BY ARSALAN SULEMAN
On Monday, October 17, 2005, HLS had the honor of hosting Ms. Randa Siniora, the General Director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq. Al-Haq is the West Bank affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists, based in Geneva. Invited by the HLS student organization Justice for Palestine, co-sponsored by the Human Rights Journal and HLS Advocates, Ms. Siniora gave an informative presentation that focused on the illegal use of collective punishment by the Israeli armed forces in their ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands.
The focus on Israeli violations of international humanitarian law (namely the Fourth Geneva Convention) provided a useful framework to discuss the often emotional and contentious issue of the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT). Ms. Siniora related personal stories to help make this often distant situation feel more real for the fifty-plus in attendance.
Ms. Siniora’s presentation is a part of an awareness campaign launched by Al-Haq to draw attention to the use of collective punishment by Israeli forces in the OPT. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 specifically prohibits the use of collective punishment and reprisals in occupied territories. Put simply, collective punishment involves punishing a person or a group of people for acts that they themselves have not committed. Ms. Siniora listed numerous practices of Israel in the OPT that are prohibited by Article 33, including mass arrests, group roundups, punitive house demolitions, movement restrictions, the Annexation Wall, and property destruction. Her goal in visiting the U.S. is to present Americans with a sense of what the on-the-ground reality is in the OPT, so that some pressure may be brought to bear on Israel to end the occupation and the victimization of Palestinian civilians.
The presentation explored examples of the impact that collective punishment practices have had on the daily lives of Palestinians. For example, Ms. Siniora said that, in one case, “twenty-six families had to suffer from the policy of house demolitions simply because two wanted persons were alleged to be in the building.” Ms. Siniora, who is a specialist in women’s rights, noted that “at least sixty women have given birth at checkpoints; thirty-eight of these children died.” These women were trying to get to hospitals in the OPT, not in Israel. To go to school, “children have to try to navigate their way through the barriers.” In going to and from work herself, Ms. Siniora has to pass a total of four checkpoints, each of which could take hours to pass, depending on the severity of the “checkpoint jam.” Ms. Siniora argued that “every individual is suffering from restriction of movement; they are not allowed to travel within their own lands to go to work or school.”
Israel’s Annexation Wall is, according to Ms. Siniora, another example of Israel’s use of collective punishment. First, she stated that “10% of the [OPT] will be annexed by the wall” and that “day by day Jerusalem is being confiscated by Israel.” She also noted many examples of how whole neighborhoods will be “isolated and surrounded,” how fertile land and water resources will be expropriated, and how “thousands of Palestinian Jerusalemites will be restricted from moving around Jerusalem…by the wall.” Ms. Siniora expressed the frustrations of Palestinians who see that the “Israelis allow the [illegal] settlers to move freely…[while] the Palestinians have to suffer [and] stay confined in their own homes because settlers want to move freely.” Indeed, she characterizes the wall as more than an Apartheid wall because of its impact in isolating Palestinians from Palestinians: “We are seeing thousands of settlers being connected [to Israel], while our communities are being divided and disconnected through building the wall and imprisoning us.”
In the discussion following her presentation, members of the audience asked Ms. Siniora about the security justifications for the Annexation Wall and for the checkpoints. In response to these queries, Ms Siniora asserted that if the wall was built for security reasons, then it should not have been built in a way that expropriates 10% of the OPT; rather, it should have been built on the Green Line boundary.
In addition, Ms. Siniora noted that the ICJ declared the Annexation Wall as planned for construction to be illegal. Regarding the checkpoints, she argued that checkpoints within OPT have no impact on Palestinians entering Israel. Further, she noted that the Israeli military sees Palestinians using donkeys to cross mountains in order to avoid the hassle of checkpoints. A “donkey costs something like $500 because it is being used to go up the mountains and cross between villages.” In not stopping those people, the true motive of the checkpoint itself is revealed: “not security – it is a matter of enforcing hardship….” Other such measures, enforced through special laws for the OPT, include the absentee land laws, which allow Israel to confiscate lands if they are uncultivated for three years.
Others in attendance asked about the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and its impact on the status of Gaza as an occupied territory. On this point, Ms. Siniora noted that, under international law, since Israel still controls all of Gaza’s borders, airspace, coast and key internal activities, like residency permits, water, and sewage, it is still considered an occupying power there. Ms. Siniora declared, “They control the sea; they control the sky; we have a situation of continued occupation in the Gaza strip.” Ultimately, she lamented that until Gaza is allowed to exercise self-determination, it will be under the effective control and occupation of Israel.
Ms. Siniora has been with Al-Haq for over 10 years, serving as General Director since 2001. It was apparent that her life-long experiences in human rights work and her day-to-day experiences as a Palestinian living under Israeli occupation informed her presentation. To learn more about Al-Haq, its activities, and its reports, please visit www.alhaq.org.