Direct action must follow Annapolis agreement on Middle East

Direct action to improve the human rights and living conditions of Palestinian communities must be an essential part of the new negotiations process that is being put in place after last month's Middle East summit writes David White, Co-ordinator of Amnesty International Irish Section's Israel/Occupied Palestinian Territories Group.


The outcome of the summit, held in Annapolis, Maryland, should be given a cautious welcome. The decision by Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the talks on Tuesday to restart ongoing negotiations with a view to reaching a comprehensive deal by the end of 2008 is a positive development.

But this promise alone, which will include biweekly meetings between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not be enough to alter the distinct mood of scepticism which was evident among commentators prior to Annapolis.

Yet the new process of negotiations which started on 12 December 2007 has the potential to eventually lead to a just and lasting agreement and, crucially, to significant improvements in the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis. This can be achieved only if there is a serious effort to place fundamental human rights at the centre of the negotiations.

To be meaningful, any commitments made by either Israel or the Palestinians must be accompanied by concrete steps to halt and redress the human rights abuses and violations of international law that continue to destroy lives on both sides. Measurable benchmarks should be laid down by all parties to the talks, together with a clearly-defined mechanism for their implementation.

There must also be a regime of enforceable measures to ensure that both sides comply with their obligations under international law and that the fundamental rights of both Palestinians and Israelis are respected. This is essential to avoid a recurrence of past failures, broken promises and pointless blame-games.

Key issues which must be tackled as a priority include the lack of freedom of movement in the occupied West Bank. Currently, 560 checkpoints and blockades, a 700km fence/wall and a network of roads for Israeli settlers carve the West Bank into disconnected cantons and make travel between Palestinian towns and villages and other basic daily activities difficult or impossible for the two million Palestinian residents.

These draconian restrictions violate the fundamental rights of Palestinians to work, food, an adequate standard of living, education and health.

Such restrictions on access to essential healthcare have sometimes had tragic results.  Amnesty International has documented cases of births and even deaths of Palestinians delayed or detained at military checkpoints while seeking medical assistance.

The Israeli authorities contend that the closures and restrictions are necessary to prevent Palestinian militants from entering Israel and carrying out attacks.  Israel has a right, indeed an obligation, to protect its citizens from such threats. However virtually all the checkpoints, blocked roads and 80 percent of the fence/wall are located inside the occupied West Bank, and not on the Israel-West Bank border.

Commitments given by the Israeli government to the US administration last month, in preparation for the Annapolis talks, to remove 24 of the 560 military checkpoints and roadblocks, and to allow access for Palestinian farmers cut off from their land by the fence/wall in the West Bank, did not materialize.

According to the Office for the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) of the UN the Israeli army only lifted two of the 24 blockades it had promised to remove, and only 18 percent of the 30,000 Palestinians who have been cut off from their land by the fence/wall have been given permits to access their land.

If these new series of negotiations after Annapolis are to stand any chance of success, they must be followed by concrete action on the ground, including the lifting of these arbitrary restrictions to allow some semblance of normal life for the Palestinian population. Previous peace initiatives, such as the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, failed in part because they did not deliver tangible improvements in the human rights of the Palestinian population.

On the contrary, during the Oslo process the number of illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories doubled – a much faster growth than ever before.

In the lead up to Annapolis Israel had repeated its promise, initially made in the 2003 "RoadMap" agreement but never implemented, to remove some unofficial settlement 'outposts'.   The removal of these 'outposts' would amount to little more than a token gesture, unless accompanied by serious preparation to remove the official settlements – which are equally unlawful under international law.

The humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip should not be excluded from the forthcoming process. The unprecedented blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza is having devastating consequences for its 1.5 million inhabitants. With only rare exceptions, critically ill patients are prevented from leaving Gaza, where the medical treatment they need is not available, and several have died as a result.

The World Health Organisation reported earlier this month a shortage of 90 essential drugs and a further deterioration in health among the inhabitants of Gaza. International aid agencies are concerned that Israeli restrictions on the passage of goods into Gaza are hampering their ability to meet the humanitarian needs of the population – 80 percent of whom are now forced to rely on international assistance.

The dire humanitarian situation in Gaza has been compounded by the interfactional violence between Hamas and Fatah.  Last month Amnesty International published a report highlighting the number of deaths and various human rights abuses caused by this fighting.  However neither the Hamas takeover, nor attacks on Israeli targets including civilians, justifies the collective punishment, which is being meted out to the 1.5 million Palestinians who have been trapped in Gaza since last June.

It was regrettable that the joint statement which was issued at Annapolis by President Abbas, Prime Minister Olmert and US President George W. Bush made no reference to this humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The blockade imposed on Gaza should be immediately lifted, and the Palestinian Authority should deploy serious efforts to re-establish the rule of law in Gaza and in the parts of the West Bank under its jurisdiction.

The participants in the talks must recognize that respect for human rights and international law is a fundamental obligation - not a bargaining chip or a concession.  While a human rights agenda alone may not be the answer, it must be a central part of any solution.

Only a just settlement, which respects the fundamental rights of all parties, will endure. The spiral of violence unleashed by too many previous failures makes the responsibilities of those involved in this new initiative, begun this week at Annapolis, even greater.