ODVV interview: Israel maintains a cost-free...
One of the world’s most enduring and tragic wars, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears to be at an impasse well into its 71st year, and the dream of a two-state solution seems to be in retreat with Israel refusing to suspend its controversial settlement enterprise and fulfil its obligations as the occupying power.
According to Israel-Palestine Timeline, at least 9,940 Palestinians, including 2,172 children, have been killed by Israeli forces since 2000. As reported by the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, 4,787 Palestinian security detainees and prisoners are being held in Israel Prison Service (IPS) facilities. Many of these captives are behind bars for entering Israel illegally. Settlement constructions by Israel have increased at an alarming rate in the recent years and it was in July when the Israeli government approved the construction of 6,000 new homes for Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank. More than 600,000 Israelis live in the settlement units in the West Bank, including the occupied East Jerusalem.
In its account of the events in Israel and Palestine in 2018, Human Rights Watch painted a broadly bleak image of the living conditions of Palestinians under the Israeli occupation. According to HRW, the Israeli government continued to “enforce severe and discriminatory restrictions on Palestinians’ human rights”, put restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip and enabled the “unlawful transfer of Israeli citizens to settlements in the occupied West Bank.” The international NGO deplored Israel’s “near-total closure” of the Gaza Strip, discriminatory policies and home demolitions in the West Bank, “onerous restrictions” of the movement of Palestinians in the occupied territories and arbitrary detention of Palestinian citizens, including children.
In March 2016, Michael Lynk was appointed as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967. The 66-year old Canadian jurist is an associate professor at the Western University’s Faculty of Law in London, Ontario. Prof. Lynk has taught at the University of Ottawa, Carleton University and Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. In January 2015, his name was included in the Mayor of London’s Honors List for his work on humanitarian issues. He has authored important papers on labor law, international law and human rights.
In an exclusive interview with Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Mr. Lynk responded to some questions on the Israeli government’s settler construction project, the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and the objection of the United States and Israel’s allies to the item 7 of the UN Human Rights Council’s agenda. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: At the conclusion of your trip to Jordan in July, you stated that the demolition of Palestinian houses, Israeli settlers’ violence and other factors have engendered a coercive environment in the West Bank that has left the Palestinians with no option but to flee their homes, resulting in their forcible transfer. Does the Israeli government heed the calls of the UN Human Rights Council regarding changing its policies in the Occupied West Bank?
A: The Israeli government has not heeded the demands, directions and decisions of the international community in a number of areas, in particular with respect to the living conditions for Palestinians. The United Nations has identified some time ago that a number of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories live in a coercive environment. One of the best examples of this would be the threat to the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar, which is on the outskirts of Jerusalem in a strategically placed area known colloquially as E1. It is the empty space of land in the occupied territory between Jerusalem and the very large Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim. And the Israelis have wanted to clear this small Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in order to be able to have an unrestricted ability to connect occupied Jerusalem with this Israeli settlement.
The conditions faced by the Bedouin Palestinians in the village are markedly similar to the threats that many Palestinians face including many Palestinian Bedouins of having their homes uprooted, of being forced to move to a different undesirable location and having virtually no say over their future and over their rights. And all of this is in order to be able to clear the Palestinian land for the purposes of further settlements, further encroachment on Palestinian property rights, all of which would make the international community’s wish to have an independent, sovereign, viable Palestinian state unrealizable. So, the coercive environment existed in a number of places. One other example I can cite is the passage of the regularization bill in 2017 which is giving the Israeli government the power to expropriate or confiscate private Palestinian land in the occupied territory for the purposes of Jewish settlement needs. There would be some offer of reimbursement by doing this, but one of the clear prohibitions in the Fourth Geneva Convention is the inability of the occupying power to disturb existing property rights that are enjoyed by the protected people under occupation.
So, all of this means that Palestinian property rights, Palestinian housing rights and Palestinian community rights are insecure, they’re under threat and they amount, as the UN has concluded, to a coercive environment.
Q: Well, you mentioned that the Israeli government has not heeded the calls of the United Nations and international organizations. Is there any consequence for Israel when it fails to meet its obligations as the occupying power?
A: No, this actually is a very troublesome issue. What we’re dealing with now is an area where the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Council, among many other UN bodies and reports have identified, as violations of the international law, the annexation of East Jerusalem, the location of the Separation Wall in the occupied territory, the building of Israeli settlements and human rights violations. All of this has been identified many times by the international community as in violation of Israel’s solemn obligations as an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Keep this in mind that there’s no occupation in the modern world that has been conducted with the international community so alert to its many grave breaches of international law, so knowledgeable about the occupiers’ obvious and well-signaled intent to continue to annex and to establish permanent sovereignty, where the international community has been so well-informed about the scale of suffering and dispossession endured by the protected population under occupation; and yet the international community has been so unwilling to act upon the overwhelming evidence before it to employ tangible and plentiful, legal and political tools it has at its disposal.
You know, the issue is not law; we have plenty of law with respect to this occupation. The issue is with enforcement and with accountability. And a number of reports and a number of resolutions adopted by the United Nations have stated that this is an occupation where impunity ranks very high and where accountability must rise to the top of the international community’s agenda, and yet it doesn’t. So we have Israel having a largely cost-free occupation with the international community, particularly the European Union, funding large parts of the operations of the Palestinian government, while Israel continues to grow its settlements, grow its presence on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem unchecked, and it continues to impose a siege upon Gaza which amounts to collective punishment, which is a violation of international law.
Q: In an interview with Al-Jazeera earlier this year, you noted that world powers, in order to support Palestine’s quest for statehood, should cut off their political, economic and military ties with Israel. This is while activists and organizations in the West that subscribe to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as a means of pressuring Israel into revising its policies are indiscriminately accused of anti-Semitism by the mainstream media and influential lobbies. How is it possible to address this challenge?
A: Well, as special rapporteur, I take no position on the issue of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement other than to say that as long as it is peaceful and non-violent and as long as it is non-discriminatory, people who practice BDS with respect to Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territory have a perfect legal and political right to be able to exercise their demands individually and collectively with respect to boycotting Israeli settlement project, for example. That in fact I think would amount to an obligation upon countries not to give aid or assistance to the illegal settlement program. So for activists to be able to advocate for BDS, as I said – it’s a position I don’t take either for or against – but I do defend their right to be able to raise these issues and to exercise calls for boycotts, dis-investment or sanctions as part of their freedom of expression. Boycotts have long been accepted certainly in Western law as a protected area of speech. If they pass laws that either forbid or criminalize or restrict BDS activities, I think they are violating international human rights law and quite likely their own constitutions when it comes to the protection of expression and association.
Q: And do you think the world nations have this determination to stand up for the right of Palestine to realize statehood and independence by, for example, cutting off their trade ties with Israel or restricting their interaction with Israel in order to send a message to the government of Tel Aviv?
A: Yes! I think there are many Israelis of conscience who will say that nothing fundamentally is going to change in the political climate within Israel with respect to maintaining the occupation and seeking to annex further lands belonging to the Palestinians unless there are some form of legitimate counter-measures that are imposed upon Israel. Israel is a relatively small country; it depends quite heavily on its external relationships and its external trade with the world to be able to survive.
As long as Israel could not have sustained such a prolonged and repressive occupation in clear violation of both international law and international opinion, it’s either the product of support or the malign neglect of many of those in the industrialized world. So, I think based on the reports coming from the United Nations with respect to ending impunity, the international community has to consider the legitimate counter-measures that are part of its economic and political tools such as diplomatic sanctions or trade restrictions or reviewing cooperation aid with Israel, whether they include financial downgrading of the relationships or restrictions on Israeli citizens traveling abroad. Counter-measures have been used widely in the world to try to bring countries within their obligations of international law. There’s no reason why Israel shouldn’t also face the question of counter-measures in order to end its impunity, in order to bring accountability to its conduct of its 52-year-old occupation.
Q: One of the underreported aspects of the Israeli occupation of Palestine is the impact of occupation on the natural resources and environment of the occupied territories. In a report on this theme, you mentioned that the degradation of Palestine’s water reserves, exploitation of its natural resources and defacing of its environment are symptomatic of the lack of control by Palestinians over their daily lives. Can you explain more about that? Is the international community living up to its obligations regarding preserving the environment of Palestine while it’s being destroyed by Israel?
A: The protection of natural resources obviously is a key component of the sovereignty of any country and this is particularly so when it comes to a country or state or people who are under occupation. Natural resources such as, in the case of Palestine, its stone or its water and its aquifers are being exploited by Israel for Israel’s own benefit as the occupying power.
There are at least nine or ten stone quarries in the West Bank that are operated by Israeli companies for the benefit of either Israeli settlements or of stone being used for building inside of Israel. That is part of the natural sovereignty belonging to the Palestinians. When it comes to water, a very similar issue arises. I hadn’t realized this before I wrote the report in March that there’s a fair amount of rainfall that falls in the West Bank: Ramallah gets as much, if not more rainfall each year than London, England. There are three different aquifers in the Occupied Territories, all of which are controlled by Israel, particularly the so-called Mountain Aquifer which supplies around 25 to 30 percent of Israel’s own drinking needs. It’s the Israeli natural water company which controls that and then winds up selling back to the Palestinians their own water. When you go to the Jordan Valley, you’ll see sometimes, particularly in the heat of summer, great distress in some of the Palestinian farms that are in the Jordan Valley because of a lack of access to water for irrigation. And yet you’ll go to Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley and you’ll find swimming pools that are filled with water for the enjoyment of the settlers there. There is an estimation that Israeli settlers use between four and five times the amount of water that Palestinians have access to, even though water is plentiful on the West Bank. It’s a different situation with respect to water and Palestinians in Gaza. There is a coastal aquifer underlying Gaza, which would normally supply Gazans with enough water to be able to meet their industrial needs, their household needs and their drinking needs, but that water now is somewhere between 97 and 98 percent contaminated and unfit for human consumption both because of untreated sewage which goes into the Mediterranean and flows back in the coastal aquifer and because of the sea – because the sea water flows into the coastal aquifer.
Palestinians in Gaza must rely upon access to bottled water which is quite expensive, particularly for many poor families who survive on external food assistance in Gaza. So, although Gazans have, on paper, plentiful water resources, it’s either not within their control or they have a great challenge in trying to access drinking water that’s going to be safe and drinkable for them.
Q: You talked about the natural resources of the Gaza Strip and also previously mentioned Gaza’s siege. Can you tell us about your evaluation of the situation of Gaza Strip? For some 12 years, this coastal enclave has been subject to a fully-fledged land and naval blockade and is referred to as the world’s largest open-air prison. Why have the United Nations and the Human Rights Council been unable to find a viable solution to this humanitarian crisis?
A: The United Nations, to its credit, has written several comprehensive reports alerting the wider world to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Part of that crisis is from this 12-year-old land, sea, and air blockade which Israelis imposed on Gaza; part of this comes from the destruction in significant wars in 2008-9, a very short war in 2012 and another prolonged war in the summer of 2014, which not only caused a great deal of death but also a lot of infrastructure and housing destruction, as well. Gaza – I’ve already told you about the water crisis that it faces – survives on somewhere between 8 and 12 hours of power each day that’s largely thanks to recent infusions of money coming from Qatar. Prior to that money coming in, which started roughly a year ago, Gaza was living on 3 to 5 hours of electricity a day. So, if you can imagine the inability to have power for most of the day, it means you can only refrigerate what you can eat for a day; you don’t have power to be able to run any of the other appliances in your household unless that power comes on; you don’t have power to be able to run your computers or your phones. It means a lot more unemployment, because factories don’t have the supply of electricity that they need. If they do have money, companies will wind up using it to buy diesel generators, which only adds to the pollution of the environment through the exhaust of diesel fuel. The unemployment rate, says the World Bank, is among the very highest employment rates of any economic unit that it winds up measuring. The latest figures suggest that 52 percent of the labor force in the Gaza Strip is unemployed. The unemployment rate rises to about 70 percent of young Gazans under the age of 30. Gazans happen to be relatively well-educated in comparison to educational levels elsewhere in the Arab world. Yet, there is a staggering inability for them to find jobs; so, without a consumer-led drive to increase the economy, the economy continues to contract.
The most recent report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, which was issued in September, talked about how the Gazan economy is pretty much sent back to the Stone Age because of its inability to be able to export with predictability or be able to import with any predictability. Four out of every five workers in Gaza earn below the Gazan minimum wage. The labor productivity in Gaza between 1995 and 2018 declined by almost 30 percent and the real wage productivity, labor unit costs and prices have been declining as well. So, you have what, I think, is a human-made humanitarian crisis. The United Nations had said in a report in 2012 and again in 2017 that it’s quite likely that Gaza would not be livable by 2020. I think in fact they were over-optimistic and in fact Gaza is virtually on the edge of being unlivable now.
Q: And do you think the recent decision by the US government to cut all funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has contributed to the worsening of situation in the Gaza Strip particularly?
A: Of course! The UNRWA was successful this past year in being able to raise money on a one-time basis that made up for some of the cuts that were imposed by the American administration. Remember that somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of Gazans are refugees and a number of those depend upon UNRWA for education, for socials services, and for food assistance. When over half the population in Gaza is food-insecure at least part of the year, then it tells you of the level of deep poverty in the Gaza Strip. So, if UNRWA catches a cold, then the people in Gaza all will wind up acquiring the flu because the funding to UNRWA is so important to the minimal functioning of an economy and human survival in Gaza.
Q: In the recent years, item 7 of the UN Human Rights Council agenda, which deals with the human rights of the Palestinian people, has been disputed by some countries, including the United States, which accuse the council of bias against Israel. Do you think the item might be removed from the agenda under pressure from Israel’s allies?
A: It didn’t succeed in 2019 and I know there are some countries who are of the opinion that the so-called item 7 should be removed and the Palestinians should not have a unique item devoted to them and the occupation. I think this is short-sighted. Certainly, Israel comes under criticism at the United Nations in New York and the United Nations in Geneva with respect to its management and its conduct of the occupation. If it wants to see an end to item 7, if it wants to see an end to the resolutions that are passed by the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council with respect to its conduct of the occupation, all it has to do is to comply with international law, recognize the right of self-determination for the Palestinians and enable a genuine sovereign state of Palestine to come into being based on the 1967 borders. And I guarantee you that criticism will stop. I’m sorry that Israel feels that it’s so frequently the target of criticism at the United Nations, but it has to give the rest of the world better reasons for not being the target because of its non-compliance with international law. As long as Israel maintains its illegal annexation of East Jerusalem as well as the annexation of the Golan Heights, as long as it continues to support the 2014 illegal settlements and the 650,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied territory, as long as it maintains its Separation Wall within the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as long as it has annexation designs on the rest of the West Bank, as long as it stands in defiance of a wide number of Security Council resolutions, it will continue to be the focus of the international community and it should not be surprised that criticism will continue and criticism will probably intensify until it finally ends that occupation fully, completely and swiftly.
Q: Do you think the diplomatic and political support rewarded to Israel by the United States and other Western powers has given Israel impunity to avoid accountability before the international organizations including the United Nations over its policies and practices in the occupied territories?
A: Of course! As I mentioned before, Israel would not have been able to maintain or continue its 52-year-old occupation had it not been for the fact that it doesn’t fear retribution or consequences for the ways in which it has continued its settlement program and thickening of its annexation of East Jerusalem. Israel, in fact, needs the support or the indifference of the Western industrialized world in order to maintain its position. All the western industrialized world would need to do is to impose the available counter-measures that are roughly within the realm of the international community. In fact, they are part of the obligations of the international community. And I would think that once Israel began to feel a concerted pressure to end the occupation, it would do so if the western world would wind up realizing what its obligations, humanitarian and human rights law are.
Q: Perfect! And finally, as we speak, more than 640,000 Israeli settlers live in 196 settlements constructed with the permission of the Israeli government and 200 settler outposts constructed without the government’s approval. The United Nations considers these settlements illegal; however, rumors are heard about Israel’s plans to annex larger areas of the West Bank and build even more settlements. What do you think is the best practical way to halt Israel’s settlement constructions, which seems to be the most important obstacle to the Palestinian statehood?
A: You are absolutely right in the sense that the settlement enterprise is the engine of the occupation. If there were no settlements and there were no civilian settlers in the occupied territory, there would be no point of maintaining the continuation of the occupation. The Security Council of the United Nations has said on a number of occasions that the Israeli settlements constitute a “flagrant violation of the international law.” That’s a direct quote. In December 2016 in Resolution 2334, the Council acclaimed what it said in previous resolutions, stating that Israel must “immediately and completely seize all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory” including East Jerusalem and it must fully respect all of its legal obligations in this regard. Israel has not done that. It has not immediately and completely ceased all settlement activities. In the Resolution 2334, the Security Council asked the Secretary General to ask the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process to make quarterly reports to the Security Council on progress of realization of the requirements in Resolution 2334.
With respect to settlements, in the last three reports that were issued, the UN special coordinator has stated that no steps were taken to that effect during the reporting period. In fact, as he lays out in his reports, the Israel government has continued to announce significant settlement, housing unit plans and construction starts for its settlements. The Prime Minister of Israel has stated on a number of occasions during his years that no one Israeli settlement will ever be removed. He has called for the annexation of large parts of the West Bank including the Jordan Valley or the areas where there are large settlement blocks. And a number of other senior leaders in the Israeli government have regularly called for the annexation of parts or all of the West Bank. This is obviously evident that none of warnings that the Security Council or the General Assembly or the Human Rights Council have issued over the years, calling on Israel to end the settlement program, to respect its obligations under the international law and to enable Palestinians’ self-determination are being taken seriously. The ineffectiveness of diplomatic pleas and warnings to end the occupation, I think are glaringly self-evident.
By: Kourosh Ziabari