U.N. Committee on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights Expresses Grave Concern over Israel’s Discriminatory Practices 

Late last year, in December of 1998, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, under the aegis of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a scathing report on Israel’s violations of its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in both Israel and the territories it still occupies. The report consisted of concluding observations by the Committee following submission by Israel of a report, in accordance with Articles 16 and 17 of the Covenant. Despite the gravity of the matter, the report’s release seemed to receive little attention. However, its importance should not be overlooked, as it reaffirms the severity of the problems generated and perpetuated by Israel’s discriminatory policies and practices in disregard of its obligations under the Covenants and Conventions to which it is a signatory.

While the Committee took note of three positive factors – 2 regarding a National Health Insurance Law and 1 on measures being taken for the advancement of women – the remainder of the report dealt with the factors affecting Israel’s implementation of the Covenant. Among the principal subjects of concern listed by the Committee were the following: land and people; status of the Covenant; discrimination; employment; closure; permanent residency law; land use and housing; and unrecognized villages. The Committee’s report addressed each of these areas of concern and the difficulties stemming from Israeli policies in this regard.

Of primary significance were the Committee’s observations regarding discrimination within Israel due to practices differentiating between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of the State. In this regard, paragraph 10 of the report stated: "The Committee expresses concern that excessive emphasis upon the State as a "Jewish State" encourages discrimination and accords a second-class status to it non-Jewish citizens. The Committee notes with concern that the Government of Israel does not accord equal rights to its Arab citizens, although they comprise over 19 per cent of the total population. This discriminatory attitude is apparent in the lower standard of living of Israeli Arabs as a result, inter alia, of lack of access to housing, water, electricity and health care and their lower level of education."

The problems stemming from such discrimination are inherently linked to Israel’s policies regarding unrecognized Arab villages. As noted by the Committee, "a significant proportion of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel continue to live in unrecognized villages without access to water, electricity, sanitation and roads… In addition, these villagers are continuously threatened with demolition of their homes and confiscation of their land."

Moreover, the Committee took issue with Israel’s Law of Return, which distinctly favors Jews and is not applicable to Palestinians seeking to return. According to the Committee, this law, "which allows any Jew from anywhere in the world to immigrate and thereby virtually automatically enjoy residence and obtain citizenship in Israel, discriminates against Palestinians in the diaspora upon whom the Government of Israel has imposed restrictive requirements which make it almost impossible to return to the land of their birth." The Committee recommended "a review of re-entry policies for Palestinians who wish to re-establish their domicile in their homeland, with a view to bringing such policies level with the Law of Return as applied to Jews." Proper redress of these racist policies would serve to bring Israel into compliance with article 1 (2) of the Covenant and ensure equality of treatment and non-discrimination.

The magnitude and extent of this discrimination is further underlined by Israeli practices with regard to land ownership as evidenced in the activities of the World Zionist Organization/Jewish Agency. Although these organizations are chartered under private law, the Government of Israel works collaboratively with them, facilitating their activities and often exercising a decisive influence on their policies. As stated in the report, "the Committee notes with grave concern that the Status Law of 1952 authorizes the World Zionist Organization/Jewish Agency and its subsidiaries, including the Jewish National Fund, to control most of the land in Israel, since these institutions are chartered to benefit Jews exclusively."

The activities of these groups with regard to the land are particularly troubling. The Committee noted that "large-scale and systematic confiscation of Palestinian land and property by the State and the transfer of that property to these agencies constitute an institutionalized form of discrimination because these agencies by definition would deny the use of these properties to non-Jews. Thus, these practices constitute a breach of Israel’s obligations under the Covenant."

With regard to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem, the Committee expressed concern about the fact that the report submitted by Israel did not include information on the realization of economic, social and cultural rights in the occupied territories, falling short of its obligations under the Covenant. The Committee stressed that it "is of the view that the State’s obligations under the Covenant apply to all territories and populations under its effective control." In this respect, it noted "with concern that the Government’s written and oral reports included statistics indicating the enjoyment of the rights enshrined in the Covenant by Israeli settlers in the occupied territories but that the Palestinian population within the same jurisdictional areas were excluded from both the report and the protection of the Covenant."

Addressing the issue of land in the occupied territories, the Committee noted that "despite State party’s obligation under article 11 of the Covenant, the Government of Israel continues to expropriate Palestinian lands and resources for the expansion of Israeli settlements. Thousands of dunams (hectares) of land in the West Bank have recently been confiscated to build new bypass roads which cut West Bank towns off from outlying villages and farmlands." The damaging extent of these measures is starkly clarified in the report as well. In paragraph 24 of the report, the Committee stated that "the consequence – if not the motivation – is the fragmentation and isolation of the Palestinian communities and facilitation of the expansion of illegal settlements."

Occupied East Jerusalem has not been left unharmed by Israel’s discriminatory policies and practices. On the contrary, its measures and activities in the city have severely affected and illegally altered its demographic composition, physical character and nature. In this regard, the Committee stressed its concern "over the continued Israeli policies of building settlements to expand the boundaries of East Jerusalem and of transferring Jewish residents into East Jerusalem." Not only have such actions resulted in a discriminatory situation, but they also violate the Fourth Geneva Convention and numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions. Moreover, the Committee expressed "its concern at the effect of the directive of the Ministry of the Interior, according to which Palestinians may lose their right to live in the city if they cannot prove that East Jerusalem has been their ‘centre of life’ for the past seven years."

The problems being experienced and endured by Palestinian Jerusalemites also relate to the ongoing problem of the closures regularly enforced by Israel. The Committee’s report addressed the severe consequences of the closures on the Palestinian people and noted "that these restrictions apply only to Palestinians and not to Jewish Israeli citizens." It emphasized that the closures, which have been continuously applied by the Israeli government since 1993, "have cut off Palestinians from their own land and resources, resulting in widespread violations of their economic, social and cultural rights, including in particular those contained in article 1 (2) of the Covenant." Further, "workers from the occupied territories are prevented from reaching their workplaces, depriving them of income and livelihood and the enjoyment of their rights under the Covenant."

The matters dealt with in the Committee’s report are of grave significance, and attention to them is necessary for an understanding of the current situation. Israel’s discriminatory policies and activities must be thoroughly redressed as part and parcel of the ongoing efforts to arrive at a final settlement conducive to the peaceful coexistence of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples. [To view the full text of the Committee’s report, readers are directed to the U.N. Human Rights Web Site (www.unhchr.ch).]