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Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

7 December 2021

Distinguished Chair,
Members of the Committee,
Excellencies,

I am grateful for the opportunity to brief the Committee about the acute concerns of my Office regarding the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

I begin with the situation in Gaza.

In May of this year, we witnessed the most significant escalation in hostilities since 2014, resulting in the killing of 261 Palestinians including 67 children. My Office determined that 130 of those killed were civilians. This escalation was directly linked to protests and violent responses by Israeli security forces – first in East Jerusalem, then spreading to the entire Occupied Palestinian Territory and to Israel.

A Special Session of the Human Rights Council was subsequently convened, in which I and other speakers raised serious concerns over the high level of civilian fatalities and injuries resulting from strikes in densely populated areas – as well as the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure – noting that such attacks raised serious concerns of compliance with international humanitarian law. At that time the Human Rights Council decided to establish an ongoing, independent, international commission of inquiry, with a mandate to investigate "all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law leading up and since 13 April 2021". It was also mandated to investigate "all underlying root causes of recurrent tensions, instability and protraction of conflict, including systematic discrimination and repression based on national, ethnic, racial or religious identity". My Office has been providing administrative support to the establishment of the Commission, which is expected to present its first report at the Human Rights Council session in June 2022.

In addition to recurring cycles of hostilities, the people of Gaza also continue to suffer from a 15-year land, sea and air blockade, leading to a continuous and deeply damaging deterioration of the human rights and humanitarian situation. Vital infrastructure is crumbling. The decaying sewer system constitutes a threat to health, as I noted in my report to the Human Rights Council's September session on the allocation of water resources in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Severe movement restrictions and obstructions to people's access to essential goods and services, including specialised health-care, generate immense suffering. I have repeatedly emphasised that Palestinians have the right to live safely and freely in their homes, with adequate access to essential services and opportunities, amid respect for their right to life and physical integrity. Instead, in the lived reality of the occupation and blockade, they are systematically deprived of the fundamental rights and freedoms due to every human being.

Reconstruction and recovery efforts are ongoing in Gaza, and the fragile cessation of hostilities continues to hold. However, although some goods have been gradually allowed to enter Gaza through the Israel-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing, as well as the Egypt-controlled Rafah crossing, humanitarian conditions remain deeply concerning. Further steps are needed by all parties to ensure a sustainable solution that ultimately leads to the return of legitimate Palestinian governmental institutions to the Gaza Strip.

Let me turn to the issue of civic freedoms.

Excellencies,

On 19 October, Israel designated six Palestinian civil society organizations as "terrorist organizations" under Israel's Counter-Terrorism Law of 2016. On 7 November, they were also declared unlawful in the occupied territory under the Emergency (Defence) Regulations of 1945. These designations appear to have been based on vague or unsubstantiated reasons, including claims related to legitimate and entirely peaceful human rights activities. All six organisations have worked with the international community, including the UN, for decades, collectively defending human rights and providing humanitarian assistance for thousands of people.

My Office has also received credible reports that the notorious 'Pegasus' spyware was installed on the mobile phones of some staff of the six designated organizations.

Claims of links to terrorism are extremely serious, and should be treated as such by all. The basis for such allegations must be of the highest standard, based in provable evidence, and should be made in a transparent manner.

Without adequate substantive evidence, these decisions appear arbitrary, and further erode the civic and humanitarian space in the occupied Palestinian territory. They can therefore legitimately be viewed as an attack on human rights defenders, on the rights to freedoms of association, opinion and expression, and on the right to public participation. This pattern of pressure on civil society groups – notably those who work to document and defend Palestinians' human rights – has existed for many years. Israel's continuous policy of restricting the space for legitimate activities of civil society is inconsistent with its obligations under international human rights law. It also threatens to limit further the space for peaceful dialogue.

I also regret that actions by the Palestinian Authority have contributed to restricting the civic space for Palestinians. The rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are increasingly curtailed. Since June 2021, my Office has documented cases of assaults of journalists and human rights defenders, as well as intimidation; gender-based violence and harassment; excessive use of force; arbitrary arrests and censorship. In Gaza, the de facto authorities have also restricted Palestinians' rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, with particular targeting of journalists through raids, arrests and harassment.

Excellencies,

My concerns continue to deepen about the numerous killings and injuries of Palestinians across the Occupied Palestinian Territory by Israeli forces – as well as, increasingly, by armed settlers. The use of excessive or entirely unwarranted force by Israeli forces appears in many instances to be a measure of first – rather than last – resort, as required under international law.

I am particularly alarmed at recurring incidents of excessive use of force leading to the death and injury of Palestinian children. On 5 November, a 15-year-old Palestinian boy was shot with live ammunition in the abdomen, and killed, by Israeli forces stationed about 50 meters away, during demonstrations in Deir Al-Hatab near the illegal Israeli settlement Elon Moreh. This year, Israeli forces have killed 16 children in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. These and all other killings, as well as all incidents of excessive and unwarranted use of lethal force by Israeli forces, must be thoroughly and effectively investigated, and those responsible held to account. The chronic impunity in the occupied Palestinian territory for violations has been repeatedly raised in reports by the Secretary-General and myself.

Settler-related violence is also at alarmingly high levels, amid continued tensions over settlement expansion and the annual olive harvest season. In the past year, there have been 490 incidents resulting in deaths, injury and/or significant property damage – the highest incidence of settler violence ever recorded by the United Nations. Currently, it represents an average of almost one incident of settler violence each day.

The severity of the violence has also intensified, with four Palestinians killed and 167 injured by settlers, including seven with live ammunition. In three additional cases it was not possible to determine whether the victims were killed by the ISF or by settlers. Despite reports that the Israeli authorities have taken steps, the justice system continues to fail to hold settlers accountable for violence against Palestinians. This lack of accountability for settler violence contributes to the increased number and severity of attacks.

I note also that the approval, planning and construction of Israeli settlements continues unabated across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. In the past year, settlers have established 12 new outposts in the West Bank. Most recently, on 24 October, Israeli authorities announced tenders for some 1,350 housing units in settlements. The announcement also included a re-issuance of tenders for some 80 units in the settlement of Givat Hamatos, and would further curtail access and links between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Excellencies,

Children continued to suffer disproportionate impact from the recurring cycles of military escalation and associated deprivation. Reports by our UN partners indicate that 75 per cent of all children in Gaza are in need of mental health and psycho-social support, as well as other community- and family-based services.

Currently, 160 Palestinian children are detained by Israel, some of them without charge, under administrative detention regulations, whereas international law provides that arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time, and that children must benefit from a child-friendly justice system that minimises the challenges they face in each aspect of a legal proceeding.

It should be clearly understood that under international law, administrative detention is permitted only in exceptional circumstances and must be subject to strict safeguards to prevent arbitrariness. This is not the case in the Occupied Palestinian Territory today.

We also continue to receive disturbing reports of the ill-treatment of children during their arrest, transfer, interrogation and detention by Israeli authorities.

Excellencies,

Overall, the human rights situation in the OPT at present can fairly be characterised as disastrous, with severe infringements on the inalienable rights of over 4 million people in numerous domains. This clearly also has damaging impact on prospects for peace and sustainable development for Israel, as well as the surrounding region.

The root causes of the violations I have described need to be addressed, so that the continuing cycles of violence can be stopped. This requires the commitment of the international community to ensure long-overdue accountability for all violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, by whoever committed. As we have repeatedly said, no matter how long the road has been, "never-ending" cannot be an acceptable description for any situation in which human rights are violated and abused. Only an end to the occupation can bring about lasting peace, and establish the conditions in which the human rights of all can be fully respected.