By Peter Beaumont
The UN’s top human rights official has marked the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories by calling for its quick end, insisting that such an outcome would benefit both sides.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the Jordanian prince and UN high commissioner for human rights, echoed the strong language of the UN secretary general, António Guterres, who earlier this week condemned the occupation’s “heavy humanitarian and development burden on the Palestinian people”, which he said had “fuelled recurring cycles of violence and retribution”.
The remarks follow a series of critical reports by humanitarian and rights organisations that reveal the impact of the 50-year occupation, and come as Israeli politicians celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1967 six-day war, in which Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including the Old City.
The focus of the Israeli celebrations has been what it calls the “reunification” of Jerusalem, a characterisation rejected by most of the international community, which does not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the captured territories.
Although Israel has attempted to treat the war’s anniversary as a national celebration, the occupation that followed Israel’s victory over Jordan, Syria and Egypt has drawn more attention internationally.
Jan Egeland, a former UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs who now heads the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in Jerusalem on Tuesday: “This 50-year-old festering wound is a reflection of a capitulation of Israeli, Palestinian and international leadership in the search for peace and reconciliation.
“Two generations have already lived under occupation and in mounting disillusionment and despair. Both Palestinian and Israeli children are denied a future in peace and security.”
Zeid’s comments, also on Tuesday, were made in a speech marking the opening of the three-week session of the UN’s human rights council. He described the anniversary for the Palestinian people as marking “a half-century of deep suffering under an occupation imposed by military force”.
While saying that Israelis deserved freedom from attacks, Zeid laid the blame for the continuing cycle of violence on the occupation. “Maintain the occupation,” he said, “and for both peoples there will only be a prolongation of immense pain.”
Zeid also condemned 2,000 years of anti-Jewish sentiment, which he said had culminated in the “colossal crime” of the Holocaust.
The UN body is frequently accused of being hostile to Israel by its critics, including the Israeli government and some in the US. On Tuesday the Trump administration gave formal notice of its intention to review its participation in the council and called for it to be reformed to eliminate a “chronic anti-Israel bias”.
“The United States is looking carefully at this council and our participation in it. We see some areas for significant strengthening,” Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, told the Geneva forum in her first address.
Zeid’s comments echoed an equally forthright statement on Monday from the UN secretary general. Guterres said the continued occupation was “an unmistakable message to generations of Palestinians that their dream of statehood is destined to remain just that: a dream; and to Israelis that their desire for peace, security and regional recognition remains unattainable”.
“Generation after generation of Palestinians who have been compelled to grow up and live in ever more crowded refugee camps, many in abject poverty, and with little or no prospect of a better life for their children,” he said.
“Continued settlement construction and expansion; violence and incitement; and the illicit arms build-up and militant activity in Gaza risk creating a one-state reality that is incompatible with realising the legitimate national and historic aspirations of both peoples.”
On Sunday, Human Rights Watch accused Israel of using “repression, institutionalised discrimination, and systematic abuses of the Palestinian population’s rights” to maintain control over areas it occupies.
It cited “at least five categories of major violations of international human rights law … characterised [by] the occupation: unlawful killings; forced displacement; abusive detention; the closure of the Gaza Strip and other unjustified restrictions on movement; and the development of settlements, along with the accompanying discriminatory policies that disadvantage Palestinians.”
“Whether it’s a child imprisoned by a military court or shot unjustifiably, or a house demolished for lack of an elusive permit, or checkpoints where only settlers are allowed to pass, few Palestinians have escaped serious rights abuses during this 50-year occupation,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“Israel today maintains an entrenched system of institutionalised discrimination against Palestinians in the occupied territory – repression that extends far beyond any security rationale.”
Oxfam last week blamed the international community for “continu[ing] to turn a blind eye to Israel’s violations of international law and the abuse of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory [OPT]”.
Oxfam country director Chris Eijkemans said the inaction of international governments sent the wrong signal: that international law can be violated with impunity. This lack of accountability keeps Palestinians poor and prevents them from accessing their rights. “There are few examples of poverty or injustice in the OPT that do not stem from the occupation,” Eijkemans said.
“If it weren’t for the occupation, most aid agencies would not need to be here. The issues facing Palestinians are enormous and complex, but on each count, despite the billions of dollars invested, the lives of Palestinians cannot meaningfully improve as long as the occupation persists.”
Israeli officials have insisted that the continuing conflict is not about the occupation but is due to Palestinian intransigence in peace negotiations.
Israel’s deputy minister for diplomacy, Michael Oren, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on Monday. He said: “We’ll hear a lot this week about occupation and lack of Palestinian independence. Israel has a clear policy on this score: it does not want to rule over another people and is ready to begin immediate negotiations.
“Yet while Palestinian leaders claim they support a two-state solution, until they state that they favour ‘two states for two peoples’, affirming both Jewish and Palestinian peoplehood and rights, the conflict will tragically persist. It is only through mutual recognition that Israelis and Palestinians will both be able to celebrate, rather than mourn, future anniversaries.”
Published on The Guardian on June 6, 2017.