An open letter to Mary Robinson

former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
and leader of the recent Elders Delegation to the Middle East

From Maurice Ostroff
(in cooperation with Australian author on international law, Ian Lacey – see

November 3, 2010

Dear Ms. Mary Robinson,

Thank you for your email of October 14 about the Elders’ delegation that you led to the Middle East accompanied by Lakhdar Brahimi, Ela Bhatt and former President Jimmy Carter

Replying to your kind invitation to respond, I would appreciate it if you would kindly assist me in trying to reconcile your declared objective to address major causes of human suffering with your focus on relatively insignificant events in Israel while displaying apparent unconcern about many truly catastrophic events of human suffering world wide. For example:

1. Evictions in Sheikh Jarrah.
During your visit to Sheikh Jarrah you pronounced that the eviction of two Palestinian families from their homes is against international law.

I ask with respect which international law you claim is being violated? Are you perhaps referring to claims by many pundits that these evictions conflict with Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which states; “The occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into territory it occupies”. Though there may, or may not, exist other cogent reasons to object to the evictions, these pundits are clearly wrong, as the situation involves neither deportation nor transfer of population by the Israeli government. It is a dispute about land ownership and conditions of tenancy.

The undisputed facts are that the property in question was occupied by twenty eight families all protected by Israel’s Tenant Protection Law, which prevents tenants from eviction after rental contracts have elapsed, provided they continue to pay rentals even, as in this case, where such rentals are only 10-20 percent of the market price. The reason the high court authorized eviction of two of the 28 families was their refusal to pay even this low rental. The remaining families who continue to pay rent have not been affected and I ask how you arrived at the conclusion that evicting tenants who refuse to pay rent is against international law Or, were you perhaps unaware of the refusal to pay rent in view of the gross irresponsibility of the media in suppressing this crucial information in the many pages of hysterical reporting about the evictions.

It may surprise you to learn that Jewish ownership of this property dates back to the 19th century. After a protracted series of legal battles over ownership since 1982, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the titles properly belong to the Jewish claimants. Even the Palestinian group “Sheik Jarrah Solidarity” acknowledges this historical background in a statement on its web site that reads “The litigation over the houses is complicated and has been running for over four decades. At a certain stage the Supreme Court recognized the validity of the ownership deeds from the Ottoman period (from the end of the 19th century), according to which the land belonged to the “Sephardic Community Committee” and the “Knesset Yisrael Committee”. The Sheikh Jarrah evictions are carried out on the strength of these deeds”.

As you can see the Sheikh Jarrah situation is a private dispute involving no Israeli government action at all. Indeed the only government action affecting the properties was the Jordanian disposition of Jewish property when it came under Jordanian occupation. The matter is being dealt with by the Supreme Court, the high judicial standard of which is acknowledged even by Israel’s fiercest critics. It has, in fact, ruled against the government in favor of Arab residents and Palestinians in many important cases.

As background, it is relevant to recall that the Sheikh Jarrah area is in a vital corridor to the Mt. Scopus Hadassah hospital that serves hundreds of thousands of Jews and Arabs. In April 1948 before the declaration of Israel, 78 Jews, mostly doctors and nurses, were ambushed and killed by Arab forces as their convoy passed through Sheikh Jarrah on their way to Mount Scopus. By the end of the 1948 war Mount Scopus was cut off from West Jerusalem and remained a demilitarized Israeli enclave under UN control until it was returned to Israel in 1967.

Most unfortunately, the impression given by the condemnations pronounced by the “Elders” is one of preconceived judgments. After all, if you are sincerely concerned about evictions and enforced homelessness, surely you would have said something while in Cairo about the eviction of thousands in the Barmil (Helwan) village and the master plan for Cairo that threatens millions of impoverished families. You cannot be unaware of Amnesty International’s appeal last month, to the Egyptian authorities to prevent the imminent forced evictions that will leave thousands in inadequate housing or homeless.

And closer to your home ground one may ask why the Elders are silent about the 20 families of Roma people who were forced to flee their homes in Belfast during a spate of racist attacks last June.

Nor is it unreasonable to ask your colleague, Ela Bhatt, whom I admire for her magnificent contribution to the uplift of poor women in India, to protest about the 52,000 hutments that have been bulldozed in Mumbai where, the Youth for Unity & Voluntary Action, reports that millions of people were thrown out of their houses at the peak of the winter season and were left to live around the demolished site without shelter, food, livelihood or basic amenities. And more recently about the 45 houses, affecting approximately 225 persons, of the Baradevi Pavement Community in Sewri, Mumbai that were forcefully demolished last May as reported by the Housing and Land Rights Network,

If the Elders are seriously interested in protecting evictees not only in Israel, I suggest a visit to the HLRN web site which lists an ongoing evictions and demolition program affecting 1,000s in the Cameroons, 50,000 persons who face eviction and homelessness in Kenya, hundreds of thousands being evicted by Nigerian authorities in Port Harcourt and very many others including more than 15,000 people who have been made homeless in forced evictions in Angola to make way for condominiums and shopping centers.

The eviction of two families in Jerusalem for not paying rent, which motivated a visit by your high powered delegation, pales into insignificance against the background of true human suffering elsewhere that is ignored. Again with respect, I ask the Elders to reconsider their position and publicly withdraw their unjust denunciations of Israel in the light of the actual realities and the absurd interpretations of international law which are being promoted by Israel’s enemies.

2. GAZA – The blockade and Gilat Shalit
According to the Elders report, during your visit to Syria former President Carter called for Israel to lift completely its blockade on the Gaza Strip. In doing so, he totally ignored the history of rocket attacks, the threat posed by the importation into Gaza of missiles which can reach Israel’s major population centers and the need to prevent such importation.

But more puzzling is the unmistakable bias in calling on Israel only to end a blockade that is known to be a joint Egyptian-Israeli operation? Are you not aware that Egypt is regulating the flow of goods and persons into and out of Gaza perhaps even more strictly than Israel?

When I learned that you would be going to Gaza I was hopeful that as the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, you would seize the opportunity to deal with the Gilad Shalit situation directly with the perpetrators of this blatantly and deliberately cruel human rights violation and insist on the minimum of Red cross visits.

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and one must ask why the deliberate torture of Gilad’s family by Hamas is ignored. What greater torture can there be than tormenting parents with 24/7 anxiety since June 2006 about whether their son is dead or if alive in what condition and it is difficult to understand why the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights did not deal forcefully with this blatant continuing violation while she had the opportunity to do so face to face with Shalit’s captors.

And to compound the cruelty, a while ago Hamas held a public rally during which a boy dressed in IDF uniform masqueraded as Gilad Shalit reading a letter in Hebrew, telling the jeering crowd how he misses his parents.

As you know, better than I, the Third Geneva Convention provides for humane treatment and the right of POW’s to unfettered access to the Red Cross, as well as their right to send and receive monthly letters and cards. All of these rights are being denied to Shalit. While there may be some technical quibble about his status as a prisoner of war, I hope you will agree that the overriding motivation of international humanitarian law relating to warfare, is to protect all persons who become prisoners as a result of war, whether conducted by regular armies or militias. By its own admission, Hamas controls Shalit’s fate. And as such, they are undeniably guilty of this appalling war crime. I am sure you will agree that no human being with a conscience can fail to acknowledge and protest this diabolical cruelty.

As you surely know, by way of contrast, Palestinian prisoners in Israel enjoy visitation rights, including conjugal visits, access to telephones, newspapers, television and radio broadcasts, lawyers’ visits and even academic studies at state expense.

Again I would ask you to re-examine the evidence on all these issues, and to withdraw those unjustified accusations. The aims and objectives of the “Elders” are truly noble and worthy, and I am sure you will agree that to achieve the confidence and cooperation of all parties it is essential that no room be left for doubting your reputation as impartial and balanced observers.

This open letter will be published as will the response that I hope to receive from you.
Maurice Ostroff