(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Briefing: Should 'killer robots' be banned?

    Drones are already doing a lot of killing on behalf of certain governments, but a human being still has to make a conscious decision somewhere and press a button. What if killing machines were programmed to take such decisions all by themselves?

    “Killer robots” may sound like fodder for dystopian fiction, but they are exactly what weapons technology experts, human rights groups and United Nations’ member states are meeting in Geneva this week to discuss.

    The five-day gathering, taking place within the context of the UN’s Convention on Conventional Weapons, is looking at the legal and moral implications of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, LAWS for short, and assessing how advanced their development already is.

    IRIN examines the key issues.

    What are LAWS?

    Answering that question is one of the things this meeting aims to do. LAWS are still only in the development stage, they have never been used on the battlefield. Many countries are working towards more autonomous, even fully autonomous, weapons systems, but exactly what they will be capable of remains unclear, and no legal or commercial definitions for LAWS have yet been determined. LAWS should not be confused with drones, which despite flying without pilots, remain controlled by humans on the ground. A truly autonomous weapon is a machine that is programmed well in advance, to seek out certain people or objects, and destroy them. The final decision to attack will be taken by the machine itself.

    Who has LAWS and who wants them?

    Again, it is hard to answer that question, since countries are traditionally fairly quiet about their development of advanced weapons technology. But the United States, Russia, Britain, and Israel are all thought to be developing autonomous weapons systems. The United States has been working on the “Crusher,” an unmanned ground combat vehicle, and Britain has tested an unmanned fighter plane called “Taranis.” Meanwhile, South Korea has deployed autonomous “sentries” in the demilitarised zone. These are equipped with machine guns that have the capability to lock on to human targets and shoot them, but have never been used to do so.

    Are there advantages to LAWS?

    The idea of wars fought by machines, clinically destroying targets, with no human error, can seem attractive. Some military leaders believe autonomous weapons could significantly reduce the number of human soldiers required on the battlefield. Others suggest their use would reduce civilian suffering during conflict.

    And what about disadvantages?

    Human rights groups say autonomous weapons raise serious moral and ethical questions. Ahead of this week’s meeting in Geneva, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report arguing that autonomous weapons should be banned before they are even fully developed. The report, called "The Accountability Gap", raises concerns about liability for war crimes in conflicts in which autonomous weapons are used.

    “A fully autonomous weapon could commit acts that would rise to the level of war crimes if a person carried them out, but victims would see no one punished for these crimes,” said Bonnie Docherty, HRW’s senior Arms Division researcher.

    The United Nations Human Rights Council has also raised questions about autonomous weapons. A report published in May 2013 by Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on arbitrary execution, argued that “machines lack morality and mortality, and as a result should not have life and death powers over humans.” Heyns’ report called for a moratorium on the development of autonomous weapons until legal and moral concerns are addressed.

    What about the Geneva Conventions?

    The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, has also raised concerns about lethal autonomous weapons. The ICRC fears their use would undermine the key principles of distinction, proportion and precaution aimed at protecting civilians during warfare.

    Highlighting the complex nature of modern warfare, the ICRC’s report (LINK) on autonomous weapons says: “it is not clear how such weapons could discriminate between a civilian and a combatant, as required by the rule of distinction.

    “Indeed, such a weapon might also have to distinguish between active combatants and those hors de (out of) combat or surrendering, and between civilians taking a direct part in hostilities and armed civilians.”

    “An autonomous weapon system will also have to operate in compliance with the rule of proportionality, which requires that the incidental civilian casualties expected from an attack on a military target not be excessive when weighed against the anticipated concrete and direct military advantage,” the report adds.

    However, the ICRC has not joined calls for a pre-emptive ban. Instead, it is contributing to this week’s debate and urging UN member states to answer to the legal and ethical implications of LAWS before they are further developed or deployed.

    How likely is a pre-emptive ban?

    There is a precedent for banning a weapon before it is fully developed and used: in 1995 the UN banned blinding lasers.

    But other attempts at agreeing UN conventions to ban weapons have been less successful.

    After years of campaigning against landmines, supporters of a ban finally abandoned the UN disarmament structure and set up the Ottawa process, which led to the 1998 Convention on the Prohibition of Anti-Personnel Mines.

    The same thing with cluster munitions: stalemate within the UN led Norway to invite other interested parties to join the Oslo process, and in 2010 the Convention on Cluster Munitions came into force.

    It is more than likely that the debate on LAWS will be long, and progress towards restrictions or a ban are expected to be slow.
    NGOs would prefer the debate to stay inside the United Nations because it would ensure the participation of the world’s key military powers. Don’t forget, neither the United States, Russia nor China have adopted the conventions against landmines and cluster munitions.

    So what can we expect from this meeting?

    Lots of discussion, but no major decisions. The diplomat leading the talks, German ambassador Michael Biontino, has sent member states a background “food for thought” document.

    Biontino asks them to reflect on a number of issues: the possible consequences of LAWS on regional stability; the ethics of leaving a decision over life and death to a machine; and under what scenarios autonomous weapons would be likely to be deployed.

    By the end of the meeting, he hopes there will be a much clearer picture of the legal and moral questions surrounding LAWS and an accurate assesment of their current state of technological development.

    From there, the debate is expected to become more formal, ahead of the Convention on Conventional Weapons review conference in 2016, at which concrete proposals for restrictions or a complete ban can be expected.

    The whole process sounds slow, laborious, and bureaucratic, but in fact the discussions in Geneva are groundbreaking. Countries, weapons developers, and humanitarians are meeting together to identify the rights and wrongs of a new weapon - a weapon with the potential to fundamentally change the nature of war - before that weapon even exists.


    Should 'killer robots' be banned
  • Taking the long run in Palestine

    On a crisp Ramallah evening, much of the city appears to be tucked inside the city’s cafes sipping hot tea. But 20 runners are shaking off the chill and loosening up for one of their last jaunts before the third annual Palestine Marathon.

    On Friday, the Ramallah team and this writer will join some 3,000 others at Jesus’ birthplace, Manger Square in Bethlehem. We’ll make our way through two refugee camps, past a checkpoint and alongside part of the imposing concrete wall that separates Israel from the West Bank, in a 42-kilometer test of both physical and mental resilience in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

    Right to Movement

    The Palestine Marathon and its founding organization, Right to Movement, have their humble beginnings with George Zeidan, a resident of Jerusalem’s Old City. The 25-year-old began hitting the streets four years ago to stay in shape and got hooked.

    A friend thought she’d like to run too, but wasn’t sure how her parents would feel about her setting off alone. So they formed a group, and it sprouted quickly.

    “People were asking to join us because it was a relief,” Zeidan told IRIN. “It’s something they look forward to because they are so restricted in terms of the occupation. How many places do we have to run? It’s kind of a little jail, a prison.” 

    And so the Right to Movement organization was born: its slogan: “we run to tell a different story.” Groups of runners of varying abilities, religions, and political opinions popped up in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and overseas. Eventually, Zeidan and some Danish colleagues set up the inaugural Palestine Marathon in 2013. 700 people took part.

    A long time running

    I happened upon the race a few months ago. My own running career began and ended with an elementary school 5km, plus mandatory attendance as a cheerleader at my mother’s four marathons. I remember finish lines as bloody toes, space blankets, carbohydrate-filled bagels and exhaustion.

    But in a flight of what has since often seemed to be foolishness, I thought it best to see for myself. So I signed up for the 10km. That’s the shortest distance the race offers.


    To ensure I didn’t back out, I informed my mother. She’ll turn 60 in the spring, and is training to run the full distance once again. She was thrilled until I quietly mentioned the race is inside Occupied Palestinian Territory, at which point I was subjected to a heavy dose of maternal concern.

    Tarek Salfity, the marathon’s 25-year-old dentist-cum-volunteer director, says countering this type of skepticism about the safety of life in a Palestinian city is part of the race’s mission.

    Prepping for a race in Bethlehem has its challenges. The course will come close to a military checkpoint, so the Israeli Defence Forces have to be informed. Certain parts of the course have been prone to clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in the past, so there’s that to worry about too. Yet Salfity is keen to project a different image.

    “Our message is we can have an internationally recognized event here,” he explained recently, unruffled after an early morning Jerusalem run. “The idea is that when people think of this part of the world they think of war,” says Salfity. “But the idea of the marathon is to show it is safe…there will be a sense of normalcy.”


    But the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, is anything but normal.

    Entry and exit to Israel from the territories is administered by COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories), a unit of the Israeli Army.  The territories are only connected by Israeli soil.

    Most Palestinians from the West Bank, like Diala Isid, head of the Ramallah Right to Movement group, can live and move freely in some 40 percent of the territory.  The rest is under Israeli control. They need special permission to work inside Israel, or to enter Jerusalem.

    Palestinians with East Jerusalem identity documents, like Salfity, can travel back and forth between the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Israel proper, but they aren’t Israeli citizens. 

    And those from Gaza, like Palestinian Olympian Nadr al-Masri, can almost never leave the 360 square kilometre strip. According to Eitan Diamond, executive director of Gisha, an Israeli organization that advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement, “the rule basically, is that there is no movement.”

    With a few exceptions – including humanitarian emergencies, some sports teams and some businessmen –“you can’t cross” from Gaza into Israel, he says.

    Last year, Israel denied al-Masri a permit to visit Bethlehem for the race. But Gisha, which represents him legally, expects he will be allowed to attend Friday. 

    Even if he is allowed out, Diamond thinks Israel is “solving the illustration of the problem but not the problem it illustrates.”

    The split has both economic and personal consequences – Gisha estimates that some 25 percent of Gazans have relatives in the West Bank.

    Diamond sees the marathon as a tool to raise awareness of the division. “The restriction is part of a policy that is a separation policy, and one of the objectives is to create a separation between Gaza and the West Bank, and cut the ties between the two parts of the Palestinian territory, undermining economic ties but also social, cultural and family ties.”



    The concrete wall that splits the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Israel has for many come to exemplify the restrictions on Palestinian movement, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the diminishing prospects for peace.

    Israeli officials say the barrier, which runs some 250 km, has done its job – saying attacks within Israel from West Bank residents have declined by ninety percent since construction began on the wall in 2003.

    Critics say it is a land grab, weaving inside Palestinian land.

    There’s no doubt it is imposing, 8 meters high in some places, and impossible to miss on my way from Jerusalem to join the Ramallah runners. On the way back through the checkpoint – little more than an annoyance for someone with an American passport but far more for my fellow travellers – I notice that fruit sellers have set up shop before the turnstiles and metal detectors.

    Out of the norm

    I learned to run slowly. In the winter I developed a hatred of the treadmill, in the spring a hatred of running outdoors - until finally I conquered my first non-stop 5 kilometres. Still, I confessed my skepticism about the running project to Nadine Abu Rmeileh, who runs in Jerusalem. 

    “I’m a newbie,” the 23-year-old nutritionist from Beit Hanina promised, although she’s been at it for a year.  I chose the right confidante: “Sometimes I ask why I am doing this to myself?” she said. “But what keeps me going is after the run I feel accomplished when I see progress."

    And she and other women athletes are busting stereotypes about religious women. "I do not wear the hijab inside [the gym]," she tells me. "When I finally put it on [after her workout - she favours zumba and yoga] they say: 'Oh, we didn't expect you to wear the hijab.'"

    “I do get some looks while I’m running,” she continued. “I guess they are thinking ‘what is she doing, is she serious?’ But I keep running nevertheless.” Last year 30 percent of the racers were women.

    The home straight

    In Ramallah, during training, it is cold and my ears ache every time I move. I don't know the city, the terrain or the runners. But the warm-up is rousing so I head off with the regulars, lucky that Diala Isid, the organizer, has an ankle injury so I had some slower company, at least as long as I can keep up.

    An architect, she used to work in Jerusalem until the authorities failed to renew her permit to enter the city.

    We run in the streets, past olive trees and up far too many slopes for my taste – Ramallah lives up to its Aramaic origins as “God’s Hill.” I shiver and sweat at the same time, my knee hurts, and the faster runners passed me multiple times. I think I am enjoying myself.

    I send my mum a picture on a walking break. Since I’ve started running, we’re talking less about her safety concerns and more about mileage. She even mentioned – albeit briefly – that she’d like to run the race with me.

    On the top of a particularly painful incline, Diala points out some lights. “From here you can see Jaffa.” I’ve been there multiple times. She can’t go.

    But on Friday, through the refugee camps, under the wall and what’s forecasted to be a hot sun, we’ll both run, and I might walk a little. Even Zeidan, the founder who is busy with last-minute organization, will forget his worries and go for his fifth marathon. “I’m just going to put my shoes on and run.”




    Taking the long run in Palestine
  • After Israel's elections, what prospects for Middle East peace process?

    Shortly before Israel’s elections on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that as long as he remained in power there would be no independent Palestinian state.

    “Whoever moves to establish a Palestinian state or intends to withdraw from territory is simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel,” he said.

    The announcement was a major part of a strategy that saw Netanyahu rise from polling several points behind the more liberal Zionist Union a few days before the vote to surprise election victory and a likely fourth term in office.

    While the election was fought more over economics than relations with the Palestinians, where does his explicit rejection of the two-state solution leave the peace process?

    Backing down

    For some, Netanyahu’s statement was merely a reflection of what they had long feared – that he has little interest in an independent Palestinian state. While Israeli and Palestinian officials continue to pay lip service to American-led peace talks, there have been no significant breakthroughs in recent years. Some fear his comment was merely a blunt statement of what was in fact unspoken policy.

    “Netanyahu’s statement confirms the view that he and the former government did not seriously engage in a peace process,” one European diplomat told IRIN.

    Yet since the election victory, Netanyahu’s allies have sought to row back on the statement.

    Tzachi Hanegbi of Netanyahu’s Likud party and the deputy foreign minister in the previous government, told IRIN that Likud was still committed to negotiations with the Palestinians.

    “I believe the [new] administration will make an effort to renew the negotiations. We will be very delighted to renew the negotiations, we believe it’s in the interests of both people, the Israelis and the Palestinians, to have a dialogue and discuss and to try and find a common denominator in the issues that are so crucial to both people.”

    He refused to be drawn on whether the next government would be willing to support an independent Palestinian state in any form.

    Critics also allege that Netanyahu’s party used the fear of the Arab vote to drum up support. The Joint List, a coalition of four predominantly Arab parties, had a major breakthrough at this election – becoming the third largest bloc in the Knesset.

    In an apparent attempt to get out the Jewish vote, Netanyahu warned that Arabs were voting in their “droves.”

    Ahmed Tibi, a Joint List parliamentarian, said that Netanyahu’s victory meant little change would be forthcoming. “It seems that the Israeli Jewish public did not want to change the reality. We wanted Israel to change its reality and cooperate with democratic process,” he said.

    Netanyahu’s approach has also contributed to increasingly tense relations between Israeli Jews and Arabs, said Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund - which advocates coexistence between the communities.

    "Nobody has a right to incite against Arabs and Netanyahu is supposed to represent all citizens, including the 20 percent of Arab Israeli citizens,” Abu Rass said. "These kinds of statements from Netanyahu widen the gaps between Arabs and Jews and worsen the ethnic discourse and do not contribute to democracy.”

    Going it alone?

    Netanyahu’s choice of coalition partners is likely to influence whether he formally engages with the peace process in the coming months. He has said that it could take several weeks to form a government.

    Salman Shaikh, director at the Brookings Center Doha think tank, said that if Netanyahu’s Likud party were to form an alliance with the Zionist Union then he would have to commit to a breakthrough in the peace process as it was a key part of the latter’s campaign. “But I don’t think that is going to happen – [Netanyahu] would need to back down on his promises,” he said.

    In the absence of such an alliance, there appears little impetus for serious bilateral talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

    This could encourage the Palestinians to ramp up their attempts at international recognition, rather than through direct negotiations. Last year the Palestinians announced their intention to join the International Criminal Court, with their accession due to be confirmed on April 1. This comes after numerous attempts to gain recognition of Palestine at the United Nations, with resolutions in the Security Council vetoed by the United States.

    Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator during the last round of talks, announced that Netanyahu’s victory made the need for the Palestinians to pursue an international approach to independence more important.

    “Now, more than ever, the international community must act. It must rally behind Palestinian efforts to internationalize our struggle for dignity and freedom through the International Criminal Court and through all other peaceful means,” he said.

    “The Palestinians will not go through any process now [after Netanyahu’s statement],” Shaikh said. “They will be looking for international action now. They are forced to start a process that has not got internationally-backed parameters.”

    The European diplomat said foreign diplomats were increasingly in agreement that direct Israeli-Palestinian talks are unlikely to yield results. “The two-state solution needs stronger international engagement, it will not come from a bilateral process,” he said.

    The European Union has already announced its commitment to working with the new government on the peace process, but the diplomat added that there was increasing support within European countries for bringing the Palestinian issue back to the “Security Council with broader support.”

    That could force the US into a corner. Shaikh said the US would have to decide whether it was seriously looking to pressure Israel into concessions, or merely looking to maintain the status quo.

    “The only other way [for a peace process to move forward] is for the US to insist on it, put down parameters,” he said. This could begin with the “US withdrawing its veto within Security Council on certain measures and could go into a phrase of taking more positive action,” he said.

    “We are going to see this thing move into the international domain and the big question is what will the US do?”


    A future for Middle East peace process?
  • What refugees really think of aid agencies

    Aid agencies are partial, unaccountable and potentially corrupt, and they fail to meet refugees’ most pressing needs.

    These are just some of the criticisms emerging from a series of new focus groups with refugees and others who receive aid across the Middle East.

    Concerns included a lack of consultation about people’s needs, a failure to protect the most vulnerable, confusion over which agency was responsible for what, duplicated aid, as well as instances where help was perceived to be withheld or prioritised due to political or religious affiliation.

    “When you decide to help someone you have to remove all their affiliations and simply treat them as humans,” noted one female youth leader from Palestine.

    “Humanitarian organisations need to provide information about their services because it is not humane to respond to refugee information needs with ‘I don’t know’,” added a female refugee in Yemen.

    The interviews conducted in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen were commissioned by the organisers of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), ahead of this week’s consultation for the Middle East and North Africa, held in the Dead Sea. 

    Reality Check

    “Some of the comments were quite damning and I think it is a bit of a reality check for the humanitarian system,” said Reza Kasraï, Middle East and North African regional representative for the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), an NGO consortium, which conducted the focus groups in partnership with the WHS Secretariat.

    Details of the interviews - conducted between November 2014 and February 2015, with a mix of men, women, youth and community leaders – have been compiled in a report shared with aid organisations, donors and government officials attending the WHS meeting in Jordan and online.  

    The observations make uncomfortable reading for both national and international aid agencies operating in a region where large communities of Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, as well as other migrants, are living in a mix of camp and community settings.

    “When you decide to help someone you have to remove all their affiliations and simply treat them as humans” 

    For a UN document, the stakeholder report is unusually candid, but its tone reflects ongoing efforts by the WHS secretariat to promote dialogue around sensitive issues rarely openly discussed within the sector.

    Using a 10-point scale (where 10=high and 1=low), interviewees gave an average rating of 3 when asked if they thought aid groups were meeting their priority needs.

    Asked if they were treated with respect and dignity, respondents across the five countries gave an average ranking of 3.5 out of 10; and the question of whether aid organisations considered refugees’ opinions received an average score of 2.5 out of 10.

    Nadine Elshokeiry, a humanitarian affairs officer with the UN's Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa (ROMENA) and who assisted with the focus groups, told IRIN: “It is clear that people do not feel they are getting as much support as they want and that many organisations are not doing enough to communicate with [the] affected populations they are trying to help.”

    But she added: “While there were some strong comments, we feel this is a very constructive criticism and it gives us something very useful to work on in terms of how the humanitarian system can improve its response.”

    In addition to the 35-page WHS report, IRIN has also been shown country-specific reports on the focus groups in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and Lebanon.


    Elshokeiry said the focus groups had shown that many people didn’t distinguish between different aid organisations - seeing them all as part of one wider system.

    “Because there is not always clear information about who is doing what or where aid is coming from, especially where local partners or intermediaries are involved, I think this creates a perception of a lack of accountability,” she said, noting a need for agencies to do more to communicate with the people they are trying to help. 

    "We feel this is a very constructive criticism" 

    In OPT, accountability – or a perceived lack thereof – was a major complaint among those interviewed. Many accused international and national aid agencies of favoritism towards certain groups of people and expressed concerns about aid being subject to corruption.

    “The participants’ biggest issue was the lack of accountability and transparency of humanitarian organisations,” the write-up noted. “... This also raises participants’ suspicions of the possibility of corruption in humanitarian aid.”

    And it adds: “… There is a perception that project budgets are not spent appropriately, but are spent on high-visibility activities, such as repainting building walls and paying for media coverage. In Gaza, distributions are said to happen in schools or other places that will be covered by the international media.”

    Although few aid organisations were identified by name, participants in the Palestinian focus group, study seen by IRIN, directly criticised UNRWA - the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

    The criticisms included: A vague mandate; refusal to delegate responsibilities to other organisations; funding shortages that have affected quantity and quality of the services in schools and primary health clinics in camps; and cumbersome bureaucratic procedures and slow decision-making processes.

    “Funding shouldn’t be based on the donors’ agenda but serve the beneficiaries” 

    UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness acknowledged agency services have been subject to “cutting and erosion” but he told IRIN: “Going back to the 1950s, UNRWA has had a significant budget deficit year on year and this has had an impact on everything: buildings and infrastructure are crumbling, computer services taken for granted in most organisations are just not there, the list goes on.”

    And he added: “Alongside the austerity brought on by the funding gap, our major departments have undergone root and branch reform which has led to efficiencies and this much is widely acknowledged by our donors.”

    Who is the priority?

    The perception that humanitarian organisations prioritised donors’ views over those of affected populations was a recurring theme in several of the focus groups.

    “Given the fact that Palestine is under occupation and there are chronic problems in Gaza, donors and organisations are still unable to work on sustainable projects and all the solutions are short-term with no long-term impact,” noted one Palestinian youth from the West Bank. “The funding shouldn’t be based on the donors’ agenda but serve the beneficiaries,” he said.

    In Lebanon, some interviewees complained about uneven or duplicated aid distributions, blaming a lack of co-ordination between agencies. They called for more income-generating opportunities to break the cycle of dependency on handouts.

    “Significant corruption and nepotism existed in the distribution of aid,” the report said, with interviewees referring to “accounts of incidents of favoritism within UN agencies for certain ‘connected’ families, especially with regards to resettlement assistance”.

    And in Yemen, Eritrean refugees recounted experiences of feeling humiliated and lacking dignity due to humanitarian organisations’ perceived preferential treatment of the Somali refugees compared to other refugees from Arab countries.

    The main report noted that “experiences of humanitarian co-ordination are largely bleak”; refugees complained about having to pro-actively seek out different organisations and re-tell their stories due to limited referral systems between aid groups.

    "People need to be given a choice over what kind of humanitarian assistance they receive"

    Choice and Dignity

    Lack of choice about what specific aid people received was another theme.

    “Affected people consulted in the region seldom felt that their priority needs were met,” the main report said. “This finding was supported by stakeholders who highlighted how affected people at times sell the in-kind assistance they received and use the funds to purchase other goods or services.

    “To truly put people’s needs at the heart of humanitarian action, stakeholders argued that people need to be given a choice over what kind of humanitarian assistance they receive,” it added.

    Dana Sleiman, spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon – one of the leading UN agencies helping Syrian refugees – told IRIN: “We are aware of the report and welcome any additions to the discussions on how to further improve humanitarian assistance here in Lebanon.

    “UNHCR staff, the Lebanese government and our partners are in constant contact with refugees throughout the country, listening to their concerns and providing a massive range of support as most refugees arrive here having lost everything.”

    ICVA’s Kasraï said the WHS presented a unique opportunity to carry out a wider systemic consultation, rather than looking at individual agencies or contexts.

     “It is quite unusual to get this sort of feedback ,” he said. “I think sometimes humanitarian organisations, including donors, UN agencies and NGOs, can get into a bit of a bubble, using their own language and talking amongst themselves in a jargon that isn’t always understood by the people they are trying to help.”


    *This article was updated on 7 March 2015 to remove a quote suggesting that this was the first time the WHS had conducted focus group interviews ahead of a regional consultation. 

    What refugees think of aid agencies
  • Only five percent of pledged aid reaches Gaza

    Just over 5 percent of the money pledged to rebuild Gaza after last summer’s devastating 50-day war with Israel has been delivered, IRIN has learned.

    More than 2,000 Palestinians – the majority civilians – were killed during the conflict and around 100,000 homes were destroyed.  Six months since a ceasefire was agreed, many families are still sleeping in temporary shelters.

    Five months ago world leaders promised over $5 billion for reconstruction, redevelopment, and government assistance. Yet only a fraction has actually materialized.

    “Approximately USD$300 million” has been received so far, a source at the office of the Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa - who is heading up the government's reconstruction efforts in Gaza - told IRIN.

    “Projects [that are] being held up because of the lack of donations are major reconstruction projects, chief among them housing and road reconstruction,” the source said.

    The revelation follows comments by Robert Turner, the Gaza head of UNWRA – the UN agency for Palestine refugees – that “virtually none” of the pledged funds had reached the territory.

    Broken promises?

    The $5.4 billion that was promised the Cairo conference exceeded the $4 billion the Palestinian Authority said it needed. About $2.8 billion of the pledged money was earmarked for the first three years of reconstruction. Yet only a fraction of that has been made available.

    Tracking down who promised what has proved stubbornly difficult.

    The website of the conference, which was hosted by Egypt and Norway, contains no specific breakdown of funding pledges.

    IRIN asked the Norwegians to provide a full list of promises made, but Frode Overland Anderson, a spokesperson for Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, told IRIN “it is not feasible to make a complete and detailed breakdown of pledges from the Cairo conference.” The reasons, Anderson said, were “partly because donors have [yet] to provide a comprehensive breakdown of their contributions and partly due to conditions on the ground that are preventing [disbursement of] further installments.”

    However, some say there has been too little emphasis placed on chasing up the money. Contrasting it with pledging conferences for Syria, one UN staffer said the Egyptians had not been sufficiently pro-active.

    "When Kuwait organized the conference on Syria the secretariat followed strict procedures to ensure that the money got paid, including inviting donors to meetings. Egypt has done nothing.”

    Egyptian officials did not respond to requests for comment.

    In fact it was only in mid-January, ahead of a donors' meeting in March, that Norway formally requested the World Bank to track down how much money had been delivered.

    According to Steen Lau Jorgensen, the World Bank’s Country Director for Gaza and the West Bank, the process will "include a report … that will reflect the pledges of Gaza reconstruction disbursed through all channels and the timing for disbursement. It will also assess to what extent the donors have realized their pledges and will break down the list of pledges into budget support and Gaza reconstruction."

    Political uncertainty

    One European diplomat told IRIN that although the lack of actual disbursement so far is especially low in this case, conferences are notorious for producing big headline figures that don’t ultimately materialize. "These kinds of pledging events tend to produce much more in pledges than what is actually delivered," he said. "I doubt that we have ever seen a pledging conference where commitments were ever followed up completely."

    But even before Cairo, donors expressed frustration that they were expected to pay to rebuild a territory that would likely descend into repeated violence without a durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Hamas and Fatah, the two leading Palestinian factions, reached a political agreement ending seven years of bitter division just before the latest outbreak of hostilities with Israel.  But the new joint government of technocrats has yet to take over in the Gaza strip leaving Hamas – considered a terrorist organization by the United States – still in charge. That is a matter of concern for some donors.

    A senior European Union diplomat who is familiar with the situation told IRIN, “Donors are holding back until the Palestinian Authority gets a foothold in Gaza.”  “We need to see some signs of political certainty and there is none,” he said.

    The source in the Palestinian deputy prime minister’s office agreed that some “donors seem to be hesitant in fulfilling their pledges as the reconciliation agreements seem to be at an impasse.” But he added, “the [Palestinian] government believes reconstruction efforts should proceed regardless of the progress in implementing the agreement.”

    Everyone IRIN spoke to agreed that the United Nations-brokered Reconstruction Monitoring Mechanism, designed to allow construction materials into Gaza while assuaging Israeli concerns about security, is now operating. But the broader Israeli blockade of Gaza remains in place and Norway said there is still “the challenge of providing sufficient volumes of building materials into Gaza.”

    The European Union diplomat said concerns about Israeli control over the borders added to worries about Gaza’s political situation. “The fact of the matter is that a lot of the money pledged in Cairo was premised on the Israelis easing the blockage … so that people would be able to travel more freely keeping in mind security concerns, and that the Palestinian Authority would be able to play more of a role of authority in Gaza. These two admittedly complicated issues have not materialized in a way that gives anyone a feeling this is worth the money at the moment.”

    Slow trickle

    The Gulf Arab states in particular pledged-high at Cairo: Qatar promised some $1 billion, the United Arab Emirates $200 million, and Saudi Arabia $500 million ahead of the conference.

    Yet so far they have made only limited payments due to the lack of political change. Said the European official: “there is some disappointment than Arab countries may have made commitments that are not delivering … it is particularly difficult to get them to commit to actually provide cash which is what is now needed,” as opposed to in-kind donations – providing the required goods and services themselves. The cash shortage is particularly acute for projects carried out by UNRWA, which recently had to suspend its financial assistance for rent and home repairs because of a lack of funding.

    UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness said “donors have been generous but unfortunately this does not cover all the needs; hence we were forced to suspend the cash progamme for rent and rebuilding which are among the most urgent needs.”

    The European Union diplomat said these countries, with their political ties to Gaza, are as keen as the Europeans to see change from the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority. “The ones who have come up with big figures, the Qataris, the Saudis and the Turks, they need to see some progress, truth be told.”

    A humanitarian crisis

    The limited funds that have been made available have allowed some reconstruction work to begin: come schools and health facilities have been patched up and there have been emergency repairs on electricity, water, and sanitation networks. The huge piles of rubble, left behind after the Israeli bombardment, are now starting to be cleared.

    But Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri told IRIN he doesn’t see much progress “Gaza residents don’t notice any real effort to start reconstruction operations, except very little amounts that are used to rehabilitate, restore, and repair some houses here and there.”

    Larger projects, including rebuilding roads and economic infrastructure, are nearly ready to begin but will remain on hold until the money arrives. Anderson, spokesperson for Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told IRIN. “While the UN system has made its best effort to address the short-term needs, further implementation requires swift financial contributions by the donors.”

    The Palestinian source said donors should “be reminded that the people of Gaza are in dire need, and that failing to move forward with reconstruction could have negative impacts on security and stability in the region.”



    Five percent of pledged aid reaches Gaza
  • Who celebrity advocates are really targeting. And it’s not you.

    This week was a fanfare for celebrity humanitarians: Forest Whitaker appealed for peace in South Sudan alongside UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos; Angelina Jolie opened an academic centre on sexual violence in conflict with British Member of Parliament William Hague; and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham launched an initiative for children. 

    In recent years, aid agencies have increasingly used celebrity advocates to raise awareness and money for their causes. There’s just one snag: 

    It doesn’t actually work. At least not as much or in the ways we think. 

    According to research by Dan Brockington, a professor at the University of Manchester, public responses to celebrity activism are surprisingly muted. His work is the first quantitative research on the subject. 

    “Using celebrities for broader outreach, for reaching mass publics and attracting media attention is absolutely not the silver bullet it appears to be,” he told IRIN on the sidelines of a 6-8 February conference at the University of Sussex, where he presented research recently published in the book Celebrity Advocacy and International Development.


    In a survey he conducted with 2,000 British people, 95 percent of respondents recognized five or more of 12 charities listed to them, including the British Red Cross, Save the Children UK and Oxfam UK. But two-thirds of the respondents did not know a single “high-profile” advocate of any of the NGOs (In this case, music executive Simon Cowell and singers Victoria Beckham and Elton John respectively, among many others). 

    The realpolitik might not be that pleasant. But you'll achieve your goals. 

    Focus groups and interviews with more than 100 “celebrity liaison officers” and other media staff at NGOs further reinforced his findings. 

    What’s more, Brockington says, those who pay attention to celebrities do not necessarily know which causes they support. 

    “People who follow celebrities often do so because they are not political,” he said during the interview. “They are fun, light. You want to live their lives…[People] don’t engage with [celebrities] for the more worthy things.”  

    Celebrity stardom flat-lining 

    Despite the rise in the use of celebrity advocates (which, by the way, dates back to at least Victorian times), the mention of charities in broadsheet and tabloid articles about celebrities only increased ever so slightly between 1985 and 2010, according to a separate study by Brockington. “There has also been a decline in the proportion of newspaper articles mentioning development and humanitarian NGOs at all,” the study found. 

    The perception that celebrities engage the public in the first place may itself be overstated. 

    After a steady rise in coverage of celebrities in the British press over two decades, the percentage of articles mentioning the word celebrity (only a fraction of total articles about celebrities) stopped increasing around 2006 and is now hovering at about four percent of all articles studied, the research found, validating the findings of earlier studies on the same subject (The study looked at The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Sun). 

    The magazine industry’s own statistics show a tapering off of readership in recent years after steady growth.

    Celebrities can be successful in engaging the public – Miley Cyrus made waves last year when she sent a homeless man to pick up her MTV Video Music Awards; Bob Geldof’s charity single on Ebola quickly rose to the top of the charts; and celebrity-driven telethons like the UK’s Comic Relief are generally quite successful. Leonardo DiCaprio’s speech at the opening of the Climate Summit 2014 garnered nearly 2 million views on YouTube – far more than many of the heads of state who also spoke at the summit.

    And the effectiveness of celebrity advocacy in non-Western contexts, which is much less studied, could well be higher. UNICEF, for example, uses more national than global celebrity ambassadors because they often resonate better with local audiences. Social media campaigns can also be extremely successful in some instances, though “not a game-changer”, according to Brockington (For a cold shower on this topic, see Paul Currion’s column on why KONY 2012 may have engaged the public, but ultimately failed).

    Influence without accountability 

    But on the whole, at least in the UK, public interest in celebrity appears to be lower than most people think, Brockington says. But the belief in star power - inaccurate as it may be - lingers: In his survey, 74 percent of respondents said they thought other people paid more attention to celebrities than they did. Statistically, this cannot actually be true, but it proves an important point: If people think that other people care about celebrities, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Brockington found that while celebrities may not be as successful as we think in engaging the public, they are still successful at engaging politicians and decision-makers. 


    Because politicians - like most people - like being around celebrities. But also because politicians – also like most people - believe that celebrities express populist sentiment, even though, in fact, they often don’t. So they grant them access and influence. 

    Ben Affleck, for example, has briefed US Congress about the Democratic Republic of Congo and George Clooney has addressed the UN Security Council about Darfur.   


    For the small but growing number of academics studying the subject, the gap between celebrity advocacy and public engagement raises a major ethical question: If celebrities wield all this power and influence, yet do not represent popular sentiment, who are they accountable to?  

    “The celebrity is not beholden to his or her public in the same manner as the elected official,” writes Alexandra Cosima Budabin, of the University of Dayton, in an upcoming book: Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations. “Misguided proposals and ineffective interventions will not endanger a celebrity, whose position is assured by both financial and political elites.”  

    Celebrities’ increasingly powerful voices on issues of humanitarian aid, poverty reduction and famine has allowed them to “often decide for the suffering receivers” and eliminate public scrutiny and debate, according to Ilan Kapoor, a professor at York University in Canada and author of Celebrity Humanitarianism: The Ideology of Global Charity. 

    “…Mostly unelected, private individuals and organizations have, for all intents and purposes, taken over what should primarily be state/public functions,” he writes

    A Machiavellian approach?

    Perhaps even more interestingly, Brockington found in his interviews with staff of NGOs with celebrity advocates that liaison officers know the impact on the public is limited, but use celebrities anyway because they can access and influence not the general public but decision-makers. 

    “The realpolitik might not be that pleasant,” he told the University of Sussex conference, “but you’ll achieve your goals.”

    UNICEF’s announcement of a new initiative for children by its Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham may reflect a clear understanding of this precise point. It reads: “David will use his powerful global voice, influence and connections to raise vital funds and encourage world leaders to create lasting positive change for children,” the statement said. 

    Malene Kamp Jensen, of UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador Program – one of the first and largest of its kind, acknowledges that sending a message to policy-makers is a “very, very important role” of celebrity ambassadors: “They do have certain access and platforms.” 

    But she says it is important to engage all segments of society: “You communicate to as many people as possible… I don’t think you can just say: ‘Forget the public; let’s lean on the policy makers. It’s very much a collective effort.” 

    For Jeffrey Brez, of the UN’s Messenger of Peace Programme, the target audience depends on the specific goal in that instance. 

    “Is there a treaty about to be ratified and you need a few extra votes? Is it a humanitarian crisis and you need a bump of visibility to help Congress push through appropriations for humanitarian aid? There are so many moments when they can come in and give you a little boost. It depends … what you’re trying to achieve.”


    Celebrity advocacy "industry" 

    Brez and Jensen both challenge the suggestion that celebrities are seen to be a silver bullet to public engagement, insisting they are just one tool in the toolbox. 

    “We’re always looking just to incrementally move the needle,” Brez says. But he complains that he and his colleagues lack real research to assess just how much impact their outreach has. 

    When Project Runway All Stars shot its Season Finale at UN Headquarters, 2 million fashion fans – not the UN’s traditional audience – were exposed to its work in a positive light. But how much did they retain? Did their perceptions of the UN change? 

    Brockington cautions not to read too much into his findings: celebrity advocacy can work, he says, but must be used strategically, for example to influence elites or fundraise among existing supporters. 

    But he says celebrity liaison officers are themselves frustrated by their NGO colleagues’ expectations that if they just throw a celebrity at something, the organisation will be instantly successful at captivating the public imagination. 

    Could the bubble eventually burst if more people become aware of the limits of celebrity advocacy? Unlikely, Brockington says, given what has now become a celebrity advocacy “industry”, in to which NGOs invest a lot of time and resources.  

    “There is a fair bit of smoke and mirrors in this… [but] a lot of people are vested in this. They want it to work. There’s all sorts of strong collective interests in sustaining it.”


    Does celebrity advocacy actually work?
  • ICC and Palestine - a long way to go

    On 16 January, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, announced it had opened a preliminary examination into possible war crimes committed in the occupied Palestinian territory since 13 June 2014, encapsulating last summer's conflict between Israel and Gaza. But prosecutions are unlikely or at least a long way off.

    Since the court began operating in 2002, it has opened 21 cases in eight countries but to date only two people have been convicted: Thomas Lubanga Dyilo and Germain Katanga.

    It has issued 35 indictments, but three of the accused passed away before they could be apprehended while many others remain at large.

    Search and explore IRIN's interactive map on ICC examinations, indictments and convictions worldwide at: http://newirin.irinnews.org/extras/2015/1/19/palestine-and-the-icc-a-long-way-to-go

    A preliminary examination is not an investigation; it is an examination of whether the court has a reasonable basis to proceed with a full investigation. It considers issues of jurisdiction, admissibility, and interests of justice. Including the occupied Palestinian territory, the court now has nine preliminary examinations open and nine so-called "active" investigations.

    Four previous preliminary examinations have failed to make it to "active"status, while others have been effectively suspended for years. Among the four cases was one previous Palestinian bid in 2009 that was rejected because Palestine was not a "state" under the terms of the Rome Statute.

    Following the UN General Assembly's recognition of Palestine as non-Member Observer State in 2012 and the Palestinian leadership's decision to join the ICC last month, the Palestinians have made a fresh bid.


    ICC and Palestine - a long way to go
  • The economics at the heart of Israeli settlements

    Of all the hurdles to peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, perhaps the largest is the 150 or so Israeli settlements in the West Bank. These communities, considered illegal by the UN, are fracturing Israel’s relationship even with its allies: The pro-Israeli head of the UK parliament’s foreign affairs committee this year declared that a decision to develop a new settlement “outraged me more than anything else in my political life”.

    Despite an unofficial freeze on settlement planning, in late December the Jerusalem Planning and Budget Committee set the stage for approving building permits for some 400 homes on Palestinian land in Jerusalem, and approved a plan for 1,850 more homes in a neighbourhood that sits on the border.

    While they are often thought of as the result of a religious quest by Jews to claim new territory, in fact for most settlers the reasons for moving are economic - encouraged through government-planned incentive schemes to relocate. But for some, the process of living in a settlement may have a radicalizing effect.

    “Quality of life”

    It’s a weekday in the West Bank town of Ariel. Students share a cigarette break on the university campus. Two women walking their dogs chatter in Russian-accented Hebrew. Nothing suggests this is anything other than an ordinary Israeli town.

    But while it is not known for a strong ideological bent or violent attacks on its Palestinian neighbours, jutting out some 16km east of the Green Line that divides Israel from the Occupied West Bank, this town of 19,000 is very much a settlement.

    In Ariel, many residents live the Israeli commuter lifestyle. There is a direct motorway to Tel Aviv, less than 40km away, with buses running frequently to the city and less often to Jerusalem, 50km away.

    “People come here looking for different things,” said Avi Zimmerman, head of Ariel’s Development Fund and the de facto spokesperson for its municipality. As an observant Jew, he came eight years ago looking for a heterogeneous community.

    “You’ll find people who came for the quality of life, even for the relief from the humidity of Tel Aviv.”

    But the financial benefits are top for many. House prices in Israel have risen rapidly for the last seven years, with the high cost of living and food prices sparking mass protests in the summer of 2011. The average apartment in Ariel costs 1,098,774 NIS (US280,537), a far cry from the Tel Aviv average of 2,363,268 NIS ($603,386).



    Cheap rent made Noa and her boyfriend temporary settlers in 2009 when they started looking for a place near her Jerusalem university. “We were both students and we needed a cheap place to live,” explains Noa, a dance teacher in her late twenties. They couldn’t find anything in their price range in Jerusalem, but in Anatot, a community of 1,000, 7km over the Green Line, the price was right.

    Amit, a 34-year-old mother of one, sees her settlement - although she doesn’t call it by that name - 5km over the Green Line as just another suburb of Jerusalem. She and her husband had lived in the city, but when they went looking for a home she wanted “a house, a garden and a parking lot… and the green parks and closeness to Jerusalem were a big thing.” She commutes to Jerusalem for work, and her husband to Tel Aviv: “I don’t see this as contested land,” she emphasizes, but “for me it’s a suburb of a big city and I come back at night.”

    Government incentives

    According to the Yesha Council, an organization that represents and campaigns for West Bank settlements, at last count in June 2014 there were 382,031 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, which Israel does not consider occupied. This draw across the Green Line has been encouraged by consecutive Israeli governments.

    Much of the state’s help comes through the definition of roughly three-quarters of settlements as “national priority areas”, along with other areas that are deemed to need a boost - communities close to the borders with Lebanon or Gaza, or otherwise peripheral and underdeveloped.

    National priority areas receive discounts on land and grants for mortgages, and those areas recognized by the Construction Ministry as national priority areas receive state investment in apartment infrastructure. In areas designated as the highest level of priority, there are discounts on land costs and development expenses.

    Average price of apartment, 2013
    Tel Aviv - $603,000
    Jerusalem - $433,000
    Largest settlements
    Ariel - $280,000
    Beitar Illit - $262,000
    Maale Adimum - $323,000
    Moodin Illit - $261,000
    Source: Ministry of Construction

    Investment in settlement infrastructure such as roads is also key, and teachers who live in settlements receive generous assistance, including what the Israeli NGO B’tselem reports as 15-20 percent salary boost and government coverage for 75 percent of travel and 80 percent of home rental expenses. As national priority areas, the settlements also receive extra investment in education, including increased school hours and more funding.

    Direct benefits to individuals have mostly been eliminated, with an income tax break lifted in 2003, allowing many in the settlement community to argue that that the settlements should be considered like any other Israeli city.

    Avi Zimmerman, head of Ariel’s Development Fund and the de facto spokesperson for its municipality, disputes the idea of unfair economic incentives drawing people onto Palestinian land. “People talk and talk about incentivization because of the past.” Now, “there are no direct incentives - you don’t get a bank loan, [for example].”

    Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy and an expert on Israeli politics, agrees that there are “no direct incentives in the sense that there aren’t grants.”

    But “there are lot of ways” to encourage settlement, “in particular the cost of land and permits… There is no overt incentivizing but there is still dramatic incentivizing in real terms.”


    The increase in “quality of life” settlers is a major shift from the settler movement’s origins in the late 1960s, when after its victory in the 1967 war with Egypt, Jordan and Syria, Israel began moving its citizens into what it refers to as Judea and Samaria, the biblical names for the occupied West Bank.

    Many early settlers hoped to reclaim what they saw as biblical Israel, as Elie Pierpz, director of external affairs for the Yesha Council, explains.

    “Religious consideration was a major driver of growth in the 70s and 80s. There is an ideological capacity - this is the last Zionist frontier; 100 years ago it was Tel Aviv, 60 years ago it was the Negev [desert in the south of Israel] and the … [northern part of the country], and for the last 47 years it has been Judea and Samaria.”

    The phenomenon of the economic settler is a mixed bag. Ariel, for example, is a blend of immigrants from the former Soviet Union - secular and religiously observant but non ultra-Orthodox Jews.

    Dror Etkes, an expert on settlements, argues that the difference in terminology between economic or quality of life settlers and their more ideological counterparts can’t really be justified - all are part of the larger occupation project, whether they like it or not.

    “When ideology meets economy its always nicer, and the ideology eventually comes to align with self interest. People tell themselves stories … it’s very easy to be a settler. Whatever you don’t want to see, you don’t have to see.”

    Yet settlements, even those dominated by economic migrants, can shift beliefs towards the right.

    Etkes notes that several recent violent attacks on Palestinians have come from these so-called “non ideological” settlements. Last month, a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic school in Jerusalem was set ablaze. Two of the three suspects, who have confessed to the crime, hail from Beitar Illit, not previously known for its far right wing beliefs.

    And even as economic settlers may see themselves as nonpolitical or even left wing - Noa says she’s “centre left, sometimes left” - by moving to the settlements, settlers’ voting patterns may change out of self-interest.


    Ultraorthodox settlers are the paradigm of this change - largely poor, in the past 15 years many have moved to areas like Beitar Illit or Modi’in Ilit for cheap housing and a homogenous atmosphere, with plenty of space for their high birth rate. Historically, they were not interested in settlement or Zionist activism.

    Neve Gordon, professor of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University and the author of Israel’s Occupation, points out that the parties who represent this sector have shifted its policies. “In the early 1990s the Orthodox parties were in favour of a land compromise - today, much less so, because a large percent of their constituency lives in the occupied territories: space changes consciousness.”

    Obstacle to peace

    The “quality of life” settler came into public consciousness after the 1993 Oslo agreement between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, when there was serious talk of territory swaps. It has long been assumed that large settlement blocs, either those close to Jerusalem such as Ma’ale Adumim, Beitar Ilit, Modi’in Ilit, or those too big to move, and strategic places like Ariel, would be included in any future two-state solution.

    But continuous surveys have suggested that a large percentage of non-ideological settlers would be prepared to leave their homes and move inside the Green Line, for a price.

    At the moment though, said Sachs, “there’s a perverse disincentive to leave.” The Israeli public largely sees its government as having bungled the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, with some former settlers who were dragged from their homes on TV complaining about poor compensation and the government’s inability to properly relocate them.

    This makes those who might be willing to move from the West Bank, Sachs says, understandably wary. One group founded by a former Shin Bet director, Blue Light Future, advocates a unilateral and voluntary evacuation of settlers by payment.

    Amit purchased her house right around the time of the Gaza pullout, and said the possibility of an eventual evacuation “was something that we did think about”. Her area was often mentioned as one that was close enough to Jerusalem to eventually be included in Israel-proper, and that was a selling point.

    “If there was some compensation [as part of a peace deal] I don’t see us saying ‘we’re staying under a Palestinian government.’”

    But large settlement blocs like Ariel are also unlikely to go anywhere, even in the event of an eventual peace settlement with the Palestinians. In some ways, they are simply too big to move.

    To Zimmerman, who has been in Ariel for eight years, the concept of a payoff is irrelevant, as he doesn’t see the Israeli government even attempting an evacuation of Ariel. “That’s going to be handled by the elected government…  they’re going to make the policy on that and the consensus in Israeli politics is that Ariel is part of Israel, period.”

    It’s perhaps this certainty that has led to house prices in Ariel shooting up: In the six years up to 2013, prices of new and secondhand homes increased by 104 percent. Other settlements saw increases, including Beitar Ilit (80 percent) largely secular Efrat (77 percent), and Oranit (65 percent). While house prices in Israel proper have still outpaced those in the settlements, rising prices increase the pressure to find new settlements.

    Pierpz is enthusiastic about the future of the settler project. “The extremely tight-knit communities (where hitchhiking is a way of life, doors often remain unlocked, young kids are safe on streets unsupervised late at night), are some of the reasons why people want to stay and raise multiple generations here.”

    Palestinian officials have said they will take into account the motivations of settlers in negotiating the boundaries of a future Palestinian state. In the end, they see all settlements as encroaching on Palestinian land, whether the settlers have come for the fresh air and cheap accommodation or because of religious fervour.



    Economics driving settlements
  • An ambitious plan to end statelessness

    It is now 60 years since stateless people received recognition in international law, and the UN has two conventions (1954 and 1961) dedicated to their protection and the regularization of their situation. Yet an estimated 10 million people worldwide still suffer the problems and indignities of having no nationality.

    “It may be a bit of understatement to say that these are the two least loved multilateral human rights treaties,” said Mark Manly, head of the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) statelessness unit. “For many years they were pretty much forgotten and that was in large part because they had no UN agency promoting them.” 

    Manly has responsibility for the issue of statelessness, even though most stateless people neither are, nor have ever been, refugees, and this week UNHCR launched an ambitious plan to try to end statelessness over the next 10 years. 

    The plan breaks down the issue into 10 action points, addressing the main reasons why people end up stateless. Sometimes it's because children were not registered at birth, or because discriminatory laws prevent their mothers from passing on their own nationality. Some are the victims of ethnic discrimination by countries which refuse to recognize members of their community as citizens; others, especially in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, have fallen down the cracks between countries, as it were, after boundaries were redrawn and states divided. 

    In some of the world's major situations of statelessness UNHCR is already involved. In 1989 tens of thousands of Black African Mauritanians fled to Senegal to get away from murderous ethnic persecution. A large number of the refugees who came scrambling across the river border had no papers. Their Mauritanian identity cards had been confiscated or torn up by members of the security forces or by their fellow citizens, who told them, “Tu n'est pas Maure; alors tu n'est pas Mauritanian” (You are not a Moor, an Arab, so you are not a Mauritanian).

    Senegalese nationality law is generous, and allows them to apply for citizenship after five years' residence, but many have preferred to go home to Mauritania, assisted by UNHCR which supplied them with travel documents under an agreement governing their return. But large numbers are now finding themselves effectively stateless. Manly told IRIN: “What that agreement says, if I remember correctly, is that the nationality of the refugees is 'presumed' - they are presumed to be Mauritanian. However, many people have faced real problems in getting the documentation to prove that they really are Mauritanian, so there is clearly an issue.” 

    “Some 24,000 have returned,” adds Bronwen Manby, a consultant who has worked on this issue. “But the Mauritanian organizations are telling us that only about a third have got their documents. It's the standard sort of situation,” she told IRIN, “where in principle, of course - but then documents were destroyed, and then they find that the name is Mohamed with one 'm' instead of Mohammed with two 'm's, and then it's in French and not in Arabic - there needs to be more pressure on the Mauritanian government to sort out the situation.”

    Laws discriminating against women

    In the Middle East a lot of statelessness is the result of laws discriminating against women, which only allow nationality to be passed through the father - a problem if the father is not there to register his child or is himself stateless. Laura van Waas, who runs the Statelessness Programme at Tilburg University, says it can have a devastating effect on all members of a family. 

    “It's not just the stateless child who is affected by this. It's the mother, who has nationality, who feels guilty for whom she has chosen to marry. Her children are suffering and she sees that as the result of her life choices. And it's the young men who are perhaps the worst affected. This is seen as a women's rights issue, but if you are a young women who couldn't get nationality through your mother, in most of the countries we are looking at you can acquire nationality through your husband, and your children will take his nationality. But if you are a young stateless man, you can't acquire nationality through marriage, and because your children have to acquire their nationality through you, they will also be stateless.”

    In countries like Lebanon, where ID cards were first introduced in the 1920s, but not everyone bothered to register, this kind of statelessness has persisted through several generations, resulting in whole families which, although Lebanese, are non-citizens, unable to travel, and with no access to state schooling or health care. It could be sorted out with a bit of goodwill, but as in many countries, political considerations - in this case questions of religious and ethnic balance - mean goodwill may be in short supply.

    Egypt and Kuwait provide further examples.

    In situations like that of Myanmar, where the government is so reluctant to accept the Muslim community in Rakhine State as Burmese citizens, goodwill seems totally lacking. But elsewhere a lot can be done to reduce statelessness, with improvements to nationality laws, better coordination when states and boundaries change, simpler bureaucratic procedures, and a greater effort to make sure all children get registered.

    Attitudes changing?

    Manly says he is seeing a real change of attitudes, with governments increasingly willing to ratify the conventions, enter into discussions on the issue and make the necessary changes. 

    “The taboo has now been broken,” he says. “Governments now increasingly accept that this is not purely an issue of their sovereign discretion, but that issues of statelessness are of legitimate concern for the international community... Governments have also perceived that it is not in their interests to have a very large disenfranchized and frequently undocumented population in their territories... Ministries of the interior round the world don't want to have tens or hundreds of thousands of people who are undocumented. They want to know who is in their territory, and to be able to control them.”

    “In the past four years, more countries have acceded to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness than in the four decades following its adoption,” says the new UNHCR report. 

    So the UNHCR is hopeful that their campaign can bring down the numbers of stateless people in areas like the Middle East and the Former Soviet Union. 

    But Bronwen Manby warns that in parts of Africa where she has worked, a push to regularize citizenship could actually increase numbers elsewhere. “Nigeria, for instance, has a large number of people who are absolutely undocumented, but everybody somehow gets by, because that's Nigeria. But it's of concern in the context of increasing efforts to reduce the number of undocumented people for security reasons. Once you really start being strict about ID documents, all the people who have managed to get by with a bit of cash, or a bit of magouille, as they say in French, are going to find it much more difficult to get an ID from somewhere, and I think a problem of statelessness is going to be revealed which is already there but has never been identified.”


    An ambitious plan to end statelessness
  • Meet the Israelis picking Palestinian olives

    It is still dark when the minibus rolls into Jerusalem, picking up Israelis bound for occupied Palestinian land. Their leader, a rabbi, dons a shawl and quietly prays in the back seat.

    During the autumn olive harvest, Palestinian villagers are especially nervous about visits from Israelis: Last year the UN recorded 38,532 trees destroyed or damaged incidents linked to Israeli settlers between 2009 and the end of August 2013. These are part of a strategy of so called "price tag" attacks carried out by settlers, often coming after actions by the government seen as counter to the settlers' agenda, or following perceived violence from Palestinians.

    But armed with sunhats and bottles of water, these Israelis have come to help not destroy.

    As the elegantly mustachioed Palestinian driver Abu Rami stops for the rest of the day’s volunteers, Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, the director of activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) for a group called Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), returns from the back of the bus to announce it is headed for Bil’in, a Palestinian village that straddles the border of Israel and the West Bank.

    The volunteers did not know their destination until they boarded - it is a security precaution, as the olive harvest, which traditionally begins after the first autumn rain, is a particularly prickly part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the 2013 harvest season, Israeli human rights organization B’tselem documented 27 cases of abuse of harvesters and property damage by extremist Jewish settlers.

    Already this year, arrests were made after a group of Israelis allegedly attacked a Palestinian family gathering olives in the West Bank village of Kfar Yassuf.

    The Israeli volunteers hope to act as a buffer against such violence: They pick olives in areas closest to troublesome settlements and document any incidents that should arise.

    RHR spokesman Yariv Mohar says “when volunteers and cameras are there, [settlers] are afraid [their actions] might go to the media, so sometimes they take us more seriously. Some of them are more hesitant [to attack].”

    The volunteers also step in when, due to government restrictions, Palestinians have limited time and manpower to harvest their olives.

    The “seam zone”

    This is the case in Bil’in, where Israel’s security wall, which was first erected in 2003, has split the village from most of its agricultural lands, sparking weekly protests. Israel argues the wall is necessary to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks; opponents say it limits freedom of movement and is tantamount to a seizure of Palestinian land.

    In between the wall and the border is the “seam zone”, apparently intended as a security buffer between Israeli towns or settlements and Palestinian villages. In the case of Bil’in, most of their olive groves sit in the zone, in a valley beneath new construction for the Orthodox Jewish city of Modi’in Illit, considered by the international community to be an illegal settlement.

    Villagers need permits from the Israeli army to cross onto their land, and these can be hard to come by. They are also only able to enter when the military decides: On the day the volunteers from RHR arrived, the Palestinians were told to arrive at the gates of the zone at 7am - two-and-a-half hours before the gates were opened.

    Shaking the top branches of a tree with a small, Fatimeh said that of her family, only she and her school-age children had been granted permission to come to the harvest. Her husband and elder sons were turned away.

    With some 40 trees to harvest, the volunteers are a boon to her season, as like many Palestinians she relies on the olive harvest. Around 80,000 families rely on the olive business, which is worth over $100 million annually and makes up 14 percent of agricultural income for the OPT.

    Fatimeh was pleased to see the group of six helpers, and while she and newly retired tour guide Ellen did not have a common language, the Israeli woman found a bucket and quickly got to work.



    Ellen is not much of a talker on the human rights issues she holds dear anyway. “But I can pick olives off of a tree, even if I can’t speak about it very well.”

    She has been helping out with the olive harvest for some 10 years: “I’m an Israeli, I’m here, and maybe they [Palestinians] can see a different kind of Israeli other than a settler or a confused and angry soldier.”

    Fatimeh was happy to have the extra labour: “They’re good people to come here. It can be scary.” Most importantly, she grins, “I hope they’re good workers!”

    Mohammad Mansour, who has 19 trees in the grove, was also pleased to have the assistance, although there was not nearly as much work as he had hoped. Because he does not have permission to tend to the trees as much as he would like, they are simply not producing. He grabs a scrawny branch with no fruit: “the trees just don’t yield like they used to.”

    Praise and controversy

    RHR has been going out to harvest for some 10 years. They are dedicated to human rights in the Occupied Territory as well as inside Israel. Their current president, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, carried out a campaign of civil disobedience, including placing himself in the way of a bulldozer destroying a residence in Palestinian East Jerusalem.

    Grenimann himself has been arrested once and detained a few times, but he believes his work has a basis in Jewish tradition.

    “We read [in the weekly Torah reading]… that all human beings are created in God’s image… It’s not as if we are inventing something that isn’t there [in the scripture].”

    The rabbis average 10-15 volunteers a day, and sometimes bring groups from synagogues and rabbinical students. But there are fewer volunteers in recent years, Grenimann says, in part because some Palestinians have become concerned about accepting help on the grounds that it constitutes “normalization” of relations with Israel. RHR is a Zionist organization, although its members define Zionism in a variety of ways.

    Mansour is not concerned about having Israeli help or the appearance of it. “We can work together just fine. It’s the people at the top who don’t want us to be good neighbours.”

    Another reason there are fewer volunteers, Grenimann offers, is that “the left in Israel has shrunk, it’s just a fact.”

    This summer’s war between Israel and Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction that has controlled Gaza since 2007, was rough on the Israeli left. Vocal critics of the war were deemed traitors and some received death threats, as far-right extremists gained traction.

    Yoel, a 78-year-old retired agriculturalist with a grey cap on his head and a steady picking arm, is less concerned about left-right divisions. The veteran of several wars says his weekly participation is a self-styled treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

    “For me the occupation is the trauma, and the root of the cultural and economic problems in Israel,” Yoel says.

    “Honestly it’s probably selfish of me. I know that [the Palestinians] can do it without me but maybe it helps deal with some guilt,” he says frankly.

    By the time Abu Rami returns to pick up the volunteers in the afternoon, they have shared a meal with their Palestinian hosts, and doted on Mansour’s baby daughter. The Israelis are free to leave immediately, but the locals cannot go home until the army opens the gate to their village in a few hours.




    The Israelis who pick Palestinian olives

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