By Ramesh Jaura
UNITED NATIONS (IDN) – The outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has expressed “acute concerns” over the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including the situation in the occupied Gaza Strip, which in recent months has escalated dramatically, with the potential to generate threats to peace across a far broader region.
His concerns were affirmed when UN News reported on July 24 that intense diplomatic efforts by the United Nations and Egypt had helped avoid another Israeli-Palestinian war in Gaza that appeared just “minutes away” over the previous weekend.
“After intense efforts by the United Nations and Egypt, I can report that the situation is calming down, although tensions remain,” Nickolay Mladenov, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East peace process, told the Security Council via video link from Jerusalem on July 24. He said “last Saturday we were minutes away from another devastating confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.”
While expressing his profound concern, Zeid – who also heads the UN human rights office, OHCHR – was briefing the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People via videoconference from Geneva to New York on July 23.
On that day, the UN Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories also denounced the deteriorating human rights situation for Palestinians, following their annual mission to Jordan.
Explaining the situation, Zeid said: “On two occasions in the past two weeks, we have seen the heaviest exchanges of fire between Israeli forces and armed groups in Gaza since the 2014 escalation of hostilities,” noted Zeid. Just three days ago the situation almost exploded into a serious conflict triggered by the killing of an Israeli soldier, and subsequent killings of four Palestinian civilians, he added.
Zeid pointed out that during the weekend of July 14, the Israeli Security Forces launched at least 28 airstrikes firing over 50 missiles. Two Palestinian children were killed and 35 people were injured. At the same time, he added, Palestinian armed groups fired some 184 rockets and mortar shells towards Israel, with a number landing in southern Israel, injuring three Israelis.
“Burning kites and incendiary balloons were also deployed by Palestinians,” said Zeid, adding: “I remind all parties that any disproportionate or indiscriminate use of weapons which lead to the death and injury of civilians is prohibited by international humanitarian law.”
Though the United Nations and the Government of Egypt have made efforts to maintain a ceasefire between Israel and the militant group Hamas which controls Gaza, the situation remains extremely fragile, Zeid said. “I urge the parties and all those with influence to do their utmost to avoid another round of violence and misery.”
The UN Human Rights Commissioner is “disturbed” by arbitrary arrests and detentions of activists and human rights defenders by the Israeli authorities, with attempts to undermine and limit the work of human rights defenders and civil society. Legislation, both adopted and proposed, singles out human rights organizations for increased restrictions, he said.
He warned that the grave funding crisis currently faced by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) might further aggravate the situation. UNRWA plays a crucial role in providing protection, education and health services as well as employment to the refugee populations.
Zeid called for addressing the root causes of the recent demonstrations – including the grossly inadequate living conditions inflicted on Gaza residents, most of whom are refugees, by the occupation and 11 years of blockade by Israel.
In recent times, restrictive measures imposed by Egypt have also exacerbated these conditions, he said, and noted that “in the coming months the situation may be severely aggravated by the financial crisis” facing UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) – which, as the UN Secretary-General António Guterres had pointed out, is “far more grave, and threatens to cut programmes far more savagely”, than any previous funding crisis.
Zeid noted that the approval, planning and construction of Israeli settlements continues unabated across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Since the beginning of 2018, settler attacks on Palestinians have spiked to the highest monthly average of the past three years.
Demolitions and forced displacement in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem have decreased from the peak of last year, but the past 12 months have seen 366 structures demolished in the West Bank alone – including 11 school structures – and recent weeks have witnessed a fresh wave of demolitions across the occupied West Bank.
Since July 1,, 51 structures have been demolished, displacing around 100 Palestinians, including 55 children, and affecting around 350 others. Notably, 19 structures were destroyed in the Palestinian Bedouin community of Abu Nuwar, displacing more than 50 people, including 33 children. Several areas of occupied East Jerusalem have also seen an increase in demolition operations, including self-demolitions.
Zeid further pointed out that recent months have also seen an overall deterioration of the living conditions of Palestinians living in the H2 area in Hebron. “Increasing restrictions on movement, daily intimidation by soldiers at checkpoints, settler violence and harassment add to the existing coercive environment, which pushes individuals and communities to leave their places of residence involuntarily.”
In this context the UN Human Rights Commissioner emphasized that forcible transfer of individuals and communities by the occupying power is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
He reminded the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People that the 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice regarding the separation wall and its associated régime, encompassing and expanding the settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The Court found that the Wall violates customary international law in many respects, including the right to self-determination and other fundamental rights such as liberty of movement as well as the right to work, to health, to education and to an adequate standard of living. It reminded Israel of its obligation to end the illegal situation as well as all States of their erga omnes obligations in this regard.
Other violations in breach of international law cited by the High Commissioner include increasing restrictions on movement; daily intimidation by soldiers at checkpoints; settler violence and harassment; forced transfer, and the continued existence of the separation wall.
The Human Rights chief highlighted also the plight of hundreds of Palestinian children detained by Israel, including some without charge, under the so-called “administrative detention” system. An estimated 440 Palestinians are being held currently.
“These assaults on fundamental rights dismantle trust in institutions; strip away the social structures which enable peaceful resolution of disputes; and create a tinderbox in which any flash of conflict may ignite severe and unpredictable consequences,” he concluded. [IDN-InDepthNews – 26 July 2018]
Photo: A Palestinian girl inside her family’s partially destroyed home, looks at the destruction outside, in the Shejaiya neighbourhood of Gaza City. Credit: UNICEF.
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