Human Rights Watch – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 05 Aug 2020 05:33:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Yemen: Houthi Stonewalling on Leaking Oil Supertanker endangers Red Sea Ecology, 30 Million Livelihoods Wed, 29 Jul 2020 04:03:34 +0000 ( Human Rights Watch) – Houthi authorities in Yemen should immediately permit United Nations experts access to a supertanker moored off Yemen’s coast that risks spilling over a million barrels of crude oil into the Red Sea, Human Rights Watch said today. The UN says a spill would have catastrophic environmental and humanitarian consequences, including destroying livelihoods and shutting down the port of Hodeida, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis who depend on commercial imports and humanitarian aid.

The aging tanker, known as “the Safer” and owned by the Yemeni state-run Safer Exploration and Production Operations Company (SEPOC), has been stranded 5 nautical miles off Yemen’s coast and 32 nautical miles from Hodeida since 2015. In late May 2020, seawater entered the tanker’s engine compartment. While divers temporarily fixed the leak, the incident has heightened concern about the risks of an oil spill. In early July, the Houthis, who control the area, said they would allow the UN to carry out an assessment mission, but as of July 24, the UN had not received the necessary permits for its staff to board the tanker. UN attempts in 2019 to obtain permission failed.

“The Houthi authorities are recklessly delaying UN experts’ access to the deteriorating oil tanker that threatens to destroy entire ecosystems and demolish the livelihoods of millions of people already suffering from Yemen’s war,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN’s top experts are on standby to prevent the worst and should immediately be allowed on board the vessel.”

The storage tanker holds an estimated 1.1 million barrels of crude oil – 4 times as much as spilled during the catastrophic 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. A 430-kilometer pipeline connects Yemen’s oil fields in Marib governorate to the tanker. Oil was previously transferred from the tanker to other vessels for export, until the Houthis took control of the nearby coastline in early 2015.

Yemen’s conflict involves a Saudi-led coalition, which backs the internationally recognized Yemeni government, against Houthi forces, who control much of northern and central Yemen, including Hodeida. The conflict and a decade of political and economic crisis have turned the country into what the UN says is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Yemen relies on commercial imports and aid for between 80 and 90 percent of its basic needs, about 70 percent of which enter the country through Hodeida.

Since 2015, SEPOC has been unable to afford maintenance costs for the tanker, resulting in corrosion and a dangerous build-up of potentially flammable gases. Experts say the lack of maintenance since 2015 has irreversibly damaged the ship.

On July 15, 2020, the UN warned of a risk of an explosion that could spill most or all of the oil into the Red Sea. The same day, the head of the UN’s environmental agency highlighted the likely harm an oil spill would cause. It said a spill could destroy Red Sea ecosystems on which almost 30 million people depend, including at least 125,000 Yemeni fishermen and 1.6 million people in their communities who already depend heavily on humanitarian aid.

The UN also said a spill would destroy 500 square kilometers of agricultural land used by about 3 million farmers, 8,000 water wells, and create harmful levels of air pollutants affecting over 8 million people. And it said that a spill would close the Hodeida and Saleef ports for up to 6 months, which would seriously affect Yemen’s capacity to import 90 percent of its food and other essential aid and commercial commodities.

Others have pointed to the risk a spill poses to Saudi Arabia’s desalinization plants, on which millions of people depend for drinking water. A spill could also cripple one of the world’s busiest commercial shipping routes through the Red Sea, which accounts for about 10 percent of world trade.

The UN Environment Programme reported that the age and condition of the Safer means the safest option to secure it would most likely involve removing the oil, towing the tanker to a secure port, and dismantling it in an environmentally sound way.

Responding to an oil spill involving the Safer would be an especially daunting challenge. The tanker is located near one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes on the edge of a war zone. A rapid cleanup operation would involve complicated regional political dynamics and most likely delays from Covid-19 measures.

The impact of an oil spill on livelihoods, access to water and food, and on fuel prices could significantly exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said. The UN has presented the Houthis with evidence that an oil spill from the tanker would destroy the livelihoods of fishermen and others on whom millions of people depend for food.

The Houthis should act to protect the human rights of everyone on territory they control, including the right to life, to an adequate standard of living, to health, and to food and water. Under international humanitarian law, they have an obligation to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to populations at risk.

On June 29, the UN Security Council called on the Houthis “to immediately grant unconditional access for United Nations technical experts to assess the tanker’s condition, conduct any possible urgent repairs, and make recommendations for the safe extraction of the oil.” Two weeks later, the UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, raised concerns with the Security Council about the Houthis’ long-running “bureaucratic minuet” and their broken promises to the UN to allow its experts permission to board the Safer.

The Houthi authorities should urgently issue permits to members of the UN assessment team, facilitate their access to the tanker, and follow the UN’s recommendations on securing the tanker and its oil.

Iran, which has supported the Houthis and which transports significant amounts of oil through the Red Sea each year, should encourage the Houthis to cooperate with the UN. Regional states, including Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, should work closely with the UN to identify ways in which they can help convince the Houthis to cooperate. The UN Security Council should inform the Houthis that a failure to promptly address the issue could result in additional targeted sanctions.

“Governments concerned about Yemen’s humanitarian crisis should recognize the danger the Safer tanker poses and press to avert further tragedy,” Simpson said. “The Houthis’ continued refusal to allow UN access could result in devastating consequences for the environment and people across Yemen and the wider region.”

Via Human Rights Watch


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Can an environmental catastrophe in Yemen be averted? | Inside Story

How US Immigration Policies Foreshadowed Violence Against Protesters Sat, 25 Jul 2020 04:02:59 +0000 By Grace_Meng | –

( Human Rights Watch) – Outrage is mounting across the United States over the abusive tactics of federal agents, led by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), against protesters in Portland. Video footage and reports from protesters in Portland appear to show agents using excessive force against protesters and journalists and arbitrarily arresting and detaining people.

But the Trump administration shows no signs of changing course. Today the president announced that federal agents would also be sent to Chicago and Albuquerque. “This is the kind of thing we see in authoritarian regimes, ” Mary McCord, a Georgetown Law professor and former national security official at the US Department of Justice, told the New York Times.

While the actions of DHS agents in Portland are disturbing, they are also familiar. Human Rights Watch researchers working on US immigration policy have for many years seen DHS agents engage in lawless and abusive tactics against non-citizens in communities across the country. Numerous reports by Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented frequent abuses, with little accountability.

The events in Portland are also part of a continuing pattern of DHS agents violating the rights of US citizens. In 2019, Customs and Border Patrol agents were revealed to have harassed, surveilled, interrogated, and detained journalists, lawyers, and activists at the US-Mexico border, interfering with their freedom of speech and movement. Border Patrol agents have been accused of racially profiling US citizens in border communities – in one case, two US citizens filed suit after being detained in Montana because Border Patrol agents had heard them speaking Spanish.

We have been watching President Trump stigmatize migrants and asylum seekers as dangerous and a threat to the US for years. We are now seeing him describe US protesters in similar broad strokes. Sending agencies with a long track record of abuse and little relevant training to police US cities highlights the contempt this administration has for the rights of US citizens and non-citizens alike.

Grace Meng, Senior Researcher, US Program, Human Rights Watch, is a human rights researcher, advocate, and writer. As a senior researcher in the US Program at Human Rights Watch, she focuses primarily on the rights of immigrants in the United States. She has written reports on such topics as farmworkers’ vulnerability to sexual harassment and violence, the impact of the War on Drugs on immigration law, and abusive immigration detention conditions. She has also collaborated with artists and photographers on multimedia features to make human rights more immediate and relevant to a wider audience, including an exhibit on immigration on display at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Grace and her work have been cited or published in a wide range of outlets, including Politico, NPR, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

Via Human Rights Watch


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

ABC News: “Legal victory for protesters in Portland”

Syrian Refugee Children Are Still Being Robbed of an Education Sat, 11 Jul 2020 04:05:21 +0000

Education Not Prioritized at Annual Donor Conference

By Breanna Small and Bill Van Esveld |

( Human Rights Watch ) – June 30 was possibly the most important day of 2020 for Syrian refugee children. At the annual pledging conference for the “Future of Syria and the Region,” dozens of governments and multilateral donors pledged US$7.7 billion in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees over the next two years.

But how much of that funding goes to schooling for Syrian children – who have been “robbed of their right to a decent education,” as United Nations relief chief Mark Lowcock reminded donors – is unclear. Many donors did not even mention education in their pledging statements.

The summit’s goal was to increase financial support for Syrian refugees and host countries, but pledges at last year’s conference were higher, at US$9.4 billion for two years. Yet donors’ support for education is vital for Syrian children.

In 2016, in the small city of Mafraq, Jordan, we met Amal, a Syrian refugee girl who was being educated at a center set up by a local sheikh. That year’s Syria pledging conference was supposed to be a turning point, with participants promising that “all refugee children and vulnerable children in host communities will be in quality education” by 2017.

But in 2017, Amal’s informal school lost its funding. The sheikh, Nour Waqfi, took out personal loans to try to keep it open, but in vain. He is still in debt. Meanwhile, Amal’s father sent her to work. Like 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan, the family lived in poverty.

But Amal’s mother, Hanan, pushed back. She convinced her husband to let Amal leave her back-breaking farm work and persuaded Jordanian school officials to enroll her last year. “I want my kids to learn,” Hanan told us when we saw her again in March 2020. “I want them to have more than I had.” Amal now plans to finish secondary school.

But she is an exception. More than three quarters of Syrian refugee children drop out of education before secondary school, which is crucial for any child today. The promise made in 2016 of quality education for all children is being broken, almost a decade into the Syria conflict.

It is up to donors to make good on those promises. As Hanan, who married at age 14 and never learned to read herself, said: “My one wish is to educate my children, so that they gain something valuable in this life.”

Breanna Small is the NYU School of Law Fellow at Human Rights Watch for 2019-2020. She works in the Children’s Rights Division. During law school, she interned with Asilo in Europa, a refugee policy NGO in Italy, and with the Center for Economic and Social Rights in New York. As a member of NYU Law’s International Organizations Clinic, she conducted research on social protection policies and global governance.

Bill Van Esveld (Associate Director, MENA, Children’s Rights Division) began working on children’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa in 2015. For the previous six years he focused on Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. As the Arthur Helton research fellow at Human Rights Watch in 2007-08, he wrote or contributed to reports on Western Sahara and Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, asylum seekers in Egypt and Israel, and migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates.

Via Human Rights Watch

Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Human Rights Watch: “Syrian Refugee Kids Face Educational Crisis in Jordan”

500,000 Yemenis displaced by Renewed Fighting Face Coronavirus Dangers Tue, 26 May 2020 04:03:38 +0000 Human Rights Watch – (Beirut) – Civilians fleeing renewed fighting in northern Yemen are particularly vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today.

Fighting in Marib governorate between Houthi forces and the Saudi-led coalition and their Yemeni government allies has moved closer to overcrowded camps for internally displaced people that have inadequate health services and humanitarian aid. The parties to the conflict should take immediate steps to protect displaced people in insecure areas and facilitate access to aid. Poor camp conditions including recent flooding make the residents especially vulnerable to a Covid-19 outbreak, which Yemen lacks the capability to contain, especially as donors have reduced assistance.

“Yemeni government forces and Houthi forces need to protect fleeing civilians and ensure that they can get aid,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The heightened risk to millions of Yemeni civilians who rely on aid as their lifeline comes at a time of reduced foreign assistance and rising fear of a Covid-19 outbreak.”

The armed conflict that began in Yemen in March 2015 has displaced nearly four million people. Many have fled their homes due to serious laws-of-war violations, including the Saudi-led coalition’s unlawful airstrikes on homes, schools, and marketplaces and the Houthis’ indiscriminate shelling of neighborhoods. Since early 2020, fighting in northern Yemen has increased sharply, causing a significant displacement toward Marib. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, reported that over 40,000 people have been displaced since the beginning of the year, and more displacement is likely as Houthi forces advance closer to Marib City.

Marib currently hosts 750,000 displaced people, outnumbering the city’s original population of 500,000. There are camps for displaced people and other shelter facilities across Marib, including in schools, a university campus, and a museum, according to Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Two aid workers told Human Rights Watch that coalition forces are deployed near some camps near current front lines, putting civilians at additional risk.

In February 2020, Houthi forces made military advances in north Yemen, taking control of the strategic district of Nehm and the city of al-Hazm, some 60 kilometers northeast of the capital, Sanaa, and about 60 kilometers northwest of Marib. Simultaneously, Houthi forces made military advances in the governorate of Al-Bayda’, south of Marib, leaving Marib city surrounded by active fighting from both the north and south.

Since February, Houthi military advances have left Marib City surrounded by active fighting in both the north and south. Coalition airstrikes have continued, with Marib one of the hardest-hit areas. Two hospitals in Marib City that served displaced people were struck during clashes in February. The UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen described the attacks as “a completely unacceptable breach of international humanitarian law.”

International humanitarian assistance to Yemen has been hampered by a funding shortfall as well as Houthi obstruction of aid to those in need. International donors have not fulfilled their 2020 funding pledges, with only 27 percent of the Yemen humanitarian fund funded.

Pledges are also down in 2020, with only US$800 million in pledges compared with $2.6 billion pledged in 2019.

In April, the UN humanitarian coordinator warned that 31 of 41 major humanitarian programs in Yemen would be reduced or shut down “unless funding is urgently received.” Numerous aid workers told Human Rights Watch that displaced people would be among those most affected by funding shortages. UNHCR said that nearly one million vulnerable displaced people and refugees in Yemen risked losing their shelter, vital cash assistance for essentials like food and medicine, and other assistance. The agency said that it received only 28 percent of the 2020 funding needed to protect and provide critical aid to displaced people.

Several aid workers and journalists in Marib told Human Rights Watch that both the Houthis and the Yemeni government authorities have placed constraints on humanitarian aid operations in the city. The UN has previously accused Houthi authorities of obstructing aid, including diversion of World Food Program food assistance, demands for a 2 percent cut from the entire UN-led aid budget, refusing biometric registration conditions to reduce corruption, and otherwise unnecessary restrictions on northern Yemen relief operations.

Since early 2020, several donor governments have suspended funding in the north due to the Houthis’ increased restrictions. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) suspended at least $73 million out of $85 million for humanitarian programming in the Houthi-controlled north. After an outcry, the US on May 6 announced $225 million in emergency food aid for Yemen.

One aid group told Human Rights Watch that after temporarily suspending funding over Houthi obstruction, Sweden’s International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) recently resumed its funding. Another humanitarian worker in Marib said that two other donor countries, without stating their reasons, have suspended funding to projects in Marib and other parts of the north, causing him to lose his job.

UN officials have raised concerns that some epidemiological projections estimate that the coronavirus could infect nearly 16 million people in Yemen, 55 percent of the population. The country’s shattered health system – under-resourced and buffeted by years of war – is inadequately prepared to care for Covid-19 patients and contain the spread of the virus.

Displaced people, whom UNHCR warned are “the most vulnerable to the threat of COVID-19,” face even greater risks. Most displaced people are in dangerously overcrowded camps with substandard health care and inadequate access to clean water, sanitation, and other essential services, or the ability to follow social distancing guidelines or “self-isolate” when sick. Recent flash flooding in Marib has affected at least 16 sites, increasing the chances of another cholera outbreak.

As of mid-May, Marib has one confirmed Covid-19 case, and the risk will increase as the virus spreads to other Yemen regions. The internationally recognized Yemeni government’s Covid-19 committee reported on May 20 that there were 180 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 29 deaths in Hadramout, Aden, Taizz, and other governorates since April 10. As of 16 May, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen reported that there were 4 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 1 death in the capital, Sanaa.

Humanitarian groups told Human Rights Watch that the actual number of cases in Yemen is most likely much higher than those reported, in part due to limited testing capacity and the country’s weak health system. They also reported that warring parties have politicized the Covid-19 response by accusing one another of deliberately spreading the virus.

“Given Yemen’s existing humanitarian crisis, battered health system, and the imminent threat of a cholera outbreak, Marib’s displaced people now face the double threat of renewed fighting and the uncontrolled spread of a dangerous virus,” Nasser said. “The warring parties need to work with donors to prevent an even greater catastrophe.”

Via Human Rights Watch


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Cemeteries overflow in Aden as COVID-19 deaths spike in Yemen”

Discriminatory Israeli Land Policies Box in the Palestinian Natives Thu, 14 May 2020 04:03:40 +0000

Palestinian Towns Squeezed While Jewish Towns Grow

( Human Rights Job ) – (Jisr al-Zarqa) – The Israeli government’s policy of boxing in Palestinian communities extends beyond the West Bank and Gaza to Palestinian towns and villages inside Israel, Human Rights Watch said today. The policy discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel and in favor of Jewish citizens, sharply restricting Palestinians’ access to land for housing to accommodate natural population growth.

Decades of land confiscations and discriminatory planning policies have confined many Palestinian citizens to densely populated towns and villages that have little room to expand. Meanwhile, the Israeli government nurtures the growth and expansion of neighboring predominantly Jewish communities, many built on the ruins of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948. Many small Jewish towns also have admissions committees that effectively bar Palestinians from living there.

“Israeli policy on both sides of the Green Line restricts Palestinians to dense population centers while maximizing the land available for Jewish communities,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East executive director at Human Rights Watch. “These practices are well-known when it comes to the occupied West Bank, but Israeli authorities are also enforcing discriminatory land practices inside Israel.”

The Israeli state directly controls 93 percent of the land in the country, including occupied East Jerusalem. A government agency, the Israel Land Authority (ILA), manages and allocates these state lands. Almost half the members of its governing body belong to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose explicit mandate is to develop and lease land for Jews and not any other segment of the population. The fund owns 13 percent of Israel’s land, which the state is mandated to use “for the purpose of settling Jews.”

Palestinian citizens of Israel constitute 21 percent of the country’s population, but Israeli and Palestinian rights groups estimated in 2017 that less than 3 percent of all land in Israel falls under the jurisdiction of Palestinian municipalities. The majority of Palestinians in Israel live in these communities, although some live in “mixed cities” like Haifa and Acre.

In preparing this report, Human Rights Watch compared neighboring Palestinian towns and Jewish or Jewish-majority communities in 3 of Israel’s 6 districts, interviewing 25 current and former local municipal officials, representatives of regional planning councils, residents, and planners. Human Rights Watch also visited each location and reviewed land records and aerial photography. Human Rights Watch received a substantive response from the Israeli Planning Administration (IPA) to its findings.

Beginning in 1948 and in subsequent decades, Israeli authorities seized hundreds of thousands of dunams of land from Palestinians (10 dunams equals 1 hectare). Much of the confiscation took place between 1949, when Israel placed most Palestinians in Israel under military rule, and 1966, when military rule ended. During this period, Israeli authorities confined Palestinians in Israel to dozens of enclaves and severely restricted their movement. They also used various military regulations and new laws to seize land belonging to Palestinians who had become refugees or Palestinian citizens who were internally displaced, including by declaring land to be “absentee property,” taking it over, and later converting it to state land. One historian estimates that of the 370 Jewish towns and villages established by the Israeli government between 1948 and 1953, 350 were built on land confiscated from Palestinians.

Land policies in more recent years have not only failed to reverse the earlier land seizures, but in many cases further restricted the land available for residential growth. Since 1948, the government has authorized the creation of more than 900 “Jewish localities” in Israel, but none for Palestinians except for a handful of government-planned townships and villages in the Negev and Galilee, created largely to concentrate previously dispersed Bedouin communities.

In the 1970s, Israeli authorities brought Palestinian towns and villages into the state’s centralized planning system, but planning processes have not significantly increased the land available for residential building. The authorities have zoned large sections of Palestinian towns and villages for “agricultural” use or as “green” areas, prohibited residential building in them, and built road and other infrastructure projects that impede expansion. A 2003 Israeli government-commissioned report found that “many Arab towns and villages were surrounded by land designated for purposes such as security zones, Jewish regional councils, national parks and nature reserves or highways, which prevent or impede the possibility of their expansion in the future.”

These restrictions create density problems and a housing crunch in Palestinian communities. The Arab Center for Alternative Planning, based in Israel, told Human Rights Watch that it estimates that 15 to 20 percent of homes in Palestinian towns and villages lack permits, some because owners’ applications were rejected and others because they did not apply knowing that authorities would reject their requests on the grounds that they were contrary to the existing zoning. The group estimates that 60,000 to 70,000 homes in Israel, excluding Jerusalem, are at risk of full demolition. A 2017 amendment to Israel’s 1965 Planning and Building Law, known as the “Kaminitz Law,” increases “enforcement and penalization of planning and building offenses.” As of July 2015, 97 percent of Israel’s 1,348 judicial demolition orders in force were for structures located in Palestinian towns.

By contrast, in the cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch, planning authorities provided sufficient land and zoning permissions to similarly-situated, predominantly Jewish communities to facilitate their growth.

In responding to questions submitted by Human Rights Watch, a senior official in the IPA disputed that Israel hems in Palestinian towns and villages. The IPA, she said, has approved or is currently preparing master plans for 119 of the 132 Palestinian localities in Israel. Based on these plans, authorities approved 160,000 housing units in these areas between 2012 and 2019, including 42,000 in 2019, and “legaliz[ed] thousands of existing structures,” she said.

While these efforts have resulted in some residential development in certain towns, much has yet to be implemented, with many projects still requiring further approvals to come to fruition – and they have done little to date to change the reality of hemmed-in Palestinian towns and villages.

Israeli law permits towns in the Negev and Galilee (which comprise two-thirds of the land in Israel) with up to 400 households to maintain admissions committees that can reject applicants from living there for being “not suitable for the social life of the community” or for incompatibility with the “social-cultural fabric.” This authority effectively permits the exclusion of Palestinians from small Jewish towns, which Adalah, a human rights group based in Haifa, estimated in 2014 make up 43 percent of all towns in Israel, albeit a far smaller percentage of the country’s population. In a 2015 study, Yosef Jabareen, a professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, found that there are more than 900 small Jewish towns, including kibbutzim, across Israel that can restrict who can live there and have no Palestinian citizens living in them.

Human Rights Watch documented in 2008 discriminatory Israeli policies and practices that left tens of thousands of Palestinian Bedouins in southern Israel living in “unrecognized” informal settlements, where their homes face the constant threat of demolition, and in 2010, discriminatory planning in a Palestinian village near Tel Aviv.

International human rights law prohibits racial and ethnic discrimination, condemns “racial segregation,” and safeguards the right to adequate housing. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESR), which Israel has ratified, requires states to ensure that policies and legislation progressively realize the right to adequate housing for all segments of society. The body tasked with interpreting the covenant has said that “enjoyment of this right must … not be subject to any form of discrimination” and that “increasing access to land by landless or impoverished segments of the society should constitute a central policy.”

To address the housing shortage among Palestinian citizens of Israel and the legacy of land confiscation from Palestinian towns and villages, Israeli authorities should prioritize the growth needs of Palestinian communities in the zoning process, allocate state land to and expand Palestinian towns, and eliminate the legal loophole that permits discrimination by admissions committees.

“Israeli land policies treat towns inside its own borders in starkly unequal terms based on whether its inhabitants are Jewish or Palestinian,” Goldstein said. “After decades of confiscating Palestinians’ land, Israel confines them to crowded towns while enabling neighboring Jewish towns that exclude them to flourish.”

Planning in Israel

Israeli law centralizes planning under the central government – historically the Interior Ministry, but that largely shifted to the Finance Ministry in 2015. The 1965 Planning and Building Law creates a three-tiered hierarchy of planning bodies that draw up and carry out master plans at the national, district, and local levels. At the highest level, the National Board for Planning and Building prepares national master plans, expressing a national vision for everything from land use to development, and submits it to the government for approval. Based on the national plan, district and local commissions formulate local plans.

While the planning process is designed to provide opportunity for engagement at the regional and local levels, in practice it marginalizes Palestinian citizens of Israel, whose representation in government planning bodies is far smaller than their proportion of the overall population and whose needs are rarely prioritized. Outside of the government committees, the only option for individuals to offer input is by filing objections to particular plans.

Israeli Government Response

The IPA wrote in a March 18 letter to Human Rights Watch that it disagrees that “Israeli policy restricts and confines Arab towns and villages.” It notes that it has “put a great deal of effort into planning through the entire hierarchy of planning institutions in order to advance and strengthen Arab communities” and has created “tremendous planning momentum in these communities.”

The IPA attributes the challenges of planning in these communities, including the “many unutilized agricultural enclaves,” primarily to the high percentage of privately owned land, estimating that about 20 percent of the population owns 80 percent of the land. It further cites “a short supply of land for public use … large-scale unregulated building … challenging topographical conditions” and the prevalence of spread-out single-family dwellings, which “precludes solutions for young couples” and leads to “multi-generational construction,” “forcing the authorities to deliver infrastructure over an expansive area.”

The IPA claims its recent planning efforts address these challenges by “legalizing thousands of existing housing units” and allocating “state-owned land that would allow large-scale construction of housing units” and “public spaces needed for these additional housing units.” The result, according to the IPA, is “masterplans that include new areas for development on an extremely extensive scale, and are suited to contain a number of housing units far exceeding the programmatic and demographic needs of the community.”

In December 2015, the authorities approved a 5-year, more than 10 billion NIS (US$2.93 billion) “economic development plan for the Arab sector.” Assessing progress in an “interim report” published in 2019, the Israeli group “Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights” noted an increase in planning activity in Palestinian towns, including steps to allow for more housing construction, but observed that the housing shortage in Palestinian municipalities would continue without the state allocating them more state land.

Case Studies

Jisr Al-Zarqa (Haifa District)

Jisr al-Zarqa, between Netanya and Haifa in northwest Israel, is the only Palestinian town in Israel on the Mediterranean coast. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics lists its population as 14,700. Jisr al-Zarqa, a local council in the Haifa District with a size of about 1,600 dunams, is one of Israel’s poorest towns, with about 80 percent of residents living below the poverty line.

Policies of Israeli governments and institutions under the British mandate dating back almost a century have effectively boxed in its residents. In the early 1920s, the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, drained the swamps, from which local residents derived their livelihood herding buffalos and weaving reed mats, to make room for new Jewish settlements. Residents say they ended with roughly their current plot of land, far less than they had historically lived on.

While largely spared the destruction and displacement that befell the nearby towns of Tantura and Qisarya during Israel’s establishment in 1948, Jisr al-Zarqa nonetheless came under military rule, as did virtually all other Palestinian towns and villages inside Israel until 1966. During this period, Israeli authorities laid the basis for hemming the town in. Planning and zoning policies in the years since have further restricted its residents’ access to land and housing.


Caesarea and Jisr al-Zarqa

Israel: Discriminatory Land Policies Hem in Palestinians – Palestinian Towns Squeezed While Jewish Towns Grow.

To its north, Israeli authorities in August 1949 granted thousands of dunams of state land to the Jewish Kibbutz of Ma’agan Michael, partly around a cemetery used for years by Jisr al-Zarqa residents. Ma’agan Michael in the 1970s built fish ponds on its land that extend south to the area west of the northern section of Jisr al-Zarqa. Israeli authorities established the Taninim Stream Nature Reserve east of the ponds to protect the stream. This 470-dunam reserve, where construction is prohibited, blocks Jisr al-Zarqa from expanding to the north. Murad Ammash, the head of the Jisr al-Zarqa village council, told Human Rights Watch that 90 of the dunams of this preserve consists of land privately owned by Jisr al-Zarqa residents.

Authorities also zoned part of the area for agricultural use, forbidding residential construction. One of the people who owns land in the area designated for agricultural use, Zaem Ammash, unrelated to Murad, but who serves as a civil servant at the village council, told Human Rights Watch that he sees the land “every day, through my window – there is only one street that separates my house from this land – and yet I cannot move and live on it.”

To the east lies Highway 2, which runs north to south, separating the town from agricultural lands to the east that used to belong to residents. Israeli authorities decided to build Highway 2 in the 1960s, when Jisr al-Zarqa residents, under military rule, had little means to challenge the route. Israel took over as state land the roughly 1,600 dunams east of the highway, much of which the Jisr al-Zarqa village council say its residents own and used to farm on. Most of these lands today fall under the jurisdiction of the nearby Jewish moshav, or community that maintains cooperative practices, of Bait Hanania.

Israel has not built entrance or exit ramps off the highway for Jisr al-Zarqa. Not having a highway exit adds 15 to 20 minutes to commutes north or south and leaves 2 options to enter Jisr al-Zarqa by car. One is an underpass originally used as a water aqueduct that is only slightly wider than a single car, and the other is a road between the northern end of the village and the Taninim Stream Nature Reserve.

To the south, Israeli authorities in 1952 established Caesarea on the site of the Palestinian village of Qisarya. The Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary group, expelled the Qisarya residents in February 1948, according to the Israeli historian Benny Morris. Today Caesarea, which is run by the Caesarea Development Corporation, a private company, is the upscale hometown of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It includes villas, a golf course, a harbor, an archaeological site, and an industrial and business park.

For years, many Jisr al-Zarqa residents worked in Caesarea, largely as house cleaners or manual laborers. However, in 2002, the Caesarea Development Corporation built an earthen berm, 1.2 kilometers long and between 9 to 12 meters high, between Caesarea and Jisr al-Zarqa. The berm blocks the view of Jisr al-Zarqa from Caesarea. Ammash, the village council head, said the berm blocks easy access for residents working in Caesarea and “deflated the morale and hopes” of residents. The berm, he said, made them feel like the people of Caesarea “don’t consider us human beings” and want to “cover up” their existence.

To the west lies the Mediterranean. Israeli law largely prevents building within 100 meters of the coast. Adjacent to the sea, Israeli authorities established two nature reserves.

Squeezed in all directions and with a rapidly expanding population, Jisr al-Zarqa faces a major density problem, a housing crunch, and serious socioeconomic challenges. Its population density of 9,178 people per square kilometer, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, is nearly 3 times that of the predominantly Jewish nearby city of Or Akiva (3,288), more than 10 times Caesarea (807), and more than 30 times Ma’agan Michael (304). Wardah Jurban, a 26-year-old student who lives with her family of 6 in a 95-square-meter house in Jisr al-Zarqa, says the town feels so crowded that “your neighbors can see the inside of your house from their window.”

Ahmed Juha, owner of Juha’s Guesthouse, the town’s only hostel, said that when he opened it in 2014 he had to seek an exception to an Israeli law that requires a dedicated parking lot, since the nearest one is 500 meters away. The Israeli rights group Bimkom estimated in 2014 that Jisr al-Zarqa would need 730 additional housing units to solve its housing shortage at the time.

The squeeze underscores the socioeconomic challenges facing Jisr al-Zarqa, which has no industrial zone, emergency health services, post office, bank, or bank-operated ATM machine, and few public or recreational sites or facilities. It lacks basic infrastructure and services. According to the Haifa-based rights group Mossawa, less than a quarter of the town’s students graduate high school and the life expectancy of its residents is twenty years below the national average. Ammash, the village council head, said “there is no quality of life in Jisr al-Zarqa” and that to him “the goal [of such polices] is clear: to suffocate and displace us.”

The stark differences with its neighbors grow directly out of discriminatory Israeli policies. The state, for example, granted the kibbutz of Ma’agan Michael more than 5,000 dunams of state land. Nir Bracha, the kibbutz’s general director, told Human Rights Watch that the state zoned less than 10 percent of its land for housing, but in several instances over time reclassified land from agricultural to residential to accommodate the kibbutz’s housing needs. Bracha noted that, to help it surmount a housing shortage in recent years, the government required it to build some taller buildings as a condition for rezoning more land for housing.

The kibbutz also manages fish ponds larger than all of Jisr al-Zarqa and has an industrial zone that includes the headquarters of the major plastics company, Plasson. On Jisr al-Zarqa, Bracha acknowledged that “historical and political issues,” in particular “keeping land for the Jews,” has left the town “squeezed.” However, Bracha also stated that Jisr al-Zarqa has benefitted from “positive discrimination” in recent years – a reference to measures the state has taken to address the squeeze.

In 2016, the Israeli authorities approved a plan to expand Highway 2, which includes moving the section abutting Jisr al-Zarqa to the east and creating entry and exit ramps for the town. In 2018, the authorities approved a master plan for Jisr al-Zarqa that would, according to the IPA, create “new development areas” in the space created by moving the highway east, including “higher-density multi-story [residential] building, as well as public spaces.” Ammash, the village council head, said this plan would provide an extra 240 dunams for Jisr al-Zarqa, though noted that it falls short of the 1,200 dunams the municipality requested in this area in 2005 based on a needs assessment it conducted. The IPA said it has proposed plans that could create 700 housing units in this area.

The IPA also said the master plan authorizes construction of 1,500 housing units in the residential core. It also rezones some “green” areas, including a section north of the town near the Nahal Taninim Reserve, to allow for residential construction and permits some residential building near the coast. The IPA has proposed plans for these areas, it says, that could create 930 housing units.

The authorities, however, have yet to authorize construction based on them and many steps remain before they could come to fruition. In January 2019, the Transportation Ministry claimed that it lacked the 600 million NIS ($174 million) necessary to reroute Highway 2, according to minutes of a governmental meeting with Jisr al-Zarqa residents reviewed by Human Rights Watch. Ammash said Jisr al-Zarqa proposed in May 2019 to develop this land even if Highway 2 stayed in place, but the authorities denied that request on the grounds that it would affect the territorial contiguity of the town, he said. The IPA, in an email to Human Rights Watch, said they expected that when a government is formed following March 2 elections, it would discuss the highway’s diversion.

Qalansawa (Central District)

The Palestinian town of Qalansawa, home to 22,800 people, is in Israel’s Central District, in a heavily Palestinian region known as the “Triangle.” Although Qalansawa has roughly 8,400 dunams within its municipal boundaries, Israeli land and planning policies have confined the residential zone to the developed city center, which is about half that size, creating both a density problem and a housing shortage.

Qalansawa lost more than half its land as a result of the events around the establishment of Israel in 1948 and in the two decades that followed. A land survey cited in a 2017 letter by the Qalansawa municipality to the Interior Ministry reviewed by Human Rights Watch shows a land mass of 17,249 dunams, while a municipal official told Human Rights Watch that the actual size of the town’s boundaries before 1948 was closer to 30,000 dunams. Israeli authorities seized much of the land west of Qalansawa in the 1950s and 1960s, as documented in a 1976 publication by Palestinian lawyer and scholar in Israel Sabri Jiryis, during the period of Israeli military rule over most of the Palestinian population in Israel, including through laws allowing it to take control of land it designated as “absentee property.”

During the same period, Israel also began building infrastructure projects on Qalansawa’s territory, further limiting the land available for expansion. The first of these projects, a water pipeline system built in the 1960s, cuts a roughly 2.5-kilometer-long, 50-meter-wide swath through the city, according to Nadi Tayeh, the engineer in charge of planning for the municipality. The pipeline, at the western edge of the residential area, effectively demarcates the edge of the town’s residential core.

Israeli authorities in the 1990s built an electricity line through the city’s territory. The Popular Committee for the Defense of Land and Housing in Qalansawa, a grass-roots group that works on land-related issues, told Human Rights Watch that Israeli law prohibits building within a 150 meter zone around the line, which runs for 3.5 kilometers and reduces the land where residents can build by 500 dunams. They said that authorities have issued demolition orders for about 25 homes and 20 commercial structures allegedly built within the 150-meter zone. Tayeh, the municipal official, believes that the lines devalue land in the zone by 60 to 70 percent and worries about the safety and health risks for those living there.

Israeli authorities also prohibit building near the Alexander River, which flows through the municipality, including through the center of the residential area, for about four kilometers. The Popular Committee estimates that the prohibition, which covers 75 meters on each bank in the agriculture zone, and 35 in the residential zone, further reduces the land where residents can build by 500 dunams.

Israeli authorities only began formal planning in Qalansawa in the 1970s and until 2017 had not approved a comprehensive plan for the municipality, the Popular Committee said. Planning decisions have significantly restricted the land available for residential use. Most significantly, Israeli authorities zoned virtually all of north Qalansawa and parts of the east and west – a total of about 4,200 dunams, or half the municipality – for agriculture use and prohibited building of residential units there.

A 31-year-old Qalansawa resident said that her family owns a 400-square-meter property in an area restricted to agricultural use, only a few meters from the residential zone. She hoped to build their family house there, but, despite years of efforts through the municipality and directly with planning authorities, they were unable to change the classification of the land and instead moved to a nearby Palestinian village.

Mohammad Odeh, a 52-year-old father of 3, said he decided in 2015 to build a home on property he owns in an agricultural area despite not having a permit, to move out of what he described as the “warehouse” he lived in, which leaked and had an insect infestation. He received a demolition order within months of beginning construction in 2016. He filed a legal challenge, has organized demonstrations, and even recorded a video that went viral suggesting he would kill himself if the demolition were carried out. He lives in his unfinished home with the threat of demolition looming.

Tayeh, the municipal engineer, said that 600 to 700 structures – including some homes – in the agricultural zone face demolition orders for being built without a permit. Some residents in the residential center also never applied for building permits, in many cases because their homes do not comply with Israeli regulations, usually because they expanded in a way not allowed under the plan. The Popular Committee estimates that about 7,500 Qalansawa residents, or 30 percent of the population, do not own land in the town and struggle to make ends meet, while another 35 percent own property, but need to expand to accommodate their family’s needs.

During the process that led to approving Qalansawa’s first master plan in 2017, residents, activists, and municipal officials say they filed more than 4,000 objections to the plan. These objections included requests to rezone much of the agricultural land, allocate 1,200 dunams of state land near Qalansawa to the municipality, relocate the electricity line outside the municipality, and block plans to build 2 roads through Qalansawa’s territory.

In response, the authorities in 2016 amended Israel’s national plan to approve in principle rezoning 2,800 dunams in the agricultural zone for residential use. This amendment, though, was not reflected in the master plan for Qalansawa, meaning it could take a decade or more before any residential building can start, given all the approvals required, the Popular Committee said. It also noted that under the master plan, the state did not allocate any state land to Qalansawa and did not relocate state infrastructure projects.

The IPA says it has approved building 2,400 housing units in Qalansawa over the past 5 years and that the authorities are preparing “a new policy document” that could facilitate additional growth.

While Israeli authorities have demolished only a small number of homes in Qalansawa – 25 according to the Popular Committee, including owners who demolished their own structures in the face of demolition orders – the threat of demolition exacts a heavy cost. Tayeh links some of the town’s social ills, including drugs and crime, to youth feeling “there is no hope to build a home, family, and future in the town.”

Abu Ameed Makhlouf, a 60-year-old father of 9, said that in 2017, authorities demolished 2 homes he built for his sons on the grounds that he lacked a permit, and that another son pays 2,000 NIS ($583) in monthly fines and must obtain a permit within 2 years to avoid the same outcome. He said he built without permits because “[he] didn’t have an alternative,” that the family lives “under constant stress and fear,” and that the demolitions “ruined [their] lives.”

Sha’ar Efraim, an all-Jewish moshav built in the 1950s, borders Qalansawa to the east. The community has an admissions committee and faces few of the challenges that confront its neighbor. Iris Engel, director of the planning and construction committee for the regional council of Lev Hasharon, which includes Sha’ar Efraim but not Qalansawa, said that the national infrastructure projects have not restricted Sha’ar Efraim’s growth. Sha’ar Efraim, in fact, built gates at its entrances and sometimes prevents non-residents from using the road passing through it. Most of the moshav’s land is zoned for residential building. No homes there currently face demolition orders, and prior plans have permitted building on agricultural land, Engel said.

Ein Mahel (Northern District)

Ein Mahel, a town of about 13,000 Palestinian residents with an area of about 5,200 dunams near Nazareth in Israel’s Northern District, is surrounded on all sides by the Jewish-majority city of Nof HaGalil, which until 2019 went by the name Nazareth Illit (Upper Nazareth). Nof HaGalil, with nearly 33,000 dunams of land, has a population of 41,200 people, many of whom immigrated from Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s.

Formally a “mixed city,” with about 26 percent of its population now Palestinian, Israeli authorities from the outset envisioned Nazareth Illit as a “Jewish town that will assert a Jewish presence in the area,” as Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wrote in 1957. As the Israeli army’s then-Planning Department Director Yuval Ne’eman put it, the town would “emphasize and safeguard the Jewish character of the Galilee as a whole.” Nazareth Illit constituted a key part of the government’s strategy to “Judaize the Galilee.” The then-northern military governor, Colonel Mikhael Mikhael, wrote that Nazareth Illit would “swallow up” Nazareth, a Palestinian city, and result in the “transfer of the center of gravity of life from Nazareth to the Jewish neighborhood.”

Nof HaGalil, bordering Nazareth, wholly surrounds Ein Mahel and weaves between five other Palestinian towns and villages, impeding the establishment of a larger, contiguous Palestinian municipal area.

During the period of military rule over most Palestinian citizens, including the residents of Ein Mahel, the Israeli authorities in 1957 established Nazareth Illit in part on lands they confiscated from Ein Mahel including under laws governing “absentee property,” as documented in a book by a Palestinian lawyer in Israel, Hussein Abu Hussein, and the British human rights lawyer Fiona McKay. Confiscations continued after the end of military rule, including more than 1,000 additional dunams confiscated in the mid 1970s. Ein Mahel today is about one third its original size, according to the local council.

Planning policies restrict residents to building in the roughly 2,000 dunam residential core of the village. The first plan for Ein Mahel in 1982 and second plan in 1996 zoned the majority of Ein Mahel’s land for agricultural use. Sa’ed Abu Leil, a retired teacher, said that those who live in the residential core, as he does, face a housing crunch, with many young people moving reluctantly outside the village, including to Nof HaGalil/Nazareth Illit.

The plans did create some more space for residential construction, but much of the land allocated was privately owned, Abu Leil said. Rezoning privately owned land, though, will not necessarily create housing for those who do not own land and cannot afford to buy any – who, according to Abu Leil, account for 20 to 30 percent of Ein Mahel’s population. The allocation of state land may be required to achieve that objective.

A 53-year-old dentist, Marwan Habiballah, said Israeli authorities confiscated about 11 dunams of his land in 1976 as part of a larger government confiscation of about 20,000 dunams that triggered protests that activists mark annually on March 30 as “Land Day.” He said he filed a lawsuit which resulted in an offer of financial compensation that he refused. His family owns 9 to 10 dunams of land in the agricultural zone near the built-up area, but, unable to build on it, he says he has no choice but to remain in his home on land he inherited from his grandfather in the residential core that he says is too small for his family of 6. He contemplated moving to Nof HaGalil but said he cannot afford the rent there.

Saher Abu Leil, a 40-year-old physiotherapist with a graduate degree from Tel Aviv University and a father of five, said that he left Ein Mahel, where he grew up, for Nazareth Illit in 2010 due to the housing crunch. He said he would not have moved if he could have built a home on a roughly four dunam piece of land his family owns in southeastern Ein Mahel, but authorities zoned this area for agricultural use. He sought to buy a home in Ein Mahel in 2015, but said a bank denied him a loan, contending the property would not net a good return if he defaulted.

While boxing in Ein Mahel, Israel authorities have allowed Nof HaGalil to grow rapidly. Building on state land and designating it a priority development area, Israeli authorities invested heavily in Nof HaGalil, including establishing the Tziporit Industrial Zone, which includes factories and a park for high-tech companies and is slated to encompass 3,560 dunams. Nof HaGalil, also home to the headquarters of the Strauss-Elite chocolate factory, receives all the local tax revenues from these industries, with none going to the town it envelops, Ein Mahel.

The authorities have also not zoned any of the city’s land for agriculture, according to the city’s general manager Hava Bachar. Ein Mahel, by contrast, has no industrial zones and few dedicated public areas. As Sa’ed Abu Leil put it, Ein Mahel is “a place to reside, but not to live.”

Thousands of Palestinian citizens have moved to Nof HaGalil in recent years, largely purchasing property from Jewish Israelis who were resettled there as immigrants and earned enough to “head for a better life in the center of the country,” according to Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook. Bachar attributes the arrival of Palestinians in Nof HaGalil to the fact that “nearby towns do not have space to grow.” She noted that Nof HaGalil gave a piece of its land for a cemetery for Ein Mahel residents, but was unwilling to “give away land,” given “our ambition to reach 100,000 citizens.” She suggested instead that Israel should build “a new city for Arab citizens.”

Bachar said that the city is “bringing in Jewish families to settle” in order to “ensure it stays Jewish.” Nof HaGalil does not have a state school to serve the roughly 3,000 school-age Palestinian children, forcing most to commute to Nazareth, since Palestinian and Jewish Israelis attend separate schools. The then-mayor in 2013 told the Washington Post that “I would rather cut off my right arm than build an Arab school.”

IPA says it is in the process of approving a comprehensive plan for Ein Mahel. An Ein Mahel official said that the village has requested that the plan rezone agricultural land to permit residential construction and allocate it state land. The draft plan, it says, would – if approved – rezone agricultural land, including some outside the town’s jurisdiction, as a residential area with 12,000 housing units, as compared with the 3,000 housing units currently in the village.

Via Human Rights Job


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

Btselem: “Israeli settlers attack Palestinian residents, South Hebron hills, 28 March 2020”

In War Crime, United Arab Emirates Drone Strike in Libya kills 8 Civilians Thu, 30 Apr 2020 04:01:48 +0000 (Beirut) – An apparently unlawful drone attack by the United Arab Emirates that hit the Al-Sunbulah biscuit factory in Wadi al-Rabie, Libya, south of Tripoli, on November 18, 2019, killed 8 civilians and wounded 27, Human Rights Watch said today, after investigating the incident. The UAE appeared to take little or no action to minimize harm to civilians in its attack and should conduct a transparent investigation of this incident, make the results public, and compensate victims or their families.

Since the current armed conflict in Tripoli erupted in April 2019, the UAE has been conducting air and drone strikes to support the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), previously known as the Libyan National Army, one of two major Libyan parties to the conflict, some of which have resulted in civilian casualties. All casualties in the November incident were civilian factory workers, including 7 Libyans and 28 foreign nationals, all of them men.

Burned-out lorry and car after five missiles struck Al-Sunbulah biscuit factory on November 18, 2019 resulting in eight deaths and 27 injured factory workers; Wadi Al-Rabie, Libya, December 2019. © 2019 Human Rights Watch

“The UAE attacked a factory that makes food products, with no indication there were any military targets,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The failure to verify that the workers there were civilians and that there was no legitimate military target would show recklessness and bad intelligence.”

A Human Rights Watch researcher visited the scene of the attack in December 2019 and documented material damage to the factory from drone-launched guided missiles and found remnants of the weapons. Human Rights Watch did not observe any military targets in the area. The strikes damaged the building and destroyed a truck and a car. The factory stopped operating after the attack.

At the strike site, Human Rights Watch found remnants of at least four Blue Arrow-7 (BA-7) laser-guided missiles that were launched by a Wing Loong-II drone. In Libya only the UAE uses this type of drone and missile.


Remnant of wing brackets of a Blue Arrow 7 air-to-surface missile delivered by a Wing Loong II drone; Wadi Al-Rabie, Libya, December 2019.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch interviewed five people who had been at the site, who said there were five missiles, all launched within a few minutes. The researcher met with two employees of Al-Sunbulah company who were present on the day of the strike and with three other employees who had been injured during the attack and were recovering at a nearby facility belonging to the company.

The attack site is a factory compound with several industrial hangars mostly used as warehouses to store raw materials and equipment. The company produces over 20 types of food items. The surrounding area was mostly farmland, although Human Rights Watch saw some individual houses and other factories – including a paper napkin factory and a wheat mill – that were not near each other.

Satellite imagery taken since early April 2019 shows construction of a possible checkpoint on the main road running alongside the factory compound, about 75 meters east of the Omar Ibn al-Khatab mosque. Imagery since February 2020 shows barriers on the road in the vicinity of the possible checkpoint. When Human Rights Watch visited the site in December 2019 researchers saw no sign that armed groups had been at the facility. The employees interviewed said the closest military presence at the time of the attack was a field hospital at a different mosque at least 1.5 kilometers away. At the time of the visit, the researcher heard artillery shelling in the distance and employees said that the front line was 5 to 6 kilometers away.

A Human Rights Watch researcher visited the scene of the attack in December 2019, documented material damage to the factory from drone-launched guided missiles and found remnants of the weapons as shown in this interactive map.

Four of the employees said that seven of their co-workers died on the spot and that the eighth – from Bangladesh – died from his wounds about 10 days later in a Tripoli hospital. The UAE has not publicly commented on its role in the attack or offered compensation for the civilian losses.

According to media, UN, and other reports, the UAE has carried out at least five other strikes that resulted in civilian casualties since April 2019. These include a July attack against a migrant detention center in Tajoura, near Tripoli, that killed at least 50 migrants and asylum seekers of various nationalities. In addition to drones, the UAE has supplied the LAAF with weapons, ammunition, and other combat materials such as armored vehicles, in violation of a 2011 UN Security Council arms embargo that prohibits such transfers, according to reports from the UN Panel of Experts on Libya.

The UAE’s sustained military support for the LAAF, an eastern armed group with a well-established record of serious laws of war and human rights abuses, risks making the UAE complicit in these abuses and could expose it to scrutiny by international investigations, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch wrote to UAE authorities on April 17, 2020 requesting information about any investigation they may have conducted into the drone strikes of November 18 and any steps taken to minimize civilian harm; as of the time of publication we received no response.

Governance in Libya remains divided between two entities engaged in an armed conflict since April 2019: the internationally recognized and Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and the rival Interim Government based in eastern Libya that is affiliated with the (LAAF). Calls by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and others for a “humanitarian pause” in the armed conflict to allow authorities to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic that has started to spread in the country have so far gone unheeded.

To help end the cycle of impunity in Libya, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva should, during its upcoming session in June, establish an International Commission of Inquiry to document violations, identify those responsible, including external actors, preserve evidence where possible for future criminal proceedings, and publicly report on the human rights situation in Libya, Human Rights Watch said.

All parties to the conflict in Libya are obliged to abide by the laws of war. Civilians and civilian objects may never be the object of attacks. Warring parties are required to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects and to refrain from attacks that would disproportionately harm civilians or fail to discriminate between combatants and civilians.

Those who commit, order, assist, or have command responsibility for war crimes in Libya are subject to prosecution by domestic courts or the International Criminal Court, which has a mandate over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed there since February 15, 2011.

“UAE drones and planes have been pounding Tripoli for a year now with apparent scant respect for civilian life,” Goldstein said. “There is a pressing need for the United Nations Human Rights Council to scrutinize the UAE’s bloody record in Libya.”

Parties to the Conflict

One of the two major opposing Libyan parties to the conflict, the eastern-based Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), under the command of Khalifa Hiftar, is supported by multiple armed groups, including from along the western Libyan coastal towns of Sebratha and Sorman, and from Tarhouna. On April 13, the internationally recognized Government of National Accord pushed Hiftar’s forces out of the western coastal towns and regained control. Militias with a strict Salafi Islamist agenda also support the LAAF.

The group has received military support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, and Egypt despite the Libya arms embargo. The UAE operates a military airbase in eastern Libya, supplies weapons and ammunition to the LAAF, and its warplanes and armed drones have operated in support of the LAAF. Foreign fighters from Sudan and Chad and Russian fighters from a private security company reportedly support the armed group. Syrian fighters backed by Russia also reportedly support the group in Libya.

On the opposing side are the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and affiliated armed groups from western Libya. Turkey, now also a party to the conflict, is the government’s main foreign backer, having signed two memorandums of understanding in late 2019 that outline maritime and security cooperation. Turkey provides weapons, armored vehicles, and Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, and reportedly deployed thousands of Turkey-backed Syrian fighters to support the GNA. The GNA has also reportedly contracted foreign fighters from Chad and Sudan to fight on its behalf.

The UN estimates that the year-long armed conflict in Tripoli has killed 356 civilians and wounded 329 as of March 31. The fighting has displaced more than 150,000 people, some of whom live in crowded and unsanitary shelters, unable to return home. The International Organization for Migration estimated that as of end of February, 373,709 people remained internally displaced in Libya.

The Al-Sunbulah Attack

An administrative employee who was at the factory on the day of the strike said that five missiles struck the factory compound a few minutes apart during working hours.

He said the first struck next to a warehouse hangar. Although the building was damaged, no one was killed or wounded. But, he said, a group of workers in the hangar were frightened and ran toward the open fields. The second missile appeared to target them and killed three. The third missile hit another group of fleeing workers, killing one. A fourth missile targeted a cement truck in the compound, killing one person. He said the fifth hit a nearby car whose driver was preparing to drive one of the wounded Bangladeshi workers to a hospital, killing them both.

Factory worker recovering from knee injury after a UAE drone attack on a biscuit factory in Tripoli outskirts resulted in the killing of 8 civilians and injuring of 27 more; December 2019, Wadi Al-Rabie, Libya. © 2019 Human Rights Watch.

Accounts by the three injured employees were consistent with the administrative employee’s account and corroborated the sequence of events. All three had been wounded by missile shrapnel.

One of the workers, 31, a Chadian national, whose left knee and ankle had been hit with missile fragments from the second missile, said that he fled the factory with a group of workers when the first missile struck:

A group of us ran out of the factory toward the open fields out of fear, after we heard the first missile strike. We were a group of seven or eight people. As we were running the second missile struck and three Libyans were killed by that missile. I was among the five others injured. There was a lot of blood. I crouched next to a wall until someone reached me and I was taken to a hospital. I needed surgery and spent a total of 12 days in a private clinic in Al-Zawiyah Street, in Tripoli.

He and another worker, a 25-year-old Chadian, said that there was no military presence at the factory compound and that the closest point where members of armed groups were present was a mosque some 1.5 km away that had been converted into a field hospital for wounded fighters. A third worker, 29, from Bangladesh, said that on November 27, 10 Bangladeshi workers from the factory were repatriated.

The Weapons Used

Human Rights Watch documented remnants of at least four Blue Arrow-7 (BA-7) laser-guided missiles fired from Wing Loong-II drone, both Chinese manufactured. Remnants seen by Human Rights Watch included distinctive wing brackets, servos – error sensing mechanisms – and gas cylinders specific to the Blue Arrow-7 missile. These remnants were identical to separate remnants of Blue Arrow-7 missiles documented in an earlier attack on a field hospital near Tripoli in July. According to the December 2019 report of the UN Panel of Experts of the Libya Sanctions Committee, “[T]he BA-7 air-to-surface missile is ballistically paired to be delivered by the Wing Loong II UCAV, and by no other aviation asset identified in Libya to date.” The Panel of Experts report cites Jane’s Defense Weekly as saying that the Blue Arrow-7 “is only in operational use in three countries: China, Kazakhstan and United Arab Emirates.”

These weapons were transferred from China and first spotted on satellite imagery by defense analysts while being operated in the region in late 2017.

UAE personnel operate these drones in support of the LAAF, according to the report of the Panel of Experts. Panel investigations confirmed that these drones and missiles were not directly supplied from the manufacturer or by the country of manufacture and found that the UAE is not complying with the Libya arms embargo imposed by the UN “for the post-delivery transfer of Wing Loong II UCAV and Blue Arrow (BA-7) systems to Libya.”

The same type of drone and missiles were reportedly used in a January 5 attack on a military college in al-Hadba, Tripoli, killing at least 30 military cadets and injuring 33 more. The Government of National Accord blamed the LAAF for the attack, but the LAAF denied responsibility. Human Rights Watch could not independently verify if armed groups were using the college compound for military purposes.

Israel’s Obligation vis-a-vis West Bank and Gaza in Face of Coronavirus Pandemic: Global Human Rights Organizations Thu, 09 Apr 2020 04:04:03 +0000

In the face of potential COVID-19 outbreak in the Gaza Strip, Israel is obliged to take measures to save lives, permitting the entry of medical equipment and supplies, to meet patients’ needs.

( Human Rights Watch) – With over 250 identified COVID-19 Palestinian patients in the West Bank and potentially dozens in the Gaza Strip we, the undersigned organizations, express grave concern in the face of a potential human catastrophe. The Palestinian healthcare system, with a dire lack of equipment, medicines, and expertise, will be unable to deal with this outbreak. We therefore urge the Israeli authorities to live up to their legal and moral obligations and assist the Palestinian health systems—in Gaza and the West Bank—both with combating the pandemic and caring for those patients who are in critical need of continuous health care that is unavailable in the Gaza Strip.

At such a critical moment, we call on Israel to lift the 13-year closure on Gaza so that inter alia Gaza can equip itself with the necessary medical supplies—both to combat COVID-19 and to care for patients who would usually seek to leave the Strip as their treatment is unavailable locally, notably cancer patients. Where medication and equipment are unavailable because of budgetary shortages of the Palestinian health system, Israel should help ensure the supply of the missing materials, to the greatest extent possible. Moreover, Israel should remove barriers to movement of goods and any other impediments on trade and economic activity that harm public health, as well as help to actively maintain a steady supply of electricity and fuel so that hospitals and the general population can maintain reasonable levels of hygiene.

Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention specifically provides that an occupier has the duty of ensuring and maintaining the “adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics”. We already know that that there is an alarming lack of equipment, including personal protective equipment, consistent with local shortages and compounded by the long-term restrictions imposed by the blockade, as well as insufficient numbers of trained healthcare workers in both Gaza and the West Bank. In addition to its own citizens and residents, Israel must also fulfill its duty to all protected persons living under its effective control, including in Gaza, and take active steps to ensure that they have adequate access to medical care.

We call on relevant international organizations to call on Israel to fulfill its duties and responsibilities to assist the Palestinian health system and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including:

a) Ensuring that the relevant medical equipment and supplies are provided to the greatest extent possible.

b) Giving assurance that it will allow safe and swift access to Gaza and the West Bank for medical personnel, humanitarian actors, medicine and medical equipment and other inputs critical to maintaining civilian health infrastructure such as hospitals and clinics, as well as, when appropriate, patients needing to leave for urgent treatment.

c) Lifting the closure on the Gaza Strip to enable the proper functioning of its health system in face of the coronavirus pandemic.

d) Working in close regional cooperation for the safety of all.

List of Signatories:

  • Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel
  • Al Mezan Center for Human Rights
  • B’Tselem
  • EuroMed Rights
  • Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement
  • Human Rights Watch
  • Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights
  • Medecins du Monde France
  • Medical Aid for Palestinians
  • Medical Human Rights Network IFHHRO
  • Medico International
  • Medico International Switzerland
  • Oxfam
  • Physicians for Human Rights
  • Physicians for Human Rights Israel
  • The Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region (ASPHER)
  • The World Organization against Torture (OMCT)

Human Rights Watch


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Coronavirus: ‘Gaza has no resources to fight this virus’ – BBC News

With 53,000 Covid-19 Cases, Iran Can’t get Needed Medical Supplies: Trump Admin must Ease Sanctions Tue, 07 Apr 2020 04:03:20 +0000

Ensure Access to Essential Resources

(Washington DC) – Broad US-imposed economic sanctions are negatively affecting the Iranian government’s ability to adequately respond to the mounting health consequences of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The US should take immediate action to ease US sanctions and expand licensing of sanctions-exempt items to ensure Iran’s access to essential humanitarian resources during the pandemic.

According to official statistics, as of April 3, 2020, 53,183 people in Iran have contracted the virus and 3,294 have died, though the real number is most likely higher. On March 19, the spokesperson for Iran’s Health Ministry tweeted that every hour almost 50 people contract the virus and every 10 minutes one person dies because of COVID-19 across the country. As the burden on the country’s debilitated health care system has dramatically increased, the broad US economic sanctions resulting in severe international banking restrictions have drastically constrained the ability of the country to finance humanitarian imports, including medicines and medical equipment.

“It’s bad enough that Iranians are saddled with a brutal, self-serving government that refuses to even release wrongfully detained people in crowded prisons despite the risk of coronavirus,” said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director at Human Rights Watch. “But it is wrong and callous for the Trump administration to compound Iranians’ misery by depriving them of access to the critical medical resources they urgently need.”

After the Trump administration announced its intention to leave the negotiated nuclear agreement in 2018, Iran’s currency, the rial, depreciated significantly. The restrictions on financing, combined with the sharp depreciation of the rial, have resulted in severely limiting Iranian companies and hospitals from purchasing essential medicines and medical equipment from outside Iran that residents depend upon for critical medical care. Moreover, renewed US sanctions have directly impacted families’ purchasing power, contributing to inflation rates of around 30 percent in the past year.

A doctor with close knowledge of the government’s response to the outbreak told Human Rights Watch that obtaining necessary medical equipment has become more difficult under sanctions: “The reality is that sanctions are exacerbating Iranian government’s crisis of incompetency. To manage a pandemic of this scale, a government needs the trust of people and health professionals as well as essential resources. The government has done a poor job of managing the public trust front, but sanctions have impacted their resources both in terms of available medical equipment for detection and treatment of the virus, as well as in terms of their capacity to support people’s needs during the crisis.”

While the US government has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanctions regime, Human Rights Watch research in October 2019 found that in practice, these exemptions have failed to offset the strong reluctance of US and European companies and banks to risk incurring sanctions and legal action by exporting or financing exempted humanitarian goods. On January 30, the US Department of Treasury and the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs announced the transfer of medicine through a newly established humanitarian channel as a “trial run.” The US Treasury had announced the establishment of the channel on October 25 after its designation of Iran’s central bank under its counterterrorism authority on September 20, a move that had seriously threatened the flow of exempted humanitarian trade to Iran.

On March 6, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued guidance that transactions involving Iran’s foreign exchange assets held abroad, when used to buy humanitarian items, would not face US sanctions. However, because waivers are no longer available for purchasing Iranian oil and sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank, Iran’s access to currency to purchase needed medical supplies on the international market has become further restricted.

OFAC has issued general licenses that permit the export of “certain food items, medicines, and basic medical supplies to Iran” without requiring further specific authorization. These provisions also authorize financial transactions to support Iranian imports of these categories of goods from the United States or from a third country. General licenses, however, are capped at $500,000.

But the definition of drugs under US export regulations – which includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines and medical devices – excludes certain vaccines, biological and chemical products, and medical devices – including medical supplies, instruments, equipment, equipped ambulances, institutional washing machines for sterilization, and vehicles carrying medical testing equipment. This means that equipment crucial to fighting the virus, including ventilators, CT scanners, decontamination equipment, and full-mask respirators, require a special license.

The Washington Post reported that the rate of special licenses OFAC issued for the export of specific medicine and medical devices to Iran has significantly declined under the Trump administration, from more than 50 percent of requests during the first quarter of 2016 to 10 percent during the first quarter of 2019. If more licenses are not granted, or the rules are not changed to include this equipment under the general license, Iranians may not be able to obtain the medical equipment and drugs they need to help combat COVID-19 in a timely manner, Human Rights Watch said.

In a letter dated March 26, 11 US senators called on the Trump administration to release a “clear general license authorizing specific medical goods and equipment to facilitate international relief efforts” and to issue a “90-day waiver of sectoral sanctions that impede a rapid humanitarian response” among other efforts. In a bicameral letter dated March 31, 34 members of Congress called for a substantial suspension of sanctions on Iran in a “humanitarian gesture.”

Relief International, a nongovernmental organization that operates with an OFAC license in Iran, said that international aid – and therefore an adequate response during the first weeks of the crisis – was hampered by a need to clarify the legal issues related to sanctions to ensure that medical supplies and medicines can be brought into Iran.

On March 24, Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement that for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in living in countries under economic sanctions that are battling against the outbreak of COVID-19, “Sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended. In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us.”

Iranian authorities should make use of every available resource to respond to the outbreak in a way that respects human rights and minimizes harm to the health and well-being of all those living in the country, Human Rights Watch said.

While sanctions will inevitably diminish the capacity of the affected country to fund or support some of the necessary measures, Iran remains obligated to take steps “to the maximum of its available resources” to “provide the greatest possible protection” of the right to health of individuals within its jurisdiction.

At a time of crisis, this obligation is even more crucial, and the government should use all possible means, both domestic resources and negotiations with other countries to ensure the entire population’s access to the most urgent medical care, Human Rights Watch said. While Iran’s economy remains opaque and non-transparent, economic enterprises known as bonyads, some of which are under the direct supervision of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, control a large amount of financial resources with little oversight.

Human Rights Watch has previously urged the Iranian authorities to facilitate the temporary release of all eligible prisoners and the unconditional release of people detained for peaceful dissent, due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The Iranian government should also ensure everyone’s right to an adequate standard of living, which, in the context of responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, means taking measures to buffer the economic impacts of COVID-19 that affects certain groups, including lower-wage workers, first and hardest. Social distancing, quarantine, and the closure of businesses, all recommended by experts to reduce the chance of transmission, will most likely have enormous economic consequences.

The people at most risk are those who are already marginalized in society such as Afghan migrants and refugees, and people with disabilities, as well as low-wage workers in low-income households. The Iranian government should create programs so that such workers affected by COVID-19 do not suffer further loss of income that might deter them from self-isolating to contain the spread of the virus. Without assistance, these workers may face intense economic hardship, risking eviction. The government should take measures at a minimum to ensure that everyone continues to have access to, and can afford, adequate housing, food and water, and other elements of an adequate standard of living.

Under international law, a country or coalition of states enforcing economic sanctions should consider the impact on the human rights of the affected population, especially regarding their access to goods essential to life, including medicines and food.

“The US government should ensure that financial sanctions imposed on Iran are clearly and publicly interpreted to permit the shipment of anything the Iranian people need to protect themselves from the coronavirus,” Roth said.


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Al Jazeera English: “Why has the coronavirus hit Iran so hard? | UpFront (Full)”

Yemen: Saudi Forces Torture, ‘Disappear’ Yemenis Sun, 29 Mar 2020 04:01:59 +0000 (Human Rights Watch) – (Beirut) – Saudi military forces and Saudi-backed Yemeni forces have carried out serious abuses against Yemenis since June 2019 in al-Mahrah, Yemen’s far eastern governorate, Human Rights Watch said today. The abuses include arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and illegal transfer of detainees to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi and Saudi-backed forces have arbitrarily arrested demonstrators protesting the presence of Saudi forces, as well as other local residents not connected with the protests, in al-Mahrah’s capital al-Ghaydah, residents told Human Rights Watch. Former detainees said that they were accused of supporting opponents of Saudi Arabia, interrogated, and tortured at an informal detention facility at the city’s airport in which Saudi officers supervise pro-Saudi Yemeni forces. Detainees’ families said that Saudi forces forcibly disappeared at least five detainees for three to five months while illegally transferring them to Saudi Arabia and not providing information on their whereabouts.

“Saudi forces and their Yemeni allies’ serious abuses against local-Mahra residents is another horror to add to the list of the Saudi-led coalition’s unlawful conduct in Yemen,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia is severely harming its reputation with Yemenis when it carries out these abusive practices and holds no one accountable for them.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed four former Yemeni detainees, two family members of detainees, and four friends of detainees, as well as seven Yemeni activists, five journalists, four officials with Yemen’s internationally recognized government, and a Houthi official about recent events in al-Mahra. Human Rights Watch also reviewed a document signed by the Yemeni government’s “secretary general for political security” for al-Mahrah about the detention of a person in al-Ghaydah airport and a short video in which a badly bruised man describes being arbitrarily detained and tortured at the airport prison. Activists provided names and photos of six detainees they said were forcibly moved to Saudi Arabia.

Human Rights Watch documented the cases of 16 people whom Saudi and allied Yemeni forces arbitrarily detained in al-Mahrah governorate between June 2019 and February 2020. Saudi security forces moved 11 of the 16 to Saudi Arabia. Five of them were moved in June to a prison in Abha, the capital of Asir province, after which families learned their whereabouts, their family members said. Before their transfer, the families received no information about their whereabouts for three to five months. The other six were men from northern Yemen arrested while crossing the border from Oman back into Yemen after receiving medical treatment there, said an al-Mahrah activist and two Houthi sources. The Saudis have released the other five whom they did not transfer to Saudi Arabia. A source also told Human Rights Watch that Omani forces detained a Yemeni man near the Omani border in September 2019, before releasing him after 10 days in detention. However, in a written response to Human Rights Watch, the Omani government denied that there are any Omani forces in Yemen, and that allegations of rights abuses by its forces in Yemen are “baseless.”

Four officials of the internationally recognized Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, former detainees and activists told Human Rights Watch that Saudi officers and Saudi-backed Yemeni forces are running an informal detention facility in al-Ghaydah airport in al-Mahrah. A document bearing a stamp of President Hadi’s office, dated April 2019, and reviewed by Human Rights Watch, refers to the detention there of a person arrested by the “central apparatus for political security,” Yemen’s domestic intelligence service.

Four former detainees said that Saudi officers were present during their detention and interrogation at the airport facility. Three said Yemeni officers tortured them, in the presence of Saudi officers, to compel them to sign pledges to cease protests against the activities of Saudi forces and their Yemeni allies in al-Mahrah and stop cooperating with Saudi Arabia’s opponents.

Human Rights Watch wrote to Rajeh Bakrit, governor of al-Mahrah, before he was replaced by Mohammed Yasser on February 26, 2020. Human Rights Watch also wrote to Yemen’s minister of human rights, Mohammed Asker; the Saudi-led coalition’s spokesperson, Turki al-Malki; and the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah, inquiring about alleged abuses committed by their forces in al-Mahrah. At the time of writing they had not responded.

Saudi forces in Yemen are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law and international human rights law. They must treat people taken into custody for security reasons humanely, and if they detain someone on suspicion of committing a criminal offense, transfer them to the custody of the Yemeni government for investigation and prosecution. Torture or transfer to torture is strictly prohibited, as is enforced disappearance, the detention of someone without reporting their status or whereabouts. International humanitarian law prohibits (Geneva IV, art. 49) the transfer of detained civilians from their country to another state, such as Saudi Arabia.

“The Saudi and Yemeni governments should immediately release any Yemenis wrongfully detained or transferred to Saudi Arabia and investigate alleged torture and enforced disappearance by their forces in al-Mahrah,” Page said. “The UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen should also investigate these abuses, with a view to holding those responsible to account.”


© 2020 Human Rights Watch

Al-Mahrah Governorate

Al-Mahrah governorate is in Yemen’s far east, bordering Oman and Saudi Arabia. It is remote from the areas of heavy fighting between the Saudi-led coalition, which entered Yemen in March 2015 to support the Yemeni government led by Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi against Houthi forces from northern Yemen, who had taken control of the capital, Sanaa, and much of the rest of the country.

Oman was the only Arab state in the Gulf region that did not join the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led military operations against Houthi forces. In a 2017 report, the United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen detailed the transfer of weapons from Oman through al-Mahrah to territory under the control of the Houthis and their allies. By late 2017, Saudi Arabia began deploying forces into al-Mahrah governorate and in November took control of the airport in al-Ghaydah.

At least since 2016, the Yemeni and Saudi governments have backed a “military police” security unit in al-Mahrah governate. The UAE unsuccessfully attempted to create a so-called Mahri Elite Force, similar to units it had established in Hadramut and Shabwah governorates as part of its “counter-terrorism efforts” in Yemen, which have led to rampant abuses.

The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen noted in 2018 that Saudi Arabia deployed its 123rd Infantry Brigade security unit to al-Ghaydah in November 2017 to improve security along this main supply route for commercial and other traffic. Former detainees, families of detainees, and activists in al-Mahrah repeatedly mentioned “military police” and “special forces,” along with the Saudi-led coalition and Saudi-supported Yemeni forces, as responsible for the documented abuses. Yemenis interviewed by Human Rights Watch used “Saudi” and “coalition” interchangeably to describe the security forces in al-Mahrah.

Beginning in May 2018, Yemeni community leaders in al-Mahrah organized peaceful demonstrations against the presence of Saudi forces, eventually establishing a group they called “the committee of peaceful sit-in.” Pro-Saudi media and the United Kingdom newspaper The Independent alleged that the Omani government has provided financial support to the committee.

During a demonstration in November 2018, pro-Saudi Yemeni forces dispersed protesters in al-Mahrah’s al-Anfaq area (منطقة الأنفاق) with live bullets, the sit-in committee told Human Rights Watch. Unconfirmed accounts by four officials from the internationally recognized Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, activists, and local press reports said that the Yemeni forces allied with Saudi Arabia killed at least two protesters and wounded another during that protest.

In April and August 2019, Saudi warplanes carried out airstrikes against checkpoints set up by al-Mahrah residents, according to residents and local press reports. No casualties were reported. On February 17, 2020, clashes erupted after residents prevented the entrance of Saudi forces in Shahan district’s Fujit area , according to local media. A message from the sit-in committee spokesperson to Human Rights Watch said that at least one protester was wounded. According to the Saudi-led coalition spokesperson, some members of the government security forces were also injured in the clashes.

In September 2018, President Hadi’s government reportedly issued an arrest warrant for Ali bin Salem al-Huraizy, al-Mahrah governorate’s former deputy governor and one of the founders of the sit-in committee. Al-Huraizy, who has not been arrested, told Human Rights Watch that the government accused him of destabilizing the region with calls for protests against the Saudi-led forces.

Arbitrary Arrest and Torture

Three former detainees said that Yemeni local forces supervised by Saudi officers abused and tortured them inside a detention facility in the airport in al-Ghaydah, subjecting them to beatings, electric shocks, and threats to harm their family members. The three former detainees said they were accused of ties with Lebanese Hezbollah and ties to Qatar, which has been in a prolonged diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia and the UAE since June 2017. All of those interviewed are identified with pseudonyms for their protection.

A former detainee, “Bassem,” a journalist, said that local Yemeni forces allied with Saudi Arabia detained him in early July 2019 for about two months in al-Ghaydah. They took him to the local criminal investigation police headquarters (al-Bahth al-Jinai) (البحث الجنائي) for a few hours, he said, then to the airport, handing him over to Yemeni security forces and their Saudi commander. His Yemeni captors, “with the approval of the Saudi officers,” he said, kept him blindfolded, beat him, tortured him using electric shocks, and threatened to transfer him to a prison in Riyadh:

The Saudi and Yemeni security men forced me to sign a pledge to not do journalism work in al-Mahrah and not to communicate with ‘Iran-allied’ Shi’ite Hezbollah, Qatar, or Oman. I was angry. I went on hunger strike for a whole week demanding they hand me over to the public prosecution, but in the end they forced me to eat. At this stage, I realized I was in a prison run by the Saudi army in al-Ghaydah civilian airport and I heard a man scream in pain under torture in the next room. After a few days, they moved me to another prison in an unknown military base. In this prison, no jailer was Yemeni. No one. Zero. They all spoke with Saudi dialects.

Bassem said that interrogators told him that if he didn’t confess about his alleged links with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Qatar, and to the Houthis and Omani intelligence services, they would behead his younger brother, whom they had also detained. Bassem said he was later transferred to several detention centers: “I had inadequate food, and the last cell I was in was like a garbage dump.” He said he managed to escape in late August by digging a tunnel underneath the wall of the container in which he was confined.

“Hassan,” another journalist, said that Yemeni armed men with their faces covered abducted him from his hotel room in al-Ghaydah in mid-July 2019 and took him by car to the criminal investigation detention center, then to the airport prison, and finally to a place he was unable to identify. He said that throughout his detention, which lasted more than a month, his captors tortured him, using electric shocks, and beat him repeatedly. After his release, he tried to obtain surveillance camera footage from the hotel, but he learned from the hotel’s receptionists that the armed men who abducted him had disposed of the footage to prevent them from being identified.

“Farouq,” one of the protesters who had joined the sit-ins protesting the Saudi presence in al-Mahrah, said Yemeni security forces arrested him in June 2019 as he was passing by the airport. He was interrogated in the detention center there, first by pro-Saudi Yemeni forces and then by a Saudi officer. He said:

I was interrogated in a room by a member of the Saudi military. His military clothes and accent showed that he was Saudi. The officer himself told me that he was Saudi. He also told me that in the room there was a camera filming me and they can watch me live in Riyadh. He said that they knew who I was because they filmed me in the demonstrations and recognized my face. They tried to force me to sign a pledge that I, and anyone from my family like my siblings, wouldn’t participate in any anti-coalition activities. I refused to sign because, as I told them, our demonstrations were peaceful. The officer was verbally abusive. They took my phone at the gate so I couldn’t call my family all that time, for about two to three hours.

A source close to prominent tribal groups in al-Mahrah also informed Human Rights Watch of a case in which Omani guards in al-Mahrah’s Shahen district (منطقة شحن), near the Oman border, arbitrarily detained a Yemeni man in September 2019 after he refused to join anti-Saudi efforts in al-Mahrah. Omani authorities released him after 10 days. Oman denied allegations of any abuses by Omani forces in a written response to Human Rights Watch, and moreover denied the presence of any Omani forces operating in Yemen.

Forced Disappearances and Illegal Transfers from Yemen

Four Yemeni government officials, as well as three relatives of detainees and seven activists, said that Saudi Arabia arbitrarily detained and then illegally transferred at least five Yemeni detainees into Saudi Arabia.

The mother of one detainee said that Yemeni military police arrested her son in June 2019 at al-Ghaydah airport when he went there to register and find work as a guard. They later transferred him to a prison in Abha, the capital of Asir province in Saudi Arabia. She said she had no word of him for three months, and only found out where he was when he phoned her from Saudi Arabia and told her his location. The son remains in detention without charge.

Another mother told Human Rights Watch that Yemeni security forces detained her husband and their two sons in al-Ghaydah in June 2019. Saudi officials then transferred them to a prison in Abha. She said she knew about the location of her husband and sons only after they called her from the prison in Abha after five months. The three remain in detention without charge.

Via Human Rights Watch


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Al Jazeera English: “Yemen: Five years of conflict leaves millions of children suffering”