Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the deteriorating human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory
Statement by Michelle Bachelet UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Appalling events in Gaza and the occupied Palestinian territory have once again called this Council into Special Session. We have recently witnessed the most significant escalation in hostilities since 2014.
According to figures verified by my Office, 242 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli Security Forces (the ISF) in strikes on Gaza, including 63 children. Thousands of others have been injured while it is estimated that over 74,000 Palestinians have been displaced. In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, 28 Palestinians, including five children, were killed as of 24 May. At the same time, rockets launched by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups killed 10 Israeli citizens and residents including two children, and forced thousands into shelters.
This escalation was directly linked to protests and a heavy response from Israeli security forces first in East Jerusalem, then spreading to the entire occupied Palestinian territory and also within Israel.
Two main issues led to the rise in tensions. The imminent evictions of Palestinian families and their forced displacement in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem, to make way for settlers; and the ISF deployment at the Al Aqsa compound, restricting access to thousands of worshippers during the last days of Ramadan. On several occasions, the ISF used force against peaceful protesters and worshippers inside Al Aqsa Mosque. On other occasions, as demonstrations turned into clashes, they resorted to crowd control means utilizing excessive force, including physical violence, which inflamed tensions.
The latest escalation between Israel and Palestinian armed groups erupted on 10 May, when Hamas, the de facto authorities in the Gaza Strip, demanded that Israeli forces leave the Al Aqsa compound and Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. When this did not occur, Hamas and other armed groups launched a heavy rocket barrage towards Israel. These rockets are indiscriminate and fail to distinguish between military and civilian objects, and their use, thereby, constitutes a clear violation of international humanitarian law. Over the 11 days up to the ceasefire, a number of these rockets killed and injured civilians and caused significant damage to civilian objects, such as public facilities, houses, factories and other civilian structures.
Israel responded with intense airstrikes in Gaza including shelling, missiles fired from fighter aircraft and attacks from the sea. Although reportedly targeting members of armed groups and their military infrastructure, Israeli attacks resulted in extensive civilian deaths and injuries, as well as large-scale destruction and damage to civilian objects. Those include governmental buildings, residential homes and apartment buildings, international humanitarian organizations, medical facilities, media offices and roads connecting civilians to essential services such as hospitals. The result was their partial or total destruction. Despite Israel’s claims that many of these buildings were hosting armed groups or being used for military purposes, we have not seen evidence in this regard.
Although Israel undertook a number of precautions, such as advance warning of attacks in some cases, air strikes in such densely populated areas resulted in a high level of civilian fatalities and injuries, as well as the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure. Such strikes raise serious concerns of Israel’s compliance with the principles of distinction and proportionality under international humanitarian law. If found to be indiscriminate and disproportionate in their impact on civilians and civilian objects, such attacks may constitute war crimes.
On the other hand, it is also a violation of international humanitarian law to locate military assets in densely populated civilian areas or to launch attacks from them. However, the actions of one party do not absolve the other from its obligations under international law.
Unlike Israeli civilians, who have the benefit of the “Iron Dome” and professional military forces to assist in their protection, Palestinian civilians have virtually no protection against airstrikes and military operations carried out in one of the most densely populated areas of the world. They have no place to escape to, due to the Israeli land, air and sea blockade that has been in place for the last 14 years. As a result of this blockade, Palestinians in Gaza have suffered from a crumbling infrastructure and diminished access to basic services, including inadequate health services and a decaying sewage system that poses a direct threat to the health and well-being of all civilians resident there. The incapacity of the health system to comprehensively respond to COVID-19 in the recent surge in cases made this deterioration particularly evident. To obtain appropriate health care, many Palestinians are forced to travel abroad subject to permission by Israel, which is frequently denied.
There is no doubt that Israel has the right to defend its citizens and residents. However, Palestinians have rights too. The same rights. They too have the right to live safely and freely in their homes, with adequate and essential services and opportunities, and with respect for their right to life and physical integrity. The lived reality of the occupation, however, is that they are instead systematically deprived of fundamental rights and freedoms due to every human being.
In Sheikh Jarrah and other neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem, the risk of evictions remains and continues to fuel tensions. Such evictions should cease, in line with Israel’s obligations under international law. I urge the Israeli authorities to immediately halt the process of evictions.
While the shocking loss of life and destruction in Gaza has justifiably made headlines around the world, the alarming situation in the West Bank has gone unnoticed by many. Tension, protests and violence, including the heavy use of force by the ISF, has reached levels not seen in years. On 14 May alone, the ISF killed 10 Palestinians in the context of demonstrations and clashes, the highest number in one day in the West Bank since the United Nations started systematically collecting these figures in 2008.
I am also extremely troubled by the documented incidents of settlers using live ammunition to attack Palestinians, in some cases alongside Israeli Security Forces.
The third aspect of the last weeks’ serious human rights violations is the situation inside Israel, where there were unprecedented scenes of clashes, mob violence and riots between Palestinian citizens of Israel and ultra-right-wing groups, reinforced by Israeli settlers. Particularly concerning were several attempted mob attacks on individuals in the mixed cities of Bat-Yam, Jaffa and Acre, as well as attacks on places of worship and cultural heritage, instigated by both sides. I am especially concerned over reports that Israeli police failed to intervene to adequately protect Palestinian citizens of Israel against such attacks, while often using excessive force to control Palestinian demonstrators.
While I welcome the ceasefire of 21 May, it is clear that unless the root causes of this violence are addressed, it will sadly be a matter of time until the next round of violence commences, with further pain and suffering for civilians on all sides. There must be a genuine and inclusive peace process to address these root causes and bring the occupation to an end. In any such processes and for any resulting agreements, the respect and protection of human rights must be fundamental, including accountability for past human rights violations and abuses. Only when human rights are fully respected and protected can trust start to be built between the various communities and a durable, lasting and just peace be achieved.
In the meantime, I reiterate my call on Hamas and all armed groups to refrain from use of indiscriminate rockets and mortars, for which there must be accountability. And, once again, I urge Israel to ensure accountability in accordance with its obligations under international humanitarian and human rights laws. That includes conducting impartial, independent investigations into actions taken during this escalation. As the occupying power under international law, Israel is obligated to protect the population of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza and to ensure their welfare. Palestinians’ rights to life, to security and to freedom of assembly and expression must be respected.
Lastly, the death and injury of children in this escalation is a source of shame for all. In these recurring cycles of conflict, we cannot lose sight of their suffering and loss, nor that of any civilian. No matter how long the road has been, “never-ending” should not be an acceptable term.
Worldwide, 2021 is supposed to be a year of recovery. And, above all, a chance to recover better.
In Gaza particularly, rebuilding is, of course, urgent. People need a home, a school, a functioning hospital; stable electricity, clean water, sanitation. All fundamental to the full enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, which have also been so drastically infringed in the recent conflict.
Reconstructing lives also requires reconstructing sustainable livelihoods. A people-centred reconstruction of Gaza, which delivers on the human rights of its citizens, is an essential building block for durable peace and a sustainable future.
I sincerely hope that this will be the last time we will need such a special session.
Thank you, Madam President.