Globally, activists at the forefront of human rights protection are coming under increased scrutiny and attack by state and non-state actors. Although being a human rights defender is becoming dangerous work, the commitment to human rights promotion and defense amongst activist has not waned. Nowhere is this truer than in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), where our partners have had their offices raided and equipment confiscated by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Despite these setbacks, human right activists are continuing their work defending Palestinian human rights, including to land, water and food along with freedom of movement and an end to unlawful detentions.
Since 1996, Grassroots International has supported the work of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), a powerful human rights organization making a difference in the lives of Palestinians. Additionally, on the West Bank Grassroots supports the Legal Aid Project of the Ensan Center, which provides free assistance from lawyers (including an Israeli lawyer), and legal support staff. The Project seeks to promote human rights, further the principles of the rule of law, and defend Palestinian rights in accordance with international human rights law and United Nations declarations within the Palestinian Autonomous Areas. PCHR has spent the last 17 years leading the battle for Palestinian human rights and self-determination across the oPt. Based in Gaza, PCHR advocates for Palestinians locally and internationally while promoting respect for human rights regionally through its legal defense and advocacy work. PCHR has gained international reputation as an independent voice on human rights vis-à-vis both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In the past five years, at a time when Israel’s unilateral and illegal air, land and sea blockade of Gaza has led to impoverishment and de-development in the Strip, the work of PCHR serves as a lifeline for Palestinian farmers and fishers whose livelihoods are threatened by the ever-expanding buffer zone. At the same time, PCHR’s work during and in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead (2008/2009), and the more recent Operation Pillar of Defense (November 2012) challenges the culture of impunity enjoyed by Israel through careful documentation of violations of international human rights law, including international humanitarian law, which carefully outlines protections that must be afforded to civilian populations under occupation and during conflict. Holding Israel accountable for its actions in the oPt is an arduous process, which is made harder by the United States’ unwavering support for Israel even when such support runs counter to fundamental American principles such as the natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and equality under the law. Within the region, PCHR offers trainings, workshops and seminars for human rights defenders, students, lawyers, and jurists in an effort to promote human rights as a cornerstone of the rule of law within the region. Through these activities, PCHR is creating a new cadre of human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa. Locally, PCHR accompanies Palestinians in their plight for justice and respect of their rights, including to a livelihood. This work is accomplished through legal representation in local courts in the oPt where the Palestinian Authority is concerned or in Israeli civilian and military courts in cases where the grievances are committed by Israel. In Gaza, especially, PCHR has been a strong advocate for the rights of women through their Women’s Rights Unit. Through this project they provide women with legal representation in civil matters that range from family law to proposed legislation affecting the status of women within society. Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza has led to rapid impoverishment of the Strip’s population over the past five years. For instance, farmers with land near or within the buffer zone have lost their livelihoods in increasing numbers as their access to these lands have been either restricted or forbidden by the IDF. These restrictions and prohibitions are enforced through physical force including arrests and use of live ammunition leading to injury and death for farmers who have dared to enter their family farms. Another community that that has been particularly devastated is Gaza’s fishers. Palestinian fishers are struggling to maintain their livelihoods in the face of continuous attacks from Israel’s naval forces. These attacks have severely restricted their access to the Strip’s coastal waters to a small fraction of their internationally agreed-upon fishing area, and are impeding fishers’ ability to feed, clothe and educate their families thereby driving these once thriving communities deep into poverty. But, also, their very lives are in danger. For example, PCHR reported that on “Friday, 28 September 2012, Israeli forces shot and killed a Palestinian fisherman and wounded his brother, while they and a group of other fishermen were located a few meters from the shore in the northern Gaza Strip, pulling out their fishing nets.” This fisher lost his life despite being within the three nautical miles unilaterally imposed by Israel. In situations like the above, PCHR not only carefully documents evidence of Israeli aggression and harm, but they also use it as the basis for legal proceedings against the IDF. Below is an example of how PCHR responded to unprovoked Israeli naval attacks against a fisher and his son:
At approximately 07:00 on 13 February 2012, Hassan Sultan and his son, Fadel, were on board their fishing boat and sailing to the north of Beit Lahia, about 200 meters offshore. Two Israeli gunboats approached as close as to 30 meters from the boat. Israeli soldiers ordered Sultan and his son to take their clothes off, jump into water, and swim towards them. They then took the two fishermen on board one of the gunboats and transported them to a larger gunboat in the sea. There, Israeli soldiers handcuffed and blindfolded the two fishermen and transported them to Ashdod Port inside Israel, where they were interrogated by the Israeli intelligence service. A relative of the fisherman contacted PCHR to request assistance. A PCHR lawyer contacted the prison to request information about the fishermen’s whereabouts and detention conditions, and to advocate for their release. The two fishermen were released at Erez crossing at approximately 17:00 on the same day, but the fishing boat remained in custody.
On 16 February 2012, PCHR submitted a complaint and compensation form to the Legal Advisor of the Israeli Ministry of Defense Compensation Office in the Department of Claims and Compensations. The complaint stated that the action by the Israeli navy was illegal as the boat was sailing within the limited area allowed for sailing, did not pose any threat to the lives of Israeli soldiers, and the fishermen concerned did not commit any offence. PCHR called upon Israel to investigate the incident and instruct concerned bodies to return the boat as soon as possible as it was the only source of livelihood for the two fishermen. PCHR also submitted a complaint to the legal adviser of the Israeli naval police.
On 15 April 2012, the Centre received a response from the Compensation Officer, dated 28 February 2012, indicating that the case was being pursued. On 7 May 2012, the Centre received a positive response from the Israeli naval police approving the return of the boat, provided that Sultan signed an oath in which he committed not to violate orders of the naval police and not to sail beyond the 3-nautical-mile limited areas. On 12 May 2012, the boat was returned.
By working locally, regionally and internationally PCHR has established itself as a trusted expert on the issue of human rights in the oPt. Their timely analyses are relied upon by United Nations agencies, and international human rights organizations. And, since the Arab spring they have served as a human rights training center for neighboring countries.