TWN Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (May18/05)
23 May 2018
Third World Network

United Nations: HRC holds Special Session on Gaza violence
Published in SUNS #8684 dated 22 May 2018

Geneva, 18 May (Kanaga Raja) - Israel, as an occupying power under international law, is obligated to protect the population of Gaza and ensure their welfare, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, said Friday, highlighting the "appalling" recent events in Gaza.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaking at the opening of the Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council on "the deteriorating human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territory including East Jerusalem", urged Israel to act in accordance with its international obligations.

"Nobody has been made safer by the horrific events of the past week," Zeid said.

[The Council, at the close of its Special Session on Friday afternoon, adopted a resolution whereby it decided to urgently dispatch an independent, international commission of inquiry.]

The Special Session was convened following an official request submitted on Tuesday evening by Palestine and the United Arab Emirates, on behalf of the Arab Group of States.

The request was supported by 17 States members of the Council: Angola, Burundi, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela, and by nine observer states: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Kuwait, Maldives, Oman, Tajikistan and Turkey.

Since Tuesday, an additional 24 States have signed on in support of holding the Special Session: Algeria, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China, Democratic Republic of the Congo, France, Iran, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Mauritania, Mexico, Montenegro, Morocco, Namibia, Portugal, Spain, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland and Zimbabwe.

In his opening statement on Friday, Zeid pointed out that since the protest s began on 30 March, 87 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli security forces in the context of the demonstrations, including 12 children; 29 others, including three children, were killed in other circumstances.

And over 12,000 people have been injured, more than 3,500 of them by live ammunition.

The violence reached a peak on Monday 14 May, when 43 demonstrators were killed by Israeli forces - and the number sadly continues to climb, as some of the 1,360 demonstrators injured with live ammunition that day succumb to their wounds.

According to the Rights chief, these people, many of whom were completely unarmed, were shot in the back, in the chest, in the head and limbs with live ammunition, as well as rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas canisters.

Israeli forces also killed a further 17 Palestinians outside the context of the five demonstration hot spots.

Together, said Zeid, this figure of 60 is the highest one-day death toll in Gaza since the 2014 hostilities.

The High Commissioner said this was not "a PR [public relations] victory for Hamas", in the reported words of a senior Israeli military spokesman. It was a tragedy for thousands of families, Zeid added.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has described the demonstrators as being "paid by Hamas", and that the Israeli security forces "try to minimize casualties".

But there is little evidence of any attempt to minimize casualties on Monday, Zeid pointed out.

Although some of the demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails, used sling-shots to throw stones, flew burning kites into Israel, and attempted to use wire-cutters against the two fences between Gaza and Israel, these actions alone do not appear to constitute the imminent threat to life or deadly injury which could justify the use of lethal force, Zeid said.

The stark contrast in casualties on both sides is also suggestive of a wholly disproportionate response: on Monday, on the Israeli side, one soldier was reportedly wounded, slightly, by a stone.

"Killings resulting from the unlawful use of force by an occupying power may also constitute wilful killings - a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention," the High Commissioner underlined.

Palestinians have exactly the same human rights as Israelis do, he said. "They have the same rights to live safely in their homes, in freedom, with adequate and essential services and opportunities. And of this essential core of entitlements due to every human being, they are systematically deprived."

He said that all of the 1.9 million people who live in Gaza have been penned in behind fences and have suffered progressively more restrictions and greater poverty.

The High Commissioner said after 11 years of blockade by Israel, they have little hope of employment, and their infrastructure is crumbling, with an electricity crisis, inadequate health services and a decaying sewage system that constitutes a threat to health.

They are forced to seek exit permits from Israel for any reason, including for specialised health care, and many of those permits are denied or delayed - including permits for the great majority of the demonstrators shot by Israeli security forces this week.

"Israel, as an occupying power under international law, is obligated to protect the population of Gaza and ensure their welfare. But they are, in essence, cage d in a toxic slum from birth to death; deprived of dignity; dehumanised by the Israeli authorities to such a point it appears officials do not even consider that these men and women have a right, as well as every reason, to protest," said the High Commissioner.

He noted that the human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territory continues to deteriorate.

Settlement building has again accelerated this year, together with rising settler violence. Demolitions of private property continue, including punitive demolitions, which constitute a deplorable form of collective punishment.

The small Bedouin community of Khan al Ahmar, just east of Jerusalem, is at high risk of forcible transfer. This week, the villages of Beita and Nabi Saleh were subjected to closures and restrictions on movement following clashes with the Israeli forces.

Zeid said that Israel also continues to detain large numbers of Palestinians, including children, although under international law the detention of a child must be a measure of last resort.

"I also deplore the widespread and unprincipled use of detention without trial - described as "administrative detention" - and violations of fundamental fair trial guarantees. And the deficit in accountability for alleged extrajudicial killings and other violations, as previously reported by the Secretary General and my Office, undermines confidence in Israeli justice."

The High Commissioner endorsed calls by many States and observers for an investigation that is international, independent and impartial - in the hop e the truth regarding these matters will lead to justice.

Those responsible for violations must in the end be held accountable, said Zeid.

In this context, as in all conflicts where impunity is widespread, unless ended by a peace settlement, excessive violence - both horrifying and criminal - flows easily from the barrel of a gun, becomes normal, destroying the occupied perhaps, but something crucial too in the occupier - what do you become when you shoot to kill someone who is unarmed, and not an immediate threat to you?

"You are neither brave, nor a hero. You have become someone very different to that," said Zeid.

And then there is the fear and hatred - those dreadful twins, prolific in the manufacturing of violence and human suffering, now transforming into a psychosis - on both sides - more tightly spun, and more corrosive.

"And to what end? So we will all be destroyed?"

The occupation must end, so the people of Palestine can be liberated, and the people of Israel liberated from it. End the occupation, and the violence and insecurity will largely disappear, said the High Commissioner.

He urged Israel to act in accordance with its international obligations. "Palestinians' right to life, their right to security of the person and rights to freedom of assembly and expression must be respected and protected."

All individuals' right to health must be respected and protected, regardless of the context in which they may have been injured.

"The rules of engagement for Israel's security forces must be in line with Israel's international obligations, and I urge that they be published."

Zeid said children should never be the targets of violence and must not be put at risk of violence or encouraged to participate in violence.

"I again remind all concerned that lethal force may only be used in cases of extreme necessity, as a last resort, in response to an imminent threat of death or risk of serious injury," Zeid concluded.


Meanwhile, Mr Michael Lynk, the Special Rapporteur on situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, delivered a vide o message to the Special Session on behalf of the Coordination Committee of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council (representing the various mandate holders).

He said that the events in Gaza this past week, and these past two months, and these past eleven years, haunt the conscience of the international community.

A tiny crowded enclave of land, holding two million people under occupation, cut off from the outside world by an imposing and comprehensive air, sea and land blockade, living in an utterly dire situation that the United Nations has called unsustainable and unlivable and a form of collective punishment, seeking the elemental human demands of freedom, justice and the right to enjoy the fruits of life, like anyone else.

Mr Lynk noted that earlier this week, an inspiring young Palestinian journalist in Gaza, Ahmed Abu Ratima, wrote a compelling plea that was published in the New York Times. He is one of the organizers of the Great Return March.

Mr. Abu Ratima pointed out that most people his age have never been permitted to leave Gaza, ever. They led lives of despair: lacking jobs, electricity, clean water, hope, housing, a functioning economy, well-stocked hospitals and the ability to experience the wider world. He wrote about birds that he would watch fly overhead, freely crossing a border that he could not.

The rights expert said the Gazan demonstrations have been almost entirely unarmed and non-violent. Thousands and thousands marching, singing, protesting against their conditions, and demanding the right to a better future.

"Yes, some threw Molotov cocktails, or flew burning kites, or rushed the wire fences at the Gaza frontier. But the overwhelming majority have been commit ted to non-violence over the past seven weeks, armed only with the oldest and most human of aspirations: to live free in one's own land."

Mr Lynk noted that over the past seven weeks, over 100 Palestinian demonstrators have died at the hands of the Israeli military. Among the dead are children, journalists, health medics and many, many young unemployed men. Approximately 12,000 have been injured.

According to statements by Doctors Without Borders, many of the wounded have received devastating injuries of an unusual severity, which are extremely complex to treat.

Many of these wounded now have serious, life-long physical disabilities. All of this has overwhelmed an already- fragile health care system, and will burden a desperately poor society.

"Who bears responsibility for all this?," Mr Lynk asked.

It must start with Israel, and its political and military command. It is Israel that has imposed the 11-year-old travel and economic blockade that has strangled the Gazan economy and society.

It is Israel that remains the occupying power, because it maintains "effective control" - the governing test under the laws of occupation - over Gaza and its inhabitants.

And it is the Israel Defense Forces which, over the past seven weeks, has fired lethal ammunition again and again into the crowds of demonstrators, notwithstanding the calls of the international community and the demands of human rights defenders.

Responsibility for the grim conditions in Gaza also rest with Hamas, with the Palestinian Authority and with Egypt. They must also fulfill their obligations to the people of Gaza.

"And responsibility as well rests with the international community. It is you who bears the ultimate obligation for ensuring that Israel respects all of its many unmet obligations under international law," said the Special Rapporteur.

He reminded the Council of the legal obligations that arise in this situation: Israel, as occupying power, is obligated to uphold and respect the human rights of Palestinians living in the occupied territory.

"Palestinians, as all of us, are entitled to their human rights. These include the right to peaceful assembly, as set forth in Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and treaty, which Israel has ratified."

The Human Rights Council has noted, in its resolution 24/5, that States are obligated to respect and fully protect this right, including for those espousing dissenting views.

He said he has noted repeatedly in his statements over the past weeks his concern about Israel's excessive use of force.

"Once again, I will refer to the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which require law enforcement officials to refrain from using lethal force on demonstrators unless strictly unavoidable in order to prevent death or serious injury."

The Special Rapporteur pointed out that the "willful killing" and the "willful causing of great suffering or serious injury to body or health" of civilian s is both a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime under the Rome Statute.

Mr Lynk noted that the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has issued a caution regarding the violence against civilians in Gaza last month.

"I would like to echo the sentiment of the High Commissioner, and highlight that an attempt to approach the fence, to damage the fence, or even to cross the fence, by an unarmed individual faced with heavily armed soldiers, does not constitute a threat to life or serious injury that would justify the use of lethal force."

Similarly, stones, or even Molotov cocktails, thrown at significant distances towards well-protected and heavily armed security forces behind defensive positions, would not rise to the level of threat necessary to justify use of lethal force.

This is a profoundly asymmetrical situation. Thousands of unarmed demonstrators, shorn of hope, but marching with dignity, living in one of the poorest societies in the region, against the most militarily powerful and economically advanced society in the region.

"Israel has been exacting an eye for an eyelash, because it can," said My Lynk.

Any condemnation of these recent events would be empty unless it is accompanied by the pursuit of justice and accountability.

Accordingly, the Special Rapporteur called upon the international community , through the United Nations, to conduct an independent and impartial investigation into the killings and injuries that have occurred in the context of these demonstrations since 30 March.

"Israelis and Palestinians are bound to each other. They live under the same sky, in the same land. Their futures are intertwined. It is in the best interest s of both for the Palestinians to finally be able to live in freedom and dignity, and for Israelis to finally free themselves from the yoke of their occupation. Pursuing account ability, and defending human rights, is the only path to that future," he concluded.


Meanwhile, some 95 civil society organizations, in a joint statement issued on 17 May, have called on the UN Human Rights Council to urgently launch a "Commission of Inquiry" to investigate the violence against protesters in Palestine.

In light of the recent mass killing of civilians in occupied Palestine, the 95 CSOs called on the Human Rights Council to urgently launch an independent investigation into violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory, occurring in the context of the "March of Great Return" and Nakba protests.

They noted that there are currently over seven million Palestinian refugees spread across the globe, including 1.3 million refugees in the Gaza Strip.

As the result of decades of dispossession, oppression and violations of international law, including 11 years of unlawful closure and blockade of the Gaza Strip, Palestinians therein and elsewhere in occupied Palestine have embarked on a six-week campaign of largely peaceful protests, starting on 30 March 2018.

"The actions by the Israeli forces in response to the demonstrations, particularly those taking place in the eastern parts of the Gaza Strip, amount to excessive, indiscriminate and disproportionate use of lethal force. They may also amount to widespread wilful killings and may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity," said the CSOs.

They noted that on 28 April 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that, "[i]n the context of an occupation such as Gaza, killings resulting from the unlawful use of force may also constitute wilful killings which are a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention."

According to the joint statement of the CSOs, since the start of these large-scale protests, approximately 111 Palestinians have been killed, including 12 children, two journalists, and four persons with disabilities.

During the same period, approximately 7,000 were injured, including 1,244 children, 253 women, 42 paramedics, and 60 journalists - at least 3,615 of whom were hit by live fire.

The statement said that in response to the demonstrations, the Israeli military has allegedly been using live ammunition intentionally with the aim of killing and seriously injuring civilians, as demonstrated by the use of high-velocity, military-grade weapons that cause devastating, and in some cases life-changing injuries.

In response to these events, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for independent investigations into the killings, while the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, has echoed this call and highlighted that "[e]very week, we witness instances of use of lethal force against unarmed demonstrators" and that "[w]arnings by the United Nations and others have seemingly gone unheeded, as the approach of the security forces from week to week does not seem to have changed."

The CSOs pointed out that the Israeli government continues to disregard the numerous recommendations by UN officials to exercise restraint in its response to the protests in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere in occupied Palestine.

"In fact, the Israeli military has increased the use of force against the civilian population in violation of its obligations under international law to ensure the welfare and respect of the fundamental rights of the occupied population under its control."

The statement noted that the escalating protests over the last six months intensified following the announcement of 6 December 2017 by US President Trump recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital and relocating its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in blatant disregard for international law.

On Monday, 14 May 2018, the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem entrenched and endorsed Israel's annexation of Jerusalem, in violation of Article 2(4) of the Charter of the United Nations on the prohibition of annexation - a general principle of international law - and in breach of Israel's obligations as an Occupying Power under Article 47 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which concerns the protection of the occupied Palestinian population from any measures of "annexation by the latter of the whole or part of the occupied territory ."

The CSOs joined the UN Secretary General and High Commissioner for Human Rights' calls for action, and specifically demanded that the UN Human Rights Council urgently establish a Commission of Inquiry with a view to: (i) ensuring legal accountability for perpetrators of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including for individual and command responsibility, and (ii) facilitating and expediting existing international investigations and examinations.

The Human Rights Council should also encourage the International Criminal Court to urgently open a full investigation into alleged international crimes committed by the Occupying Power.

The CSOs further called for an end to the 51 years of occupation of Palestinian territory, including the immediate lifting of the closure and blockade of the Gaza Strip.

In the words of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights "enough is enough," they said.