Posted by Guest on June 25, 2018 in Blog

By Blaise Malley

For the first time in the chamber’s history, the House of Representatives introduced a bill that addressed Israel’s abuse of Palestinian human rights. The bill was introduced on November 14, 2017 by Betty McCollum (D--MN), and is currently being heard in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Over the course of the next few months 28 other representatives, all Democrats, co-sponsored McCollum’s bill. On June 25, 2018, the Defense for Children Palestine and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) hosted a briefing on the bill.

While the very facts that there is a bill being discussed concerned with Palestinian human rights and that a crowded room listened to a number of powerful testimonies regarding the current situation in Palestine signify some level of progress, the bill itself covers only the bare minimum of human rights abuses that are taking place on the ground. The bill, titled “H.R.4391 - Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act”, aims to ensure that American taxpayer money isn’t used “to support the military detention, interrogation, or ill-treatment of Palestinian children”.

Given that the content of the bill itself--not wanting the United States to tolerate, endorse, and even aid the illegal detainment and abuse of children--seems fairly obvious, the panelists at the briefing focused instead on the myriad problems that will still exist even if this bill does pass, which is unlikely with the current makeup of the House and Senate. There was a sliver of hope about the progress that has been made in an issue that American politicians have faltered in addressing for decades, but even as the international community appears to be slowly coming around, it was clear that the situation on the ground for Palestinians is becoming increasingly worse.

One major roadblock towards progress regarding the United States’ position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the current Presidential Administration is perhaps the most blindly pro-Israel in modern American history (which is not a low bar). Although Diala Shamas, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights and one of the speakers during the briefing, argued that President Trump’s rhetoric and actions do not necessarily mark a significant departure from previous administrations, he has still gone places where no other President has been willing to go, including moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and issuing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a blank check regarding aggressive and illegal activity in the West Bank.

Shamas, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, also emphasized the fact that while attention is often paid to the West Bank and especially Gaza, the situation for Palestinian Jerusalemites is no less dire. Israel has made it ever more difficult for Palestinians to sustain life for themselves in Jerusalem, undergoing a process that Shamas referred to as the “Judaising” of the city and that the Israeli government calls “maintaining its demographic balance”.

In reality, the Israeli government has instituted a number of measures that make it very tough for a Palestinian to reside in Jerusalem. For example, Palestinian Jerusalemites must establish that their “center of life” is in Jerusalem, are increasingly not allowed bring a spouse into the city if that spouse is foreign, and can very rarely obtain permits to either build or expand on existing infrastructure. If Palestinians choose to build without a permit, their houses will be subject to demolition; since 2004, there have been at least 763 home demolitions in Jerusalem.

The three following speakers focused on an issue more linked to the bill that was being discussed: The experience of children living under occupation. The picture that was painted of this situation was not a pretty one.

Bill van Esfeld, a senior researcher for the Middle East and North Africa in the Children’s Rights division at Human Rights Watch, spoke about access to education, a crucial problem around the world and especially in Palestine. While Palestine once relatively thrived in terms of education and literacy levels, those numbers have recently suffered, for a number of primary reasons.

Firstly, the children have a limited number of schools which they can attend. Since 2010, Israel has demolished 16 Palestinian schools, while 44 more currently have outstanding demolition orders. Secondly, the economy in Palestine, and especially in Gaza, has recently tanked, which has meant that children have had to drop out of school early and help their families make money.

Many of these children work on Palestinian land that has been settled by Israelis for agricultural purposes. Young Palestinians, in turn, work on this land, where they are often exploited and mistreated. While the practice is illegal under Israeli law, the authorities typically turn a blind eye.

The United States aids this practice by buying products that are created in West Bank settlements because they are mislabeled as ordinary Israeli goods.

It is not only quality of life that is deteriorating, but, in many cases, lives are being lost. As Brad Parker noted, Israeli forces are becoming increasingly aggressive towards Palestinians and Palestinian youth. In recent years, they have used live ammunition in an attempt to deter protesters. In 2016, Israelis were responsible for the death of 32 Palestinian children. In the first five months of this year, that number is already 21. Despite an astounding and tragic number of deaths in the past five years, only one man was charged, and his case was eventually dropped on a plea deal.

As much as Israeli authorities overlook crimes committed by those within their ranks, the inverse holds true when a Palestinian is accused. The treatment of Palestinian youths in Israeli custody is inhumane and illegal. These children are often physically and verbally abused, as well as being intimidated into a confession of guilt. Israeli law permits pre-trial detention of children, who are not allowed to see any family members or attorneys until after their interrogations are complete.

The situation for young people has gotten continuously worse over the past decade. Jehad Abusalim, a policy consultant at AFSC from Gaza, outlined what life may have looked like for a 20-year old Gazan over the past two decades. Ever since the 2007 Israeli blockade on Gaza, those living in the territory have suffered immensely, experiencing an energy crisis, a water crisis, and the aforementioned sharp decline in quality of education and level of school enrollment. The residents of Gaza have become more and more reliant on international aid, and until significant changes are made, they will continue to be trapped in poverty and oppression.

The final speaker, AAI President Dr. James Zogby outlined how people in the United State might facilitate those changes. While he made clear that progress was still moving at a slow pace, Dr. Zogby also made sure to evidence that important progress had been made over the last 40 years. Polling shows that Democrats are increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and even though this issue will need to be solved in a bipartisan manner, many other issues, such as same-sex marriage, have followed a similar, partisan trajectory.

The Palestinian rights movement has found space alongside other social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter and pro-immigration movements, that mean that it is no longer completely on the sideline of American political thought. While for a long time Israel has gotten away with the gross mistreatment of Palestinians through a process of dehumanization, Dr. Zogby argued that today’s youth was no longer ignorant and that they understood that this was a world of real people.

Simply to halt this inhumane treatment of children in custody would be a very minimal request from the American government. This bill doesn’t even go that far, only calling for the termination of American aid funding this practice. Therefore, this bill is in no way the end result. What it could be is an important signal that members of the American Congress are willing to at least address the issue of Palestinian human rights. If nothing else, the introduction of this bill should encourage advocates of Palestinian rights to continue to push members of Congress to act.

Blaise Malley is a 2018 summer intern at the Arab American Institute.