The peculiarities with this year’s report on Israel/Palestine are not just limited to omissions. For reasons unexplained, this year the State Department used a different methodology for Israel/Palestine from the methodology used in the reports for nearly 200 other countries.
"This report contains data drawn from foreign government officials; victims of alleged human rights violations and abuses, academic and congressional studies; and reports from the press, international organizations, and NGOs concerned with human rights. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some of those sources have been accused of harboring political motivations. The Department of State assesses external reporting carefully but does not conduct independent investigations in all cases."
This was then followed by an additional caveat:
"We have sought and received input from the government of Israel (and, where relevant, the Palestinian Authority) with regard to allegations of human rights abuses, and we have noted any responses where applicable. Because of timing constraints, the Israeli government was not able to provide a detailed response to every alleged incident, but it did maintain generally that all incidents were thoroughly investigated and parties held accountable, as appropriate, according to due process of law."
Further, although serious allegations have been levelled at the human rights records of a number of other countries, notably Russia and China, their governments were not apparently afforded the same opportunity to respond as was the government of Israel.
While these disparities may be perfectly understandable from a diplomatic perspective, they do little to enhance the standing of the State Department or the status of the Country Reports as an objective, rules-based resource.
While these developments might be attributable to changes in personnel
and partisan interests, words matter, and these developments may prove to adversely impact both the U.S. and Israel’s long-term interests in a number of ways, including:
1. By subjectively determining what is, and what is not "occupied territory," without reference to established legal principles, the U.S. risks derogating from the laws of belligerent occupation and the principle of non-acquisition of territory by force codified in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Perhaps Russia will now start referring to the rest of Ukraine as "disputed territory," relying on the precedent set in the Palestinian territories, and China may rely on the erosion of these principles in an attempt to legitimize its island building projects in the South China Sea.
2. By applying a different methodology in the Israel/Palestine report from that applied to nearly 200 other countries, the State Department’s Country Reports run the risk of being dismissed as demonstrably biased, lacking objectivity and divorced from established legal principles.
Countries such as China, with a horrible human rights record, may seek to claim moral equivalency with the U.S. as a result of these double standards.
3. If in fact the U.S.’s position is now that the Palestinian territories are no longer occupied, a reasonable assumption following the deletion of the word "Occupied," then there is no legal basis upon which Israel can continue to prosecute thousands of Palestinian residents of the West Bank, including children, in military courts rather than standard civilian ones.
And further, if the Palestinian territories are "not occupied" then approximately five million Palestinians living between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea - who are not citizens of Israel - may demand the same civil and political rights as Israelis living in the same territory.
Making exceptions for Israel 70 years after its establishment may ultimately prove damaging to other U.S. strategic interests and harm the aspiration to "lead by example." And as for "leading by example" – be careful what you wish for. Russia and China might just rely on this lead to justify making their own territorial claims in violation of established principles.
Gerard Horton is a lawyer and co-founder of Military Court Watch. Gerard has worked on the issue of children detained by the Israeli military and prosecuted in military courts for the past 10 years prior to which he practised as a barrister at the Sydney Bar. Twitter: @MCourtWatch