In a new report, Human Rights Watch examines Israel’s use of draconian military orders to repress Palestinians by criminalizing nonviolent political activity, and restricting their right to freedom of expression, assembly and association.
This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 17 December 2019.
The Israeli army has deprived generations of Palestinians in the West Bank of their basic civil rights, including the rights to free assembly, association and expression, regularly drawing on military orders issued in the first days of the occupation. Even if such restrictions could have been justified then to preserve public order and safety, the suspension of core rights more than half a century later with no end in sight violates Israel’s core responsibilities under the law of occupation.
The responsibilities of an occupying power toward the rights of the occupied population increase with the duration of the occupation. Israel remains principally in control of the West Bank, despite limited Palestinian Authority rule over certain areas, and yet has failed to provide the people living under its control with the rights they are due, including the right to equal treatment without regard to race, religion or national identity. It is long past time for Israel to fully respect the human rights of Palestinians, using as a benchmark the rights it grants Israeli citizens, an obligation that exists regardless of the political arrangement in the Occupied Palestinian Territory now or in the future.
On June 7, 1967, the Israeli army occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and issued a military proclamation that permitted the application of the Defense (Emergency) Regulations of 1945, which British Mandate authorities enacted to quell growing unrest. The regulations empower authorities, among other things, to declare as an “unlawful association” groups that advocate for “bringing into hatred or contempt, or the exciting of disaffection against” authorities, and criminalize membership in or possession of material belonging to or affiliated, even indirectly, with these groups.
In August 1967, the Israeli army issued Military Order 101, which criminalizes participation in a gathering of more than ten people without a permit on an issue “that could be construed as political,” punishable by a sentence of up to ten years. It further prohibits publishing material “having a political significance” or displaying “flags or political symbols” without army approval. More than 52 years later, the Israeli army continues to prosecute and imprison Palestinians under the Defense (Emergency) Regulations of 1945 and Military Order 101 of 1967.
In 2010, the Israeli army promulgated Military Order 1651, which replaced 20 prior orders and imposes a 10-year sentence on anyone who “attempts, orally or otherwise, to influence public opinion in the Area [the West Bank] in a manner which may harm public peace or public order” or “publishes words of praise, sympathy or support for a hostile organization, its actions or objectives,” which it defines as “incitement.” It further outlines vaguely worded “offenses against authorities” whose penalties include potential life imprisonment for an “act or omission which entails harm, damage, disturbance to the security of the Area or the security of the IDF” or entering an area in close “proximity” to property belonging to the army or state.
The law of occupation grants occupiers wide authority to restrict rights, but also imposes key limitations, including the requirement to facilitate public life for the occupied population. The Israeli army has for over 50 years used broadly worded military orders to arrest Palestinian journalists, activists and others for their speech and activities – much of it non-violent – protesting, criticizing or opposing Israeli policies. These orders are written so broadly that they violate the obligation of states under international human rights law to clearly spell out conduct that could result in criminal sanction. In other instances, Israeli authorities abusively bring ostensibly legitimate charges, such as those related to offenses of trespass or incitement, against activists to shut down opposition to Israel’s rule. Israel’s indefinite suspension of Palestinian civil rights has crippled the ability of Palestinians to have a more normal public, political life.
The duration of the occupation has afforded Israeli authorities plenty of time and opportunity to develop less restrictive policies. However, Israel continues to rely on the same military orders today, denying fundamental civil rights to Palestinians living under its 0ccupation.
Israeli authorities, in fact, take it a step further, denying that its human rights obligations extend to its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. This position has been rejected, including by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which ruled in a 2004 advisory opinion that the main treaty on civil and political rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), “is applicable in respect of acts done by a State in the exercise of its jurisdiction outside its own territory,” alongside the law of occupation.
This report evaluates the impact of these orders on ordinary life for Palestinians in the West Bank and their legality more than half a century into an occupation with no end in sight. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said, “Israeli military and security forces will continue to rule the entire territory, up to the Jordan [River].”
This report does not cover the full Occupied Palestinian Territory: it excludes East Jerusalem, where Israel applies its own domestic law after annexing it in 1967 in a unilateral move that does not alter its status as occupied under international law, and Gaza, where Israel in 2005 dismantled the military government that had existed there since 1967. Nor does it cover Israel’s denial of economic, social and cultural rights to Palestinians in the West Bank. It highlights eight illustrative cases in the West Bank where authorities used military orders, specifically Military Orders 101 and 1651 and the Defense (Emergency) Regulations of 1945, to prosecute Palestinians in military courts for their peaceful expression or involvement in non-violent groups or demonstrations.
The report draws on 29 interviews, primarily with former detainees and lawyers representing Palestinian men and women caught up in the Israeli military justice system, as well as a review of indictments and military court decisions. Human Rights Watch wrote to the Israeli army, police and security agency (Shin Bet in Hebrew) with detailed questions soliciting their perspectives and more information on the issues covered in the report and received substantive responses from the army and the police, which are reflected in the report and reprinted as appendices.
According to data it provided to Human Rights Watch, the Israeli army between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2019 prosecuted 4,590 Palestinians for entering a “closed military zone,” a designation it frequently attaches on the spot to protest sites, 1,704 for “membership and activity in an unlawful association,” and 358 for “incitement.”
Israeli occupying forces rely on military orders permitting them to shut down unlicensed protests or to create closed military zones to quash peaceful Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank and detain participants.
Israeli occupying forces rely on military orders permitting them to shut down unlicensed protests or to create closed military zones to quash peaceful Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank and detain participants. For example, the Israeli army detained in 2016 human rights defender Farid al-Atrash, who works at the Independent Commission of Human Rights, a quasi-official body of the Palestinian Authority, during a peaceful demonstration in Hebron that called for re-opening a main downtown street that the army prohibits Palestinians from accessing. Prosecutors charged him under Military Order 101 for “demonstrating without a permit” and under Military Order 1651 for “attempt[ing] to influence public opinion in the Area in a manner that may harm public order or safety” through “inciting” chants and “waving Palestinian Authority flags” and holding a sign that read “Open Shuhada Street.” Prosecutors further accused him of entering “a closed military zone” and “assault[ing]” a soldier, but furnished no actual evidence to substantiate these claims outside his non-violent participation in the demonstration. Authorities released al-Atrash on bail four days after his arrest but continue to prosecute him for his participation in this event three-and-a-half years later.
Activist Abdallah Abu Rahma told Human Rights Watch that the Israeli army arrested him eight times since 2005 because of his involvement in protests against the route of Israel’s separation barrier in his village of Bil’in. In May 2016, the army detained him for 11 days after a bicycle race he organized to mark Nakba Day, which commemorates the displacement of Palestinians during the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. A military court handed him a four-month sentence under Military Order 1651 for entering “a closed military zone” and “disturbing a soldier.” The army also detained him for 23 days in late 2017 after he placed a rod in the separation wall as a symbolic act of protest during a demonstration. In September 2019, he pled guilty to charges of “sabotage of an IDF facility” under Military Order 1651 to avoid a potentially longer sentence.
Since 1967, the Israeli Defense Ministry has banned more than 411 organizations, among them all major Palestinian political parties, including President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party. Citing Military Order 1651, the army placed Khalida Jarrar, a 56-year-old member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, in administrative detention without trial or charge from July 2017 to February 2019 based on her political activism with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group that includes both a political party and an armed wing that has attacked Israeli soldiers and civilians. Authorities never claimed that she had any personal involvement in armed activities. Her PFLP affiliation also led to her spending April 2015 to June 2016 in an Israeli prison, after she agreed to plead guilty, to avoid a longer sentence, to charges of “membership in an unlawful association” under the Defense (Emergency) Regulations of 1945 and “incitement” under Military Order 1651 for a 2012 speech at a rally for Palestinian prisoners in which she allegedly called for kidnapping soldiers. The judge said the prosecution faced “difficulties proving guilt” on these charges. Jarrar said that Israeli authorities have also barred her from traveling outside of the West Bank without judicial order for more than 30 years, apart from a medical visit to Jordan in 2010. The Israeli army rearrested Jarrar on October 31, 2019; she remains in detention as of publication.
In March 2019, the Israeli army detained 36-year-old artist Hafez Omar and charged him with several offenses under Military Order 1651, including “membership and activism in unlawful association” under the Defense (Emergency) Regulations of 1945 for alleged involvement with a group the army calls al-Hirak al-Shababi or Youth Movement, which it claims operates under the “auspices of the Hezbollah organization,” the Lebanese Shi’ite Islamist group. His indictment sheet, which Human Rights Watch examined, consists almost entirely of peaceful activities, such as meetings with other activists and involvement in protests, including several against the Palestinian Authority. Some analysts have questioned whether the Youth Movement ever existed as an organization. The only charge of a non-peaceful nature was his alleged involvement in unspecified “clashes” four years earlier where the charge sheet says he “threw stones at [Israeli] security forces.”
The army has banned a wide range of other civil society groups. Between September 2015 and May 2016, Israeli security forces detained five Palestinians based on their employment with a charitable organization, Qatar Charity, that works in more than 50 countries and has partnered with, among others, the United Nations, Doctors without Borders, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The UN has said it shares “humanitarian” and “strictly non-political” principles with Qatar Charity, but Israel added Qatar Charity to its list of prohibited organizations in 2008 for allegedly providing financial support to Hamas, an allegation frequently leveled against charitable organizations that operate in Gaza. Despite the designation, Israel allowed Qatar Charity to deliver funding into Gaza in May 2019. Najwan Odeh, the charity’s head of administration, received an 18-month sentence for affiliation with an “unlawful association,” namely with Qatar Charity, under the Defense (Emergency) Regulations of 1945, and a one-year prohibition on “commit[ing] the offense of which she was convicted,” effectively a ban on returning to her job, as part of a plea agreement with authorities.