empty rhetoric.
The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, confirmed this in March, when he warned on the eve of the Knesset election, “The Arabs are coming out in droves to the polls.” The mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, confirmed this in October, when he encouraged Israelis to take up personal firearms against Palestinian ‘terrorists’: “It’s like military reserve duty.” And the housing minister’s chief of staff, David Suissa, confirmed it this week, when he and some 200 Jewish Israelis gathered to protest housing tenders won by Palestinian Arabs to build homes in Afula, carrying signs that read: “Afula—protecting our home.”
Today more than ever, it is crucial to consider how contemptuously the State regards the rights and freedoms of the Palestinian Arab minority, in keeping with the theme of the Four Freedomsthat underlie the International Bill of Rights.
First, the speech of Palestinian Arabs continues to be suppressed, with activists being arrested on fictitious charges, often for the simple act of posting critical messages on social media. Current legislation in Israel penalize certain expressions—such as supporting the B.D.S. movement or commemorating the Nakba—while government ministers propose new laws to silence civil society by taxing the funds of human rights groups and labeling them “foreign state entities.” Already the State has criminalized an integral part of Palestinian Arab public life, the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, and on this pretext shut down 17 charitable organizations.
Secondly, the religious rights of Palestinian Arabs continue to be trampled, with restrictions of access placed on the Haram al-Sharif compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, home of the third holiest site in Islam. Earlier this year, the historic Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha was burned down by Jewish extremists, as part of a widespread phenomenon of extremist attacks against the Palestinian Arab minority and their religious heritage. Such crimes, often labeled “price tag” attacks, have been considered by both the United States and Israel to constitute terrorism; but rather than extirpate this criminal phenomenon, the State has responded to Jewish terrorism with relative leniency.
Thirdly, the socio-economic position of the Palestinian Arab minority is beset by institutional discrimination, adversely impacting their infrastructure, development, housing, education, employment, family unification, social benefits and cultural identity. According to the most recent annual report of the National Insurance Institute, the poverty rate of the Palestinian Arab minority stood at 52.6%, with an 8% increase in depth and 7% increase in severity within the previous measured year. Recently, the State cut severely the budgetary allocation for Arab Christian schools—which serve a sizable portion of Palestinian Arab students—while providing full funding for Orthodox Jewish schools. The government has pursued policies to withhold social benefits from parents for the crimes of their children, to punitively revoke the citizenship or residency status of individuals and their families, and to demolish the family homes of Palestinian Arabs charged with ‘terrorism.’ Even as the State routinely denies the building plans of Palestinian Arabs, it facilitates Jewish settlement of East Jerusalem and in the Naqab, often on the property of their displaced Arab inhabitants.
Lastly, the State of Israel has all but declared open season on the lives of the Palestinian Arabs minority. Individuals suspected of crime have been shot on sight in manners less akin to law enforcement than to summary executions, while even non-violent protestors face brutality by aggressive police authorities. Inflammatory and inciting statements by Israeli politicians have whipped up a climate of fear and hostility; state-sanctioned violence and incitement have fostered a spate of vigilante mob violence, resulting in attacks on Palestinian Arabs, Jewish Israelis and foreigners alike. Through all this, a culture of impunity and lack of accountability has sent a chilling message to the Palestinian Arab minority, whose lives are increasingly imperiled.
With these realities in mind, it is no wonder that the security situation in the State of Israel continues to unravel.
It has been 67 years not only since the adoption of the UDHR, but also since the State of Israel declared its perpetual and ongoing state of emergency. Since then, ‘security’ has served as a pretext or a cover for the widespread violation of both the letter and the spirit of international human rights law. In other cases, bare contempt and racism have pushed to the margins the vulnerable Palestinian Arab minority. But periods of escalated violence are precisely when human rights are needed most; they also remind us of the need to affirm a genuine human rights regime as a bulwark against the climate of resentment and hostility that allows violence to erupt.
On International Human Rights Day, the international community must reaffirm the importance of protecting human rights, as well as the voices of human rights defenders, who continually face the threat of silencing by hostile State regimes. The HRA joins in solidarity with civil society throughout the world, and calls upon the international community to join the effort of pressuring the State of Israel to comply sincerely with the international human rights laws to which it is bound.