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“Gaza is a massive human rights crisis and a humanitarian disaster”

30 January 2024

Winter scene in Gaza. © OHCHR

Ajith Sunghay is the head of the UN Human Rights Office in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Following an attack by Palestinian gunmen in southern Israel on 7 October 2023 and a subsequent Israeli military campaign in Gaza, the Office expanded its monitoring and reporting work, as well as its protection response, to deal with the grave human rights and humanitarian crisis. An international lawyer with 22 years of UN experience, Sunghay is back from a weeklong field visit to Gaza, where he visited several camps for internally displaced persons and spoke to staff and human rights defenders.

What is the human rights situation in Gaza?

It is extremely grim. The numbers are staggering. Some 25,000 people have been killed, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health, and more than 65,000 wounded. Several thousand are still under the rubble, so the figures will likely go up. There are 1.9 million people displaced out of a population of 2.3 million. There is no safe place in Gaza. Bombardments by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are relentless, in the north and in Khan Younis in the south. There is also a massive scarcity of food, water, medicines, tents and other basic necessities.

The existing shelters are cramped and the sanitary conditions are disastrous. In Rafah and Khan Younis, sewage is flowing out in every corner. This is a ticking time bomb for an epidemic to happen.

What is life like for civilians?

Life for civilians in Gaza is miserable. Thousands of people are constantly on the move from places they have been told are safe, living in constant fear. People make tents with plastic bags and wood they can find. People are living on one meal a day if they are lucky. There is one image that stuck with me: I saw over 100 kids running towards one cart that was bringing in food. You see kids everywhere, carrying water in jerrycans, sometimes as young as four, chopping wood to use it for fire. Children have not gone to school in months – their schools and universities have been ruined, destroying their hopes for the future. Hospitals and clinics have been attacked, so few are functioning, whether it is for trauma or a woman who wants to give birth.

Sunghay visits a women’s rights organization office in a camp for internally displaced persons in Rafah, Gaza. ©OHCHR

Sunghay visits a women’s rights organization office in a camp for internally displaced persons in Rafah, Gaza. ©OHCHR

What was the reason of your visit to Gaza?

One of the main purposes of my visit was to reinvigorate the Protection Cluster UN Human Rights coordinates, so I met UN and non-UN partners. I also met with human rights defenders and NGOs. I also talked to internally displaced persons (IDPs), visiting IDP camps in Khan Younis and Rafah. Khan Younis is today surrounded by IDF and there are gun battles between IDF and Palestinian armed groups in the street 500 meters away from Khan Younis Training Center. You could feel the vibrations of buildings from the bombardments. For me, it is important to give confidence to the people that human rights are pertinent, despite all the current challenges. Some in the region have expressed feeling like they have been let down by the international community, that their human rights have been denied for years. We need to be able to reinforce the confidence of Palestinians, Israelis and more broadly people in the region in human rights.

What has the work of our office been since the start of this crisis?

When the crisis started, we immediately focused on monitoring and documenting violations, which we have been doing for years under our mandate from the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. A second big stream is the Protection Cluster. The Legal team works in a crosscutting manner across Monitoring and Reporting and Protection Cluster teams. For us it is extremely important to provide international humanitarian law and human rights guidance and analysis. All these streams of work feed into our advocacy work and our constant engagement with the High Commissioner, the Assistant Secretary General in New York and our regular discussions with member States. The capacity building work has slowed down during the crisis, but will soon return to its normal activities.   

How is local staff coping and doing its work in the light of the situation?

It's been extremely difficult for staff for the last three years. The visas of international staff have not been renewed for the past three years, so they have been working from Amman. The national staff do miss the support of internationals and vice versa. A lot of work is done remotely. Despite the situation we continue to work to the extent possible.

What is the security situation of local staff?

Our national staff have lost family members and homes and were on the move, living like internally displaced people, crammed in shelters in unsanitary conditions, with lack of food and water and under a constant threat for their safety. But most are temporarily rotated. Our West Bank colleagues are very worried that what is happening in Gaza might spill over to the West Bank, so there is a lot of stress, grief, sorrow and loss.

We are the voice of human rights.


Why does our office remain open in such danger?

It's extremely important that we continue to do our work despite all the challenges. This is a massive human rights crisis and a human-made humanitarian disaster. We are the voice of human rights. We have to document what is happening on the ground, including for accountability purposes. We have to raise the alarm and bring it to the attention of the international community for decision-making. We are also looked at for guidance on international humanitarian law and human rights interpretation.

What are the most urgent needs in terms of humanitarian assistance that you have seen during your visit?

The list is very long and goes on. There is a desperate need for all sorts of humanitarian assistance, starting with food. People are desperate for medicines. Similarly, clean water and clean drinking water. Lack of sanitary products is another massive problem. People are worried about the dangers of an epidemic breaking out. I met people who haven't had a bath or a shower for weeks or even months. Shelter is another serious issue. We are now in winter. This conflict started in October, when people left with one pair of clothes. They don't have warm clothes, and now we're talking about the rainy season. The humanitarian needs are massive up in the north, where access has become extremely difficult. There are about 300,000 people with severe shortage of food, water and other basic necessities.

What is the situation in the occupied West Bank?

Since 7 October 2023 the international focus has been on Gaza, but the human rights situation in the occupied West Bank has been rapidly deteriorating. We have seen over 500 Palestinians killed mainly due to excessive use of force by Israeli Security Forces, the highest number since the UN began keeping such records in 2005. Palestinians are subject to discriminatory movement restrictions and arbitrary detention, with reportedly over 6,000 people at this point in time detained. Settler violence against Palestinians has also increased. We will soon release two reports, one on accountability and one on settlements, which will be presented before the Human Rights Council.

What is your appeal to all sides of the conflict?

As the High Commissioner has said repeatedly, we call for an immediate ceasefire. It is urgent to stop the suffering. The High Commissioner has also called for the humane treatment and release of hostages. We've been extremely clear in condemning the attacks by the Palestinian armed groups on 7 October 2023. We need to act on ending this conflict and the occupation as soon as possible and ensure a political solution to the causes of this conflict that respects and ensures the rights of all Palestinians and Israelis.