Thursday, December 13, 2012

Israel: Stop Raids on West Bank Rights Groups

Source: Human Rights Watch

Military Should Return Office Equipment, Compensate for Damage

(Jerusalem) – The Israeli military should immediately return property seized from the offices of Palestinian human rights and civil society groups in the West Bank and compensate them for damages in the absence of any lawful justification for the raids.

In the early morning of December 11, 2012, Israeli military forces raided the offices of two Palestinian human rights groups and a women’s civil society organization in Ramallah governorate, and confiscated computers, cameras, legal files, and money.

The Israeli military spokesperson’s office told news media on December 12 that the military searched the offices because they were affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which Israel considers a terrorist organization.

Members of the groups told Human Rights Watch that they were not affiliated with the PFLP and that Israeli forces did not present warrants or contact them about the raids. An Israeli military prosecutor had previously charged one staff member of the rights groups with violating a military law by attending a memorial ceremony for a PFLP leader. Israel has provided no evidence to substantiate the claim that the three organizations were PFLP-affiliated.

“In the absence of warrants or demonstrated military necessity, these raids are nothing but an unlawful attempt to seriously harm the work of groups supporting the local population,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Israeli military needs to justify why it was absolutely necessary to ransack the offices of Palestinian rights groups and seize their property.”

Israeli forces have repeatedly harassed Palestinian civil society and human rights groups, including by raiding their offices, and arbitrarily arresting activists and banning their travel.

In the latest incidents, Israeli forces raided the office of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees at the Qaddoura refugee camp, and the Ramallah offices of Addameer, a human rights group focused on Palestinians detained by Israel, and the Palestinian Nongovernmental Organizations Network, which coordinates Palestinian rights groups.

The director of the women’s committees union, Khitam al-Saafin, told Human Rights Watch that the guard at a nearby office called her at around 12:30 a.m. to tell her that Israeli forces were raiding the office. Al-Saafin said she went to examine the damage and found that three outside doors had been forced open, as well as an interior door. Israeli forces had “raided the whole place and made a complete mess of it,” al-Saafin said.

Her staff compiled a long list of missing items: seven laptops, two desk-top computers, the hard drives of the remaining computers, all the digital camera memory cards in the office, an LCD projector, wall posters, items that had been hung on the bulletin boards, a Palestinian embroidered robe that was a present to the organization, Palestinian flags, and 3000 shekels (US$785) from a cashbox.

“We had absolutely no warning of this happening,” al-Saafin said. “We haven’t received any apology or statement.”

A neighborhood resident called an Addameer staff member at around 3 a.m. to notify him of an ongoing Israeli military raid on their building. Addameer said it was trying to retrieve security-camera footage of the raid, Gavan Kelly, the group’s international advocacy coordinator, told Human Rights Watch. Kelly described the damage:
The door had been broken open. They took four computers from the legal unit and the documentation unit, which have all the information about the prisoners and their cases. The advocacy and administrative units were ransacked but the computers weren’t taken.
Executive Director Sahar Francis told Human Rights Watch that video equipment and paper files of prisoner’s cases were also missing after the raid, and that the intruders had strewn papers and furniture around the office. Israeli forces had not contacted Addameer or provided any other information, and Francis said that she was not aware of any warrant to search the premises.

At around the same time, Israeli forces were seen raiding the offices of the Palestinian Nongovernmental Organization Network, in the same building as Addameer in Ramallah’s Masyoun neighborhood. The Network’s English website lists more than 60 members, including about a dozen human rights organizations. Samah Darwish, the Network’s director, said that Palestinian Authority civil police contacted staff members early in the morning of December 11 to say that Israeli forces had raided the office.

“There was no warning of any kind,” Darwish told Human Rights Watch. “It’s the first time we’ve been raided. The Israelis did not confiscate any of our laptops or servers, but we’re still not sure whether or not they’ve taken any of our files. All the files were thrown around on the floor, and they broke the front and internal doors of our office. We know they opened the central server, so we suspect they copied the data. They also raided the office of the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] campaign, whom we’re hosting in our office.”

The international law of military occupation applicable in the West Bank imposes strict limitations on the destruction of property by occupying forces. The Hague Regulations of 1907, recognized as reflective of customary international law, prohibit the destruction or seizure of property unless “imperatively demanded by the necessities of war.” Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states: “Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, … or to social or cooperative organizations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.”

Israeli forces have repeatedly harassed Palestinian human rights defenders and civil society activists in the West Bank. On October 15, the Israeli military arrested and detained without charge Ayman Nasser, a researcher at Addameer. The group alleges that during the course of 39 days, Israeli interrogators questioned Nasser for as long as 20 hours per day while his hands were shackled behind his back. Addameer said that on November 26, the military prosecutor at the Ofer military court charged Nasser with violations of military laws stemming from his participation inpublic activities in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners and political factions. Charging Nasser with a criminal offense on the basis of such peaceful actions violates the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, Human Rights Watch said.

In August and September, the Israeli Interior Ministry and military imposed travel bans on the chairman of Addameer’s board, Abdulatif Ghaith, preventing him from visiting the West Bank, where the organization’s offices are, and from leaving his home in East Jerusalem to travel abroad. The Israeli Supreme Court previously upheld a travel ban that the military issued against Shawan Jabarin, the director of Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, based on evidence he and his lawyer were not allowed to see.

“While Israeli security officials temporarily lifted the travel ban on Jabarin on three occasions in 2012, allowing him to travel, Israel should revoke it,” Stork said.