Read also: The Siege of Gaza
On December 14 I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel to carry out my UN role as Special Rapporteur on the Palestinian Territories. I was leading a mission to visit the West Bank and Gaza to gather information for a report to the UN Human Rights Council on Israel’s compliance with human rights standards and international humanitarian law. Meetings had been scheduled for me on an hourly basis during the six days planned visit, starting with Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, on the following day.
I knew that there might be problems at the airport. Israel had strongly opposed my appointment a few months earlier, and its Foreign Ministry had issued a statement that it would bar my entry if I came to Israel in my capacity as a UN representative. At the same time, I would not have made the long journey from California, where I live, had I not been reasonably optimistic about my chances of getting in. After all, I had been to Israel a few months earlier in my private capacity to give a university lecture, being then careful to avoid any activity that overlapped with my UN role, and encountered no difficulties. Also, Israel was informed that I would lead the mission and given a copy of my itinerary by UN civil servants in Geneva. Despite this Israel went ahead and issued visas to the two people assisting me, and never hinted that I might be barred. The staff security person and an assistant both of whom work in the Swiss Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights were both admitted to Israel without difficulty.
To avoid an incident at the airport Israel could have either refused to grant visas to these UN civil servants, or communicated to the UN that I would not be allowed to enter, but neither step was taken. Given this, I believed that I would be able to do my UN job without interference from Israel. It turned out that I was badly mistaken. It seemed that Israel welcomed the incident, apparently wanting to teach me, and more significantly, the UN a lesson: there will be no cooperation with those who make strong criticisms of Israel’s occupation policy even if they formally represent the UN. This Israeli posture is unlawful as all members of the UN are legally obligated to facilitate the discharge of its official functions.
My experience was unpleasant and frustrating. After being turned away at the passport window I was led away to a holding room, and kept waiting for an hour or so before being taken to an official from the Ministry of the Interior. She looked somewhat confused when she summoned me to her office after another long wait, telling me immediately: “I am afraid that I cannot let you enter Israel.” “Why not?” “We have an order from the Foreign Ministry. You were informed of this.” “Never. I knew there was a press statement, but then when nothing was done to give it effect, I thought it would be okay for me to come.” “No, you are denied entry, and will be detained at the airport until you expelled on the next available plane.”
After this I was returned to the holding room to sit with a dozen or so other people with entry problems, mainly technical passport issues or persons apparently being harassed because of their Palestinian ethnicity. I waited in that room for yet another hour. At this point I was treated, not as a UN representative with an official mission, but somewhere between a common criminal and a terrorist suspect. I was subjected to an inch by inch body search, and endured the most meticulous luggage search I have ever witnessed, lasting a couple more hours. I was permanently separated from my two UN companions. I was then taken to the airport detention facility a mile or so away, required to leave my bags and cell phone downstairs and then taken upstairs to a locked tiny room that I was to share with five other detainees. The room smelled of urine and filth, and was a standing invitation to claustrophobia. I spent the next 15 hours or so confined, which amounted to a cram course on the miseries of prison life, including dirty sheets, inedible food, with bright lights until early evening and then total darkness. My detained companions were confined for seemingly trivial technical entry reasons, but several had tales of woe that brought to mind Kafka short stories about the petty cruelties of the law.
Of course, my disappointment about being denied entry and the harsh detention that followed were not worthy of notice, given the sorts of hardships that millions around the world daily endure, much less the plight of the Palestinians living under occupation. The importance of my experience is largely symbolic. I was an individual acting on behalf of the UN who was not even accused of doing anything wrong beyond expressing strong disapproval of the policies of a sovereign state. The deeper significance of the incident illustrates a broader Israeli approach that might be called ‘the politics of distraction,’ playing a mind game in which attention of the media and the world is shifted from the oppressive reality of the occupation of Palestinian territories to the person with audacity to report upon those conditions. In other words, instead of debating the truth or falsity of what is observed, the emphasis becomes whether the observer is biased or hostile.
Israel’s objections to my appointment as Special Rapporteur all along rested on the claim that I was biased, as evidenced by the allegedly odious criticisms that I had made in published writings relating to the occupation of Palestinian territories. Israel expressed these objections prior to my selection by the 47 governmental members of the UN Human Rights Council. In the debate preceding the vote Israel made its opposition to my selection clear, contending heatedly that certainly among the 184 candidates that had been proposed for the position there was certainly someone more qualified who could have been found.
My overriding goal during the many years of involvement with the Israel/Palestine conflict has been to support a just peace between the two peoples. To the extent that my Jewish identity is relevant, it has influenced me to seek justice for those who are oppressed, regardless of ethnicity or religion. My own outlook is shaped by a strong affirmation of the shared humanity of Jews and Palestinians. The whole culture of human rights rests on this premise of shared humanity that leads to equality of treatment under law.
On this basis I deny strongly that I am biased in my assessment of the Israeli occupation in terms of its practices and legal obligations. My commitment is to be truthful in reporting the facts, and responsible in interpreting the legal consequences that follow. It is the nature of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories that gives rise to sharp criticisms of Israel’s approach, most dramatically, of the total blockade of Gaza that involves the collective punishment of the 1.5 million inhabitants, every man, woman, and child. This blockade has kept supplies of food, fuel, and medicines entering Gaza at bare survival levels. Recent studies report 46% of Gazan children suffer from acute anemia, and 80% live in abject poverty, with less than $1 a day of purchasing power. With the borders closed Gaza is a prison, but in some respects worse. At least a normal prison includes an administrative apparatus that accepts responsibility for feeding the prisoners, and providing for their health care. The situation is worse in other respects, as well. Israel feels itself free to use military force via air and helicopter attacks at times and places of its choosing within Gaza, keeping the entire population on edge and at risk, day and night. One detail of this oppressive occupation regime are verified reports of widespread child deafness caused by the sonic booms deliberately caused by intimidating overflights of Israeli military aircraft.
The blockade serves no legitimate Israeli function. It is allegedly imposed in retaliation for Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets that have been fired across the border aimed mainly at the town of Sderot, and occasionally at the bigger city of Ashkelon. These rockets are primitive, and have done little damage, but they do target civilians and cause understandable fear for Israelis potentially subject to these attacks. The launching of theses rockets on the Palestinian side of the Gaza border is unlawful and immoral as they are used as weapons of terror. Yet this in no way justifies Israeli indiscriminate and disproportionate measures being taken against the entire civilian society of Gaza. It also seems that the Israeli leadership feels that since the citizenry of Gaza voted for Hamas in free elections back in January 2023, it has been a reasonable reaction to blame and punish the whole population of Gaza to the extent of imposing this life-threatening and health-denying regime of occupation in the form of a siege.
My story is a tiny part of this unfolding narrative of massive suffering. At any moment the situation, bad as it is, could take a further turn for the worse. For several months there was virtually no crossborder violence, as both sides respected a ceasefire that had been arranged via Egyptian diplomacy, and Hamas kept the truce although Israel failed to ease the blockade as it had agreed to do. Beyond this Hamas offered to establish a long truce, even lasting up to ten years or longer, if Israel would agree to withdraw from all Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. It is significant that Israel failed even to acknowledge this Hamas diplomacy, although trustworthy citizens who visited Gaza were impressed by the seriousness of these diplomatic initiatives being put forward by Hamas.
Not only was there no exploration of whether some sort of stability could be achieved, but Israel actually broke the truce a couple of weeks ago by attacking and killing several alleged militants within Gaza, inducing Hamas forces to launch some rockets in response, leading to a dangerous renewal of violence on both sides. The truce period has now expired and there are strong rumors that Israel is considering plans a major military incursion in Gaza, which could intensify greatly an already unfolding humanitarian catastrophe resulting from the blockade. Such a sequence of events if it causes major death and destruction will immediately challenge the new Obama presidency to take a stand by demonstrating that it is prepared to stand up to Israel to protect the vulnerable civilian population of Gaza. At this point, there is little reason to be hopeful that the more basic United States policy toward the Israel/Palestine conflict will change considering that all of the major Obama appointments in the foreign policy area are strong Israeli supporters, but there is some chance that Washington will use its leverage, at least behind the scenes, to discourage any major escalation of violence in Gaza.
The United Nations, as well as the United States, is challenged by these deteriorating conditions to exhibit greater concern and responsibility for the protection of civilians in Gaza. Its own role as the major provider of food for the people of Gaza has been severely constrained by the stiffening of the blockade in recent weeks. Beyond this, the Palestinian territories as part of historic Palestine, were from the earliest days of the United Nations seen as a special responsibility of the world community. It was the UN that split the British controlled Palestinian mandate into two parts back in 1947, a ‘solution’ tragically rejected at the time by the Arab world. In the last several years, the UN Security Council has endorsed the idea of humanitarian intervention under the rubric of ‘a responsibility to protect’ (also known as R2P), and no world circumstance combines the misery and vulnerability of the people more urgently than does the situation of the people of Gaza living under occupation since 1967. Surely the present emergency circumstances present a compelling case for the application of this protective response under UN auspices. If this does not happen it will again demonstrate to the people of the world, especially those in the Middle East, that geopolitics trumps international law and humanitarian concerns, and leaves those victimized with few options. Under these conditions, it should not surprise us that extremist methods and reliance on violence wins many adherents.
On December 14 I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. I had come to Israel in my capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on the Palestinian Territories. I planned to visit Gaza, meet with the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas and tour the West Bank. Israeli officials had been given an advance itinerary for my trip.
I was, however, taken from the passport line by Israeli authorities and denied entry by Israeli. I was driven a mile from the airport and placed in a filthy detention facility, which reeked of urine, for 20 hours and deported.
My expulsion, no doubt a result of my public condemnations of the Israeli siege of Gaza, is trivial compared to the human suffering endured by the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza. But it is another example of Israeli attempting to hide what is happening in Gaza from outside view and intimidate those of us who condemn Israeli crimes.
The residents of Gaza, half of whom depend on U.N. food donations to survive, live in what can only be described as a vast, open air prison. They are denied entry and exit by Israel. Since November 4, when an Israeli violation of the current truce led to the resumption of crude rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the Palestinians in Gaza have suffered from an Israeli blockade and massive collective punishment that is a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law as laid down in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. I have called on the International Criminal Court to investigate this violation, and determine whether the Israeli civilian leaders and military commanders responsible for the Gaza siege should be indicted and prosecuted for violations of international criminal law.
The blockade of Gaza is defended by Israeli authorities as a legitimate retaliation for Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets that have been fired across the border at the Israeli town of Sderot. The firing of such rockets, as I have stated many times, is also a violation of international law. It too targets innocent civilians and is a crime. I condemn these attacks. The current spate of rocket attacks, which have not resulted in Israeli casualties, however, does not give Israel the moral or legal license to punish the entire population of Gaza, including the sick, children, the elderly and the majority of Palestinians who have no involvement in the rocket attacks.
Israel’s siege of Gaza is largely unseen by the outside world. I am not the only
official to be denied entry into Gaza by Israeli authorities. Numerous humanitarian wide workers, along with reporters and photographers, have been barred from Gaza to keep witnesses from reporting to the outside world on the tragic human cost of the siege.
The statistics we do have from Gaza are deeply disturbing. A recent study reports that 46 percent of all Gazan children suffer from acute anemia. There are reports that the sonic booms associated with Israeli over flights have caused widespread deafness, especially among children. Thousands of Gazan children need hearing aids. Malnutrition is extremely high and affects, in varying degrees, 75 percent of Gazans. There are widespread mental disorders caused by the stress and despair. Over 50 percent of Gazan children under the age of 12 have no will to live.
Gaza now spends at least 12 hours a day without power. Basic drugs and medicine, including cancer or cystic fibrosis medication, are no longer available. The generators for hospitals, vital to keep seriously ill patients alive, lack fuel and often do not function. Sophisticated medical equipment, such as CT scanners, have bee destroyed in the power surges and medical staff cannot control the temperature of incubators for newborns. Those who need specialized care, including cancer patients and those in need of kidney dialysis, often cannot leave Gaza for care and many have died. There were an estimated 230 Gazans believed to have died last year because they were denied proper medical care. Several of these patients spent their last hours at Israeli crossing points where they were refused entry into Israel.
The magnitude of the suffering by the Palestinians, and the deliberate violation of international humanitarian law by Israel, is indefensible. It should be addressed forcefully by the international community. The Israeli authorities who carry out this draconian policy must be held accountable. We cannot build a world that respects human rights and the rule of law unless we judge everyone, including those who are our allies, by the same impartial standard.