20 November 2008
As an organisation dedicated to the protection and promotion of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), Al-Haq is compelled to yet again raise a voice that has been consistently and wilfully ignored by the international community over the last three years. Since Israel breached the previously existing cease-fire on 5 November 2008, the occupied Gaza Strip has been subject to renewed and consistent military attacks. In addition, the ongoing blockade imposed on the territory has been heightened, with fuel and electricity supplies restricted and the border crossings hermetically sealed. Israel has even refused to allow foreign diplomatic representatives to the OPT, visiting parliamentarians and international journalists into the Gaza Strip, in pursuance of a political agenda that seeks to separate it from the rest of the OPT and prevent concerned actors from seeing the grave reality on the ground. Israel’s actions in the last two weeks are but a continuation of the broader measures that have sought to isolate the Gaza Strip and systematically target its civilian residents since early 2006.
Collective penalties were imposed on the entire population of the OPT following the result of the democratic Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006 by Israel and members of the international community, with the Gaza Strip most severely affected. In March 2006, Al-Haq urged the members of the Quartet “to act to end the economic siege imposed on the Gaza Strip and to prevent the impending humanitarian disaster.” At a time when such a disaster could have been averted, the inaction which defined the Quartet’s response to this call was dissolutely negligent. As Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip intensified, in June 2006 Al-Haq called on the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions to hold Israel to account under the Conventions, warning that the entire Palestinian civilian population in the Gaza Strip had been unlawfully deprived of the protections provided to them under international humanitarian law.
The continuing failure of the High Contracting Parties to engage with their own clearly defined legal obligations to ensure respect for the Conventions was highlighted as Israel’s shelling and targeted assassinations of Palestinians within the Gaza Strip escalated. Moreover, this tacit acquiescence to policies that pay scant regard to principles entrenched in international humanitarian law for the purpose of protecting civilians paved the way for Israel to step up its closures and economic blockade of the territory in 2007. In response to the Israeli security cabinet’s declaration of the Gaza Strip as an “enemy entity,” Al-Haq warned the European Union (EU) that “the situation of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip will be severely exacerbated by limitations on the supply of fuel and electricity.” Repeated attempts were made to invoke the EU Guidelines on promoting compliance with international humanitarian law (2005/C 327/04), and to convince the EU of its legal obligation to suspend the EU-Israel Association agreement on the basis of human rights violations, a call recently echoed by Luisa Morgantini, Vice President of the European Parliament. A few toothless statements of “concern” aside, however, the overarching response was, again, one of apathy.
As the killings of Gazan civilians multiplied throughout the first half of 2008, and the humanitarian situation plunged to a new nadir, the threat posed to international peace and security by Israel’s actions became increasingly apparent. In this light, and in light of the impunity with which sustained violations of international humanitarian and human rights law were persisting, Al-Haq appealed to the UN Human Rights Council to recommend that the General Assembly “consider the implementation of both economic and diplomatic sanctions against Israel” under Resolution 377, Uniting for Peace. Now, as then, the situation is dire, and urgent. The toll exacted on the population of the Gaza Strip has been immense, from substantial loss of civilian life and extensive property destruction to the effect of fuel and electricity shortages on vital medical, water and sanitation services, to the psychological impact on a people who have been subjugated for over 40 years and all but imprisoned for the last three.
The High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions, the member states of the UN and the European Union are all legally and morally culpable on account of their collective ennui. In the absence of any concerted or effective response, Al-Haq is left to question the basic commitment to fundamental human rights of these actors, and while once again repeating the calls detailed above for the members of the international community to live up to their legal obligations, we do so with increasingly strained hope, and an increasingly hoarse voice.
The human rights community in the OPT and all those fighting for the rights of the Palestinian people will continue to do so, regardless of this wall of silence and inactivity. In the interest of peace and justice, the international community must realise, however, that it is this silence and inactivity that has now become the biggest obstacle to the realisation of human rights in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, the international community must be conscious that its own self-interest necessitates action to alleviate the humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip before it further deteriorates and regional instability proliferates.