CIVICUS speaks about ongoing repression in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and the international response to Israeli aggression with Susan Power, Head of Legal Research and Advocacy at Al-Haq.
Established in 1979, Al-Haq is a Palestinian human rights civil society organisation (CSO) that documents violations of the individual and collective rights of Palestinians in the OPT and seeks to end them through national and international advocacy and hold perpetrators accountable.
What’s the human rights situation in the OPT?
Since 2022, we have witnessed a marked escalation in raids, attacks and killings of Palestinians by Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF) across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. 2022 was the deadliest year on record in the West Bank since 2005, with 154 Palestinians killed and an additional 38 killed in the Gaza Strip. So far this year we have already documented 215 Palestinians killed by the IOF and Israeli settlers, including 40 children. A record 181 have been killed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
The main locus of Israel’s lethal force has been in Jenin and Nablus, where at least 116 Palestinians have been killed. Israel has directed unilateral full-scale military attacks in broad daylight on densely populated civilian areas, introducing new military means and methods, including strategic aerial drone attacks and bombardments and oversized military D9 armoured caged bulldozers used to destroy civilian road infrastructure, for example in Jenin refugee camp. Al-Haq has also documented instances of the IOF carrying out operations while wearing civilian clothes, which is a prohibited act of perfidy under international humanitarian law. Moreover, in its attack on Jenin in July 2023, the IOF turned civilian homes into military watchtowers, holding families hostage and deploying snipers to shoot from freshly bored-out holes.
Meanwhile in May this year, Israel carried out a five-day military offensive in the Gaza Strip – the third since 2020. Although reportedly targeted against the Islamic Jihad Movement, the attacks resulted in significant civilian casualties: according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, 33 Palestinians were killed, including six children and four women, and 190 Palestinians were injured, including 64 children and 38 women. The attacks further resulted in damage to 2,041 residential units, 93 of which were completely destroyed. Concurrently, the IOF closed Erez checkpoint, preventing the entry of vital fuel, medicines, medical equipment and supplies into the Gaza Strip for the basic survival needs of the occupied population.
While Israel has intensified its violence across the OPT, it has also accelerated settlement construction and expansion. In February 2023, the settler population in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, reached a new high of over 500,000 and Israel’s Finance Minister instructed government ministries to increase the settler population by another 500,000. By June, the Defence Ministry had approved plans for the construction of 5,000 new settlement units. Meanwhile Israel has accelerated house demolitions by 46 per cent, with the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recording that 290 structures were demolished and 413 Palestinians displaced in the West Bank in the first quarter of 2023. The first six months of 2023 were also punctuated by serious spikes in settler violence, including arson attacks in Huwarra and Turmusayya.
What has been the international reaction to the increase in violence by the IOF?
The international response has been muted at best. There have been some condemnatory statements that have not been matched with actions to hold Israel accountable. For example, in January the European Union (EU) High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy issued a lukewarm statement of concern in relation to the ‘heightened tensions’, while deferring to ‘Israel’s legitimate security concerns’, and stressing that ‘lethal force must only be used as a last resort when it is strictly unavoidable in order to protect life’.
This is manifestly out of step with international recognition that Israel is conducting an illegal occupation, as recognised by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in the OPT and the UN Commission of Inquiry on the OPT and Israel. Any use of force by Israel to maintain the illegal occupation is a continuation of its illegal act of aggression and cannot be justified on self-defence grounds. In fact, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion that concluded that Israel could not draw on self-defence arguments as per Article 51 of the UN Charter.
In July 2023, the European Parliament adopted a resolution stating that ‘permanent occupation, settlements, demolitions and evictions are illegal under international law’. The continued invocation of ‘legitimate security concerns’ by the EU High Representative is therefore a politically motivated argument at best, and an encouragement to Israel to maintain its system of apartheid by aggressive force and illegal occupation at worst. Even the statement by the US Department of State following Israel’s military assault on Jenin in January 2023 underscored the ‘urgent need for all parties to de-escalate, prevent further loss of civilian life, and work together to improve the security situation in the West Bank’, while recognising that ‘Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely’.
However, unlike the international leap to take collective action in response to Russian aggression towards Ukraine, replete with economic countermeasures and arms embargoes, the double standards and failure to bring Israel’s aggressive acts, illegal occupation and apartheid to an end with similar sanctions and countermeasures is glaring in its absence and a missed opportunity for deterrence.
What has the UN Security Council done in the face of IOF aggression?
Following Israel’s military onslaught on Jenin refugee camp in July 2023, the UN Security Council convened a closed-door meeting. Crippled by the veto block, no action was taken.
The spokesperson for UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement of concern highlighting that ‘all military operations must be conducted with full respect for international humanitarian law’. And the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, issued a stronger statement condemning the deployment of ‘methods and weapons… more generally associated with the conduct of hostilities in armed conflict rather than law enforcement’ and clarifying that ‘the use of airstrikes is inconsistent with rules applicable to the conduct of law enforcement operations’.
However, stagnation at the Security Council means that resolutions to apply international sanctions against Israel to bring its apartheid and illegal occupation to an end are unlikely to materialise.
What should be done to hold Israel accountable for its human rights violations?
Alternative avenues of accountability need to be pursued. For example, other states and regional organisations such as the African Union need to act independently and collectively to apply countermeasures against Israel. Previous attempts at the UN General Assembly in the 1970s calling for states to desist from supplying economic aid to Israel and calling for arms embargoes did not carry a binding obligation on states to take action and did not result in trade restrictions.
Nevertheless, states can distinguish in their dealings between the territory occupied by Israel and Israel proper, otherwise known as the territorial clause, and legislate to prohibit the import of settlement goods and services into their jurisdictions, which fuel the continued conflict and colonisation of Palestinian territory. However, this is something the EU recently dropped from the memorandum of understanding it signed with Egypt and Israel on natural gas.
At the UN Human Rights Council, the mandate for the UN Database on businesses active in the settlements should be expanded to include companies that contribute to the maintenance of the apartheid regime on both sides of the Green Line – the 1949 demarcation line between Israel and Gaza and the West Bank. The mandate for the UN Special Rapporteur on the OPT should also be expanded to include investigation and examination of human rights violations against Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, which is key for a potential examination of Israel’s apartheid against the Palestinian people.
That being said, the failure of the international community to intervene in the face of the subjugation of the Palestinian people and the denial of their right to self-determination all point to a deeply flawed international order. The UN is a relic of the agreements reached by old colonial powers and the veto power of Security Council permanent members cements in place an inherently unjust and unequal international system. This should be abandoned in favour of a democratic, rotating one-state, one- vote majority system without privilege.
How is Al-Haq working to address Israeli aggression, and what challenges do you face?
Al-Haq’s core work is the monitoring and documentation of human rights violations against Palestinians on the ground, irrespective of the identity of the perpetrator. Given Israel’s systematic denial of entry to UN Special Rapporteurs and Commissions of Inquiry and the revocation of visas of UN staff from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who now work remotely from Jordan, our work is of critical importance, especially for accountability purposes.
However, our resources are seriously stretched. For example, the scale of Israel’s attacks on Jenin and Nablus was such that we had to place most of the field research team on the ground to cover it, although military forces were still carrying out human rights violations in other areas. Aggressions are widespread, unrelenting and difficult to cover in their entirety.
We have also experienced attempts by the IOF to prevent the collection of evidence, making our work harder. For instance, during the last attack on Jenin, the IOF destroyed TV cameras, prevented access to journalists and threatened Palestinians with house bombings should they record the IOF’s incursions or post any recordings on social media.
Nonetheless, Al-Haq has forged new ground in establishing a new Forensic Architecture Unit, which is currently investigating Israel’s violations of international law, such as the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, by using advanced architectural techniques and technologies. This may serve as additional evidence in prosecutions. At the same time, we strive to communicate the situation on the ground to others by hosting field visits for parliamentarians, diplomatic briefings, oral interventions at the UN Human Rights Council and submissions to UN Special Procedures and UN Commissions of Inquiry and to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Apart from capacity and resource issues, a major obstacle to our work is the failure by many states and organisations to address the root causes of the situation in Palestine. Israel’s settler-colonial apartheid regime has been discriminating against the Palestinian people since 1948, and the 1967 belligerent occupation is merely a continuation of existing apartheid policies and practices implemented to deny the Palestinian people their right to self-determination. By merely issuing ad hoc statements on each of Israel’s individual violations of international humanitarian law, states are prolonging the conflict by omission.
On the ground, people have lost confidence in the international legal system and an international community that has failed to deliver on its promise of an independent liberated Palestine. The political inertia around sanctioning Israel, despite its radical escalations and acceleration of its settler-colonial enterprise and steps towards full annexation of the Palestinian territory, speaks to a grave malignancy in a system that has failed to protect the powerless against the powerful. People are left with no option but to resort to internal resources to resist their ethnic cleansing.
How much space is there for Palestinian civil society to cooperate with UN agencies and other international bodies?
Al-Haq is accredited to the UN Economic and Social Council, and engagement with the UN is a core aspect of our work. However, because Israel denies entry to UN Special Rapporteurs and Commissions of Inquiry into the Palestinian territory, Al-Haq staff meet UN officials in Jordan or Geneva. So far, reports and recommendations by UN Commissions of Inquiry, while critically important, have not prevented Israel from continuing its aggressive settler colonisation of Palestinian territory. This is because there is no enforcement mechanism.
For this reason, ICC investigations are key to ensuring that Israeli perpetrators of atrocity crimes in Palestine are held accountable. Still, expectations should be managed carefully. Prosecutions may take years and not all egregious cases of Israeli crimes will be heard. The ICC is a court of last resort to hear cases where a state is unwilling or unable to prosecute international crimes over which the ICC has jurisdiction. In December 2022, the Prosecutor of the ICC pledged to visit Palestine and for victims on the ground, who have waited for almost a decade since the start of the preliminary examination, it is immensely important that this promise is fulfilled.
There have recently been other significant opportunities for engagement. Al-Haq has submitted files to the UN Database on businesses active in the settlements. This is an important tool for investors and others carrying out enhanced due diligence but has been under-implemented due to political resistance.
But without doubt, the most important new development in the past year is the referral of a question on Israel’s illegal occupation for an advisory opinion to the International Court of Justice, which has been the primary subject of Al-Haq’s advocacy with states. A finding that the occupation is illegal would require Israel to withdraw without delay and dismantle the occupying administration. It would also mean that all of Israel’s acts to maintain the occupation are illegal, giving rise to international responsibility.
What international support is Palestinian civil society receiving, and what further support do you need?
In October 2021, Israel designated Al-Haq and five other leading CSOs – Addameer, Badil, Defence for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees – as ‘terrorist organisations’ under its 2016 Counter-Terrorism Law. This designation and subsequent raids and closures of organisations are intended to silence Palestinian human rights organisations and eliminate the vital monitoring mechanisms necessary for a functioning democracy in a viable Palestinian state. In the aftermath, Al-Haq and the other CSOs received overwhelming solidarity and support from the international community, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism, states and international CSOs such as Front Line Defenders, among others.
However, in terms of resources, the viability of Palestinian human rights organisations is challenged by the transition from core funding, which ensures organisational longevity, to piecemeal project funding. This makes it difficult to build and sustain a robust civil society.
Another important issue affecting the work of Palestinian civil society is the imposition of political conditions on funding under the pretext of counterterrorism, without regard to the conditions Palestinians are living under. Such conditions deprive Palestinians of their right to resist the occupation as enshrined under international law.
States and international donors should financially support CSOs with adequate resources and without the imposition of political conditions on funding to ensure their viability and ability to document and monitor human rights violations and ensure accountability for international crimes.
Civic space in Palestine is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.