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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
10 November 2023
Sabah al-khair, thank you for coming.
I would like to share with you some of what I have seen and heard from Palestinians and Israelis in recent days.
I just got off the phone with a colleague of ours in Rafah, who had to rush out of Gaza City with his wife – who is seven months pregnant – his two young children and other family members, when buildings around him were destroyed by Israeli bombardments. His children, aged nine and seven, are asking him questions he does not know how to answer: “Why is this happening to us? What did we do?”
Another Palestinian UN colleague in Gaza told me how she had to flee at 1am with her children to find shelter far from home, but that she always keeps her bags close as they may need to flee again at short notice. Her sister-in-law was killed yesterday, and close friends the day before. Water is scarce, and fear is pervasive. Several other colleagues told me they’ve had to mourn the killings of dozens of their loved ones over the past month. It was an unfortunate recurring theme I heard over the past couple of days.
In just a short visit to El Arish Hospital in Rafah, Egypt, I saw many children injured in Gaza – a three-year-old boy with two broken legs, a five-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl with severe burns, an eight-year-old girl with spinal injuries, and others. These were the “lucky” children who suffered terribly but are still alive and receiving proper medical treatment.
As you know, some 4,400 other children have been killed in Gaza in the past month, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health. Many others may be trapped under the rubble of bombed buildings. Over 26,000 have been injured – and are either unable to receive medical care because of the collapsing health system in Gaza, or face being operated on without anaesthesia.
I also heard about people with disabilities losing their caregivers and their access to essential medicine. Impossible decisions people have had to make about either leaving behind a family member with a disability and risk being hit en route – or staying with them and risk being hit at home.
And I heard from Israeli human rights defenders, deeply distressed and outraged by the plight of civilians in Gaza. They were also disturbed by what this is doing to Israel. In fact what they said to me and I quote: “We are not allowed to protest for peace – we will return from this war with much less freedom. We don’t know what kind of society will emerge at the end of this.” And I heard from Palestinian human rights defenders their concerns about double standards. They emphasized the failures by the international community to step up to their obligation to ensure respect for international humanitarian law, and to use their influence to halt the unconscionable suffering of civilians in the midst of this madness.
The atrocious attacks by Hamas against Israel on 7 October should outrage each and every one of us. There needs to be justice, accountability and remedy for the victims of these atrocious crimes. The hostages need to be brought back home and indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel needs to cease.
But it is clear that enduring peace and security cannot be delivered by the exercise of fury and pain against people who have no responsibility for the crimes that were committed – including the 99 UNRWA staff members who have been killed. This is unprecedented, outrageous and deeply heartbreaking.
The extensive Israeli bombardment of Gaza, including the use of high impact explosive weapons in densely populated areas, razing tens of thousands of buildings to the ground, is clearly having a devastating humanitarian and human rights impact. After four weeks of bombardment and shelling by Israeli Forces in Gaza, the indiscriminate effects of such weapons in a densely populated area is clear. Israel must immediately end the use of such methods and means of warfare, and the attacks must be investigated. We continue to monitor strikes and in a number of incidents with high numbers of fatalities across Gaza, including strikes on residential areas in Jabalia, Gaza city, Al Bureij, Al Nuseirat, Al Meghazi, and Khan Yunis. Considering the predictable high level of civilian casualty and the wide scale of destruction of civilian objects we have very serious concerns that these amount to disproportionate attacks in breach of international humanitarian law.
Strikes on hospitals and in the vicinity of hospitals in Gaza city have been particularly intense, especially around the two biggest hospitals in the area – Indonesia hospital in Beit Lahiya and Al Shifa hospital in Gaza city. Meanwhile, the strikes on surrounding areas render access to hospitals difficult, including by destroying roads.
Some hospitals, including Al Quds and Al Shifa hospitals have also received specific evacuation orders, in addition to the general evacuation orders to all of northern residents of Gaza. But such evacuation, as the World Health Organization has warned, is a “death sentence” in a context where the entire medical system is collapsing and hospitals in southern Gaza have no capacity to absorb more patients.
International humanitarian law is clear: it extends special protection to medical units and requires that they be protected and respected at all times. Any use by Palestinian armed groups of civilians and civilian objects to shield themselves from attack is in contravention of the laws of war. But such conduct by Palestinian armed groups does not absolve Israel of its obligation to ensure that civilians are spared – that the principles of distinction, precautions in attack and proportionality are respected. Failure to do so is also in contravention of the laws of war – with devastating impact on civilians.
While bombings on Gaza from air, land and sea continue, the complete siege now lasting over one month has made it an agony for residents in Gaza to find basic necessities, and frankly to survive. All forms of collective punishment must come to an end.
Demands for civilians to relocate to an Israeli Defence Force designated “safe zone” are also very alarming. A so-called “safe zone,” when established unilaterally, can heighten risks to civilians, and raises real questions as to whether security can be guaranteed in practice. At the moment, nowhere in Gaza is safe, as bombardments are being reported in all parts of the Strip. It also needs to be absolutely clear that civilians are protected under international law wherever they are.
What is needed, urgently, and I said it many times, including at the Rafah border crossing in Egypt, is for the parties to agree to a ceasefire on the basis of critical human rights imperatives – to deliver food, water and other essential goods to people who desperately need them and where they need them, throughout Gaza; for all hostages to be released; and to open a path to a sustainable way out of this nightmarish situation in Gaza.
I also appeal, as a matter of urgency, for Israeli authorities to take immediate measures to take steps to ensure protection of Palestinians in the West Bank – who are being on a daily basis subjected to violence from Israeli forces and settlers, ill treatment, arrests, evictions, intimidation and humiliation.
This year was already the deadliest on record for Palestinians in the West Bank, with about 200 killed even before 7 October, and we have made these warnings over the last year. Since beginning of October, at least 176 more Palestinians, including 43 children and one woman have been killed – most by Israeli security forces, and at least eight of them by settlers. More than 2,000 Palestinians have been arrested and detained in heavy-handed operations across the West Bank and we have documented disturbing cases of ill-treatment of those arrested and their families.
This year, Israeli forces have increasingly used military tactics and weapons in law enforcement operations. Yesterday alone, at least 14 Palestinians were killed by Israeli Forces in Jenin refugee camp. There were also four other casualties across the West Bank yesterday. Law enforcement operations in the Occupied West Bank must be conducted in strict accordance with international human rights law.
There has also been a sharp increase in settler violence and takeover of land across the West Bank. Since 7 October, nearly 1,000 Palestinians from at least 15 herding communities have been forced from their homes. In the context of the coercive environment they live in, the displacement of these communities may amount to the forcible transfer of a population – which is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
I call on the Israeli authorities to comply with their obligations as occupying power to protect the Palestinian population, to issue clear and unambiguous orders to security forces to ensure the protection of the Palestinian population against settler violence, and to hold to account those who fail to comply with such orders. It is Israel’s duty to ensure that all incidents of violence are promptly and effectively investigated, and that victims are provided with effective remedies. Continued, widespread impunity for such violations is unacceptable, dangerous, and in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international human rights law. And I hope that finally that there is accountability served in these circumstances.
In the past month, we have documented multiple incidents where settlers have organised to prevent Palestinian farmers from harvesting olives, a main source of livelihood in the West Bank, including by attacking them with firearms and forcing them to leave their land, stealing the harvest and poisoning or vandalising olive trees. And human rights defenders are increasingly threatened with violence if they document violations. I heard this directly from them yesterday.
These human rights defenders – and my Office – have been sounding the alarm over many years about rising human rights violations and persistent impunity, warning that if steps were not taken towards individual criminal responsibility and respect for the rule of law, the situation could get out of control.
Rather than discrediting and penalizing human rights defenders – and the UN – for documenting violations, the authorities need to ensure accountability which is an essential step towards de-escalating tensions at this volatile time.
We have learned time and again, throughout history, that extremism only sows further extremism. Steps really must be taken to break this cycle of vengeance, death, grief and rage.
I also strongly condemn the use of dehumanizing language, in particular by political and military leaders in Israel as well as by Hamas. The only victor, in such a context, is the extremism that drives more and greater violence. The Government of Israel must take all measures to put an end to incidents of hate speech and incitement against Palestinians. Some of the statements coming out from high-level officials are not only abhorrent, they can amount to incitement to hatred and violence – and in some cases could contribute to evidence of intent to conduct hostilities in a manner contrary to the laws of war.
I urge decision-makers to study and implement the recommendations of our numerous human rights reports on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and to step back from the precipice to which increasing extremism and violence have led.
There need to be meaningful investigations and accountability to end this cycle of violence and vengeance against entire communities. Where national authorities prove unwilling or unable to carry out such investigations, and where there are contested narratives on particularly significant incidents, there needs to be independent, international investigation.
It is clear that the status quo is untenable and that we must do all we can to alleviate the suffering of civilians. Member States with influence need to work harder than ever to bring the parties to a ceasefire, without further delay.
Stop the violence. Guarantee the safety of humanitarian workers. Provide safe access to ensure humanitarian assistance to all those in need. Make sure people have enough to eat, clean water to drink, medical care and shelter. Free the hostages. Bring to justice – in line with human rights law – the perpetrators of serious violations.
The solution to this situation is the end of the occupation, and full respect for the right to self-determination for Palestinians. As I have said time and again, for the violence to end, the occupation needs to end. Member States need to invest all the effort that is necessary into finding a sustainable peace for all Palestinians and Israelis.
Traveling with the High Commissioner Ravina Shamdasani - [email protected]
Anthony Headley – [email protected]