Aug 27 2004

Respect for basic human rights

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

The hunger strike initiated by thousands of Palestinian prisoners on Aug. 15 is a powerful non-violent act. While no one expects Israeli officials to welcome this act of protest, the utterances of senior Israeli officials wishing the Palestinian prisoners to starve to death and stating that they will refrain from providing hospitalization to the prisoners whose health is deteriorating is sickening.

Ironically, the best response to the humanitarian demands of the prisoners came from a senior Israeli legal official and an Israeli humanitarian body. In a legal brief, the Israeli attorney general recommended to the government that the status of the Palestinian territories be defined in accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention. This convention, which was enacted following the end of World War II, details specifically what should happen in areas that are under occupation. The recommendation came following the ruling of the International Court of Justice, in the Hague, which had given the UN General Assembly legal advice concerning the status of the Palestinian territories in view of the wall Israel is building.

Among other things, an occupying power is not allowed to hold prisoners in its country, but rather must keep them within the areas of the occupied territories. Such a definition would go a long way in meeting the humanitarian demands of the prisoners who have been held in Israel, in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Israel has officially refused to honor this convention, claiming that the issue of sovereignty of the Palestinian territories before 1967 was not clear. Israel uses the fact that only Britain and Pakistan recognized the annexation of the West Bank to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan as somehow weakening the sovereignty of these territories. Ironically, Israel ignores the fact that no country (not even the US) has recognized its annexation of East Jerusalem and goes on applying the Israeli law to the people and land of East Jerusalem.

Another interesting position was released recently by the Israeli chapter of Physicians for Human Rights who called on senior Israeli officials to retract their public statements and to observe medical ethics.

In a letter, on Aug. 22, to the minister of interior security, Tzahi Hanegbi, Minister of Health Dani Naveh and Israeli Prison Services (IPS) Commissioner Yaakov Ganot, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel said that:

– The prisoners’ hunger strike is their last option, which follows previous failed attempts by the prisoners to improve their difficult prison conditions and to receive their rights as defined in international law and conventions.

– The task of the interior security minister is to ensure the bodily and mental integrity of all the prisoners, without relating to the crime they committed and for which they are in prison.

– Minister Naveh, who stands at the head of all the medical professionals in Israel, must, in this case, represent the interests of the doctors and medical ethics, even if this does not go hand-in-hand with his political views. Physicians for Human Rights-Israel calls on all the medical professionals in the IPS and the various hospitals to provide medical assistance to every person in need, as they have done until now, even if Naveh thinks differently. His instructions are completely illegal under any circumstance.

– Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and the Israeli Medical Association expressed a strict objection to shackling patients during treatment. Physicians for Human Rights-Israel calls on the medical staff at the hospitals to carefully consider the shackling of patients and to strongly object to any automatic shackling of prisoners as the IPS does.

The fasting prisoners have refused to turn their protest into a political one. They are not demanding their own release nor are they making any public statement about the peace process. Instead, they have made a list of humanitarian demands that are focused on the need for the Israeli government to honour international treaties that require them to grant them prisoner of war status. The closures have meant that to many prisoners the right of meeting their families, an internationally guaranteed right, has been totally or partially denied. With the curfews and closures, families are not able to see their loved ones. And when they do have a chance, with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, to take the long journey to prisons deep in Israel, the prisoners are separated from their families with a glass barrier that prevents relatives from hugging, thus making the removal of this glass window a major demand by the prisoners.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one that has lasted a long time and will not be over quickly. What is clear is that the two peoples are destined to live side-by-side for a long, long time. This requires that a minimum level of civility and respect of basic human rights be maintained. History often judges nations by how they treat minorities, people who are less fortunate, those who are weak, and in this case, those who are incarcerated.

The state of Israel has legal obligations, as well as ethical requirements, to change its policy towards the Palestinians in general and the Palestinian prisoners in particular. The sooner this change takes place the better.

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