Message from the Chairman of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories
On the occasion of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People
Mr. Chairman, on the occasion of the solemn meeting in observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, I have the honour to address this distinguished gathering in my capacity as Chairman of the Special Committee established by the General Assembly to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories.
First of all, on behalf of the Special Committee, I wish to express sincere and heartfelt condolence to the Palestinian people at the untimely passing away of President Yasser Arafat on 11 November 2004. For decades, late President Arafat had steadfastly epitomized the inextinguishable quest of the Palestinian people for a sovereign and an independent state: the State of Palestine. He will be long remembered by not only the Palestinian people, at whose service he devoted much of his life, but also peoples of other countries both near and far, with whom he interacted closely in the pursuit of his life long mission. In these difficult days, it is the sincere hope of the Special Committee that the Palestinian people as well as their leadership would commit themselves to resolutely pursue their objective peacefully through negotiations.
While the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People was established by the General Assembly in 1975, the Special Committee was established in 1968, in the aftermath of the hostilities that took place in June 1967. These two Committees during their existence, stretching between 29 to 36 years respectively, have carried out their mandates and submitted reports to the General Assembly on an annual basis. Most regrettably, just as the same way the numerous resolutions of the General Assembly, as well as the Security Council pertaining to the Middle East question have remained unimplemented, the recommendations of the two committees too share the same fate. Meanwhile, despite occasional silver lines appearing on the dark clouds, the situation in the Middle East conflict seems to be stagnating with no indication of an improvement on the horizon.
Unfortunately, as in the past, this year too, the Special Committee was not allowed by the Government of Israel to visit the Occupied Territories and to observe the human rights situation there and have direct contacts with the Israeli authorities. The Committee nevertheless undertook its annual field mission from 25 May to 8 June to Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. It visited Lebanon for the first time with a view to broadening its knowledge and understanding of the problems faced by the Palestinian refugees in that country for many decades. In all, the Special Committee met with 84 witnesses, the highest number ever, in the three countries visited by it. It gathered sufficient evidence to express its serious concern at the severely deteriorating human rights and humanitarian situation, and at the unprecedented level of destruction taking place in the OPT.
Most witnesses from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip highlighted their appalling and deteriorating living conditions resulting from the relentless military incursions by the Israeli Defence Forces and from the construction of the separation wall in the northern West Bank. Palestinian land had been confiscated, cultivated fields had been destroyed, dwellings had been razed to ground, families and communities were split and farmers had been denied access to their land, workers to their jobs, children and youth to schools, colleges and universities and women and children to basic health and social services. The construction of the wall, in contravention of international law, as declared by the Advisory Opinion rendered by the International Court of Justice in July 2004, was causing major changes to the social fabric of Palestinian communities and was one of the most visible signs of oppression. Some witnesses expressed the fear that the purpose of erecting the wall and its contours, moving far away from the ‘Green Line', in some areas penetrating as much as 22 km into the occupied territory, went far beyond security concerns and seemed to be aimed at annexing Palestinian land for settlement purposes.
Witnesses also highlighted the fact that every movement from one village or city to another, or even within neighbourhoods, required a special permit. Frequent road closures and numerous checkpoints, numbering more than 600 between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, added to hours of driving or walking. Extrajudicial killings continued, taking not only the lives of leaders of militant groups, but also of children, some of them on their way to schools or even while attending schools. During the military operations at Rafah in particular, about 40 children died between January and May 2004. A number of witnesses asserted that children under 12 years of age were deliberately being targeted by the Israeli military or snipers. Testimonies also referred to the worsening detention conditions of Palestinians held in Israeli jails: no family visits, scarce legal assistance and persistent abuses, especially during the initial period of arrest, as well as an intensification of the methods of torture.
Owing to the construction of the wall, many villages in rural areas in northern West Bank no longer had access to hospital facilities located in cities and did not have basic health care in their local communities. Several witnesses reported that ambulances ran great risks while waiting at the gates to cross the wall. Medical personnel were abducted, beaten up or taken into custody by the Israeli military. During the Rafah incidents, 28 ambulances had been reportedly destroyed by the Israeli military and a number of volunteer ambulance staff had also died.
According to some sources of information, more than 1,100 houses were totally or partially demolished in the Gaza Strip during the period January to May 2004, especially in the area of Rafah and the refugee camps near the Egyptian border. Some 29,000 people were allegedly forced to take refuge in temporary premises made available to them by the United Nations Agencies like UNRWA or international humanitarian institutions such as the ICRC. People also suffered from a sharp increase in unemployment. The renewed policy of demolishing houses, combined with heavy destructions of municipal infrastructures, roads and bridges, civilian institutions, such as government offices, police stations, prisons, banks, hospitals, clinics, schools and NGO properties, was perceived as a persistent collective punishment and humiliation imposed on the Palestinian population. These steps will impede recovery for a long time.
Finally, the Special Committee assessed the ongoing deterioration of the human rights situation in the occupied Syrian Golan. According to official information, the current population of 44 Jewish settlements there, currently consisting of 20,000 inhabitants, was expected to further increase by additional 15,000 settlers over the next three years, following a decision taken by the Israeli authorities on 1 January 2004. The alleged storage of Israeli nuclear waste in a tract of land close to the Syrian border was another development of utmost concern to the Syrian authorities.
Mr. Chairman, three positive developments are likely to bring a glimmer of hope in what has been a most uncertain future for the Palestinian people. One is the renewed genuine interest taken by the international media in reporting on the harsh military occupation of the OPT and the plight of its people. The second is the growing influence exercised by major segments of public opinion in some countries in alerting and advocating among their respective constituencies about the complexity of the Palestinian issue and the need to resolve the situation now. The last one is the combined effects of the Advisory Opinion rendered by the ICJ, the Israeli decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005, and the evolving dynamic situation in the OPT, which have focused the world attention on the Palestinian issue once again. Let us hope that the recent changes would encourage all parties concerned to seek a negotiated settlement in a spirit of compromise so that one day, as highlighted by some witnesses, Palestinians and Israelis would be able to live side by side in peace, security and dignity in their own independent and sovereign States.