Sixty-five years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. International Human Rights Day, which takes place Tuesday, symbolizes the hope reflected in that moment, following the end of World War II, and the belief that if human rights could be rescued from the limitations of the nation-state and given a universal definition under which every person is deserving of protection, this would ensure a better world. The universal declaration also sought to break out of the framework of civil rights; it included the idea of just and adequate living conditions, in the form of social rights.
Sixty-five years later, many of the promises embodied in this declaration have not been kept. Social rights are fighting for their life against a neoliberal ideology that seeks to reduce and privatize social spending, while disparities in access to health, education and housing are steadily growing.
The declaration’s other promise, the one relating to the universality of human rights, has also not been kept. And it seems that nothing better symbolizes Israel’s rejection of the declaration’s universality than the closure, on the eve of Human Rights Day, of its investigation into the death of Mustafa Tamimi.
Tamimi is one of at least 18 Palestinians, including eight minors, who have been killed by Israel Defense Forces fire during demonstrations in the territories, mainly as part of the fight against the separation barrier, since 2004. They include Bassem Abu Rahmeh, whose story was told in the documentary “5 Broken Cameras.” Abu Rahmeh was shot even though he wasn’t endangering anyone; the investigation into his death was closed in September without anyone being held accountable.
Demonstrators who were killed in the context of the Palestinians’ popular struggle are only part of the story. More broadly, Palestinians are routinely killed by IDF gunfire. Just this weekend, a 15-year-old boy, Wajih al-Ramahi, was killed in the Jalazun refugee camp near Ramallah. Our unfortunate experience teaches us that no one will be held responsible for this death, either, and that in another few years, after an excessively long investigation, we will be informed that he, too, was killed in accordance with the rules.
But perhaps this failure to bring anyone to trial is a more accurate representation of reality than an Israeli indictment would have been. Bringing to trial a soldier who kills a Palestinian might create the impression that doing so is an exception rather than the rule.
Refraining from indicting soldiers who kill Palestinian civilians – whether they are teens like al-Ramahi, or demonstrators protesting the theft of land like Tamimi – is no less significant a statement than indicting them would be. It’s a statement exclaiming that disregard for Palestinian lives is a key characteristic of the occupation, that the problem doesn’t lie with any one particular shooting but with a norm of disregard for human life that stems from the very fact of an occupation army having control over a civilian population. It’s a statement exclaiming that the so-called order the IDF seeks to impose in the territories is illegitimate, that the violence with which this order is achieved is the norm, and that the occupation is characterized by a combination of military violence and violence perpetrated by private citizens, like the settlers who take over Palestinian land. It is the army’s control that enables and legitimizes all this.
In Israel, Human Rights Day should become a day to mourn the lack of respect for human rights.