Inquiring Into International Commissions of Inquiry

by Lori Allen | published February 24, 2013 - 2:01pm

A Palestinian political prisoner, Arafat Jaradat, died in Israeli custody on February 22.

The Shinbet, Israel’s internal intelligence service, claims that Jaradat, 30, died of natural causes. Palestinian authorities suspect foul play, and the Palestinian prime minister in the West Bank, Salam Fayyad, expressed “shock” at the news. Somewhat more proactively, ‘Isa Qaraqa‘, the Ramallah PA minister in charge of prisoner affairs, demanded an “international commission of inquiry to probe the circumstances of [Jaradat’s] death.”

It’s too early to make a reasonable judgment about where the culpability for Jaradat’s death lies. But these first reactions of blame and innocence from both sides are not unexpected. What’s interesting, though, is the impulse to call for an international commission of inquiry. Why call for such a thing?

Commissions of inquiry seem to be a reflexive reaction when it comes to problems in Palestine. Even before the state of Israel was created, there were such commissions -- British (royal and parliamentary), American, Anglo-American, League of Nations. There have subsequently been dozens more investigations, citizen initiatives and international commissions organized by the United Nations, including one that that was scuppered because Israel would not cooperate, and several that have proceeded despite Israel’s non-cooperation. Numerous UN special rapporteurs have been tasked with inquiring into specific aspects of the Palestine problem. Other UN committees are focused on global topics, such as torture or extrajudicial killings, but regularly include Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in their reports.

It may seem reasonable, this call for an investigation, given that Palestinians do not trust Israel’s investigations into its own occupation apparatus. And they are right not to. Since April 2011, Israel has launched inquiries into the deaths of 12 Palestinians killed in the West Bank by Israeli forces. One was closed, with no legal action taken against the soldiers involved, and the others remain inconclusive. Between 2001 and 2010, there were 645 complaints of abuse under interrogation made to the Israeli Ministry of Justice. Not one led to a criminal investigation. And that’s just accounting for the small percentage of Palestinians who summon the courage and energy to make a complaint to a justice system stacked against them. Tens of Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations are documenting persistent Israeli abuses of Palestinian political prisoners, whose ranks include children. These organizations have long urged Israel to halt violations of detainees’ rights and demanded accountability for the abuses that have already occurred. But despite the piles of detailed files, Palestinians are still regularly tortured in Israeli prisons.

So what would Palestinians gain from yet another toothless international commission? Probably the Palestinian minister’s hope is that an investigative commission would be headed by a character of sufficient gravitas and global repute to draw significant attention to the impunity that the Israeli occupation enjoys. And perhaps it might. But then what? What actions would be taken as a result of a report documenting what has already been documented? It’s not hard to imagine what would happen in response to yet another commission righteously condemning what is condemnable, already condemned and yet continuing.

Most likely such a commission’s findings would be posted on the websites of the very human rights organizations that gave the testimony in the report. They would be circulated by sympathetic news outlets, and might even be mentioned in a mainstream newspaper or two. If the report somehow became controversial, like the Goldstone report on the 23-day Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009, it might stay in the news a little longer. Longer still, if the commission’s head recanted some of the report’s assertions, as Goldstone did.

But Arafat Jaradat would still be dead, his family still devastated and the Israeli authorities unfazed.

Maybe this gloomy expectation of inefficacy is unwarranted. Perhaps this latest commission would be the one that finally tipped the balance in favor of that vague force called world public opinion. After all, its report would be coming in the midst of growing popular mobilization in support of the 4,743 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails (178 of whom are administrative detainees, including seven Palestinian Legislative Council members, who are imprisoned indefinitely without charge or trial). A wave of hunger strikes among political prisoners is fueling demonstrations in the West Bank, with a corresponding bump in media coverage of prison conditions in Israel. It’s possible that a report into Jaradat’s death that proves the pattern of ill treatment and unaccountability in Israeli prisons, a report that demonstrates the institutionally sanctioned disregard for human rights and illustrates the flagrant brutality of Israeli occupation practices, would all of a sudden make the people who matter take note.

But none of that would happen without a concerted, coordinated, well-organized plan to put the commission’s findings to work. Some of the most devastating critiques produced by investigative commissions into, first, Zionist claims to Palestine and, later, Israeli occupation practices, have had no political effect. They have been suppressed, intentionally or by circumstance, and generally ignored. Due to their monotonous repetitiveness -- similar abuses revealed and censured in the same language year after year -- they have become background noise. And the people who might actually be able to do something about these abuses -- Israeli citizens, American voters -- are not forced to listen. The International Fact-Finding Mission on Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, which issued its report in January, has already faded from media view. Meanwhile, the Israeli government is promoting the construction of thousands of houses in the E-1 zone, joining together illegal settlements and further fragmenting the West Bank.

The call by ‘Isa Qaraqa‘ for an investigative commission reflects the desperation of an exhausted people under military occupation and siege and a Palestinian rights movement that has run out of imagination. Absent is the ability to analyze history, to perceive present global configurations of power and adapt accordingly. Anyone who cares about justice, Palestinian or world citizen, must begin to recognize these patterns of fake action and turn them into something meaningful. If yet another group of goodhearted legal experts and human rights advocates do as the minister requests -- probe, find facts and call for redress -- it will not be enough. The report must be shoved in the faces of US legislators who justify their blind support for Israel by calling it “a fellow democracy.” The next investigative commission, and surely there will be one, whether into Jaradat’s death or some other rights violation, must be used to ask US citizens who foot the $3 billion annual bill of Israel’s military aid to take responsibility for what their tax dollars are funding.