The UN and Gaza after 50 Years of Occupation: Conference in New York
July 15, 2017
Helena Cobban / Just World Books
Commentary: On June 29-30, the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People convened a highly informative conference in New York to mark the 50th anniversary of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The UN has been involved in Israeli/Palestinian affairs almost since the organization's founding in 1945. Until 1967, UN peacekeepers oversaw Gaza's boundary. In the past week, two UN reports have detailed the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The UN and Gaza after 50 Years of Occupation
Helena Cobban / Just World Books
UN Forum -- Ending the Occupation: The Path to Independence, Justice and Peace for Palestine
(July 13, 2017) -- The United Nations has been involved in the affairs of the Gaza Strip almost since the organization's founding in 1945. UN negotiators oversaw the negotiations that in 1949 led to the delineation of the Strip's boundary with Israel. Until 1967, UN peacekeepers and truce monitors oversaw that boundary (which has never been never a formally recognized international border.) UN relief workers have had a strong role since 1949 in providing services to the refugees and others in the Gaza Strip . . .
In the past week, two UN bodies have come out with strong reports about the ongoing (one should now even say escalating) humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The UN's "Country Team for the occupied Palestinian territories" published a report titled Gaza Ten Years Later (PDF here) -- later than Israel's 2007 escalation of its siege against Gaza, that is. And the UN Development Program issued a report titled "Three Years After the 2014 Gaza Hostilities" (PDF here.)
Both reports paint the same, very grim picture of the situation in Gaza. The UNCT's "Ten Years Later" report (TYL) is more explicit than the UNDP report in naming the situation as "de-development" -- a term that definitely implies a lot more agency than the UNDP's more milquetoast word "decline".
The TYL report is also much more forthright than the UNDP report in noting that Gaza is still considered under international law to be territory under Israeli military occupation (despite Israel's pullout of its settlers and partial pullout of its military in 2005), and thus that under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel still retains its responsibilities as Occupying Power for the welfare of the civilians who make up the vast majority of the Strip's two million residents.
The TYL report also invokes the Fourth Geneva Convention's strong prohibition against the application of collective punishment against residents of any occupied territory (which the UNDP report does not.)
Another shortcoming of the UNDP report is that its authors seem to have drunk the neoliberal Kool-Aid in that they think that private-sector economic growth will be the best thing to pull Gaza out of its misery -- if only all the various actors in Gaza would let the private sector blossom!
The TYL report is much more matter-of-fact in noting in detail how many more doctors, nurses, teachers, and classrooms will be needed to provide even basically acceptable services to a population in Gaza which is now projected to increase to 2.2 million by 2020. . . .
It is very unclear how, if urgent, basic needs like these are to be met, the private sector could do it?
So the TYL report is definitely worth reading and referring to.
However, it does have some serious shortcomings of its own, too. For example, in section 3, on the impact that various political factors have had on the "de-development" of Gaza, it gives a very full (and actually, informative) description of the impact that internal Palestinian divisions have had on this -- and it gives this description before it describes the impact of the closures imposed by Israel.
But if Israel has the responsibilities of an Occupying Power, surely Israel's actions should have been examined first? (Plus, as we know, Israel has absolutely been a major factor stoking the intra-Palestinian differences all along.)
Then, on p.8, the report gives a generally helpful and informative outline of the three "phases" of movement restrictions that Israel has imposed on Gaza. But here again, the usefulness of the information is marred by a broader mindset that seems determined to bow to the Israeli narrative on events as much as possible.
Specifically, in its description of each of these "phases", the report's authors feel obliged to include a sentence reporting how many missiles were sent from Gaza to Israel in that particular period -- with zero corresponding mention of the number of missiles, bombs, heavy artillery shells, naval artillery shells, guided missiles, etc. had been sent by Israel into Gaza in those same periods . . .
The result (as in so much of the reporting of the Western mainstream media) is that the impression is always given that it is the Palestinians of Gaza who are "violent" . . . with the clear implication being that because of that violence somehow Israel is "justified" both in using its own massive physical violence against Gaza and in maintaining and constantly tightening the restrictions it places on the Strip's people. Also, that any violence that Israel uses is always "in response to" the Palestinians' (apparently quite unprovoked!) acts of violence.
At one point on p.11, the TYP report even parrots the custom of the Western MSM by saying baldly that Israeli incursions and airstrikes against Gaza are "in response to rocket fire from Hamas in Gaza."
Firstly, this is by no means always the case, and the authors of the TYL report are quite wrong to state it thus.
Secondly, if the acts of one side are described (and by implication also justified) as being "in response" to acts undertaken by the other side, why are the acts of the Gaza Palestinians not always similarly described -- as being "in response to" 50 years of brutal military occupation (whose maintenance in power is achieved absolutely through the application of massive violence); continuous quite unlawful acts of collective punishment imposed on the population of Gaza; and so forth?
Like any population of a territory under belligerent military occupation, the population of Gaza has the full right under international law to resist that occupation by any means necessary. Using military means may or may not be the wisest course for the political forces in Gaza.
(For its part, Hamas has made considerable steps over many years to be included in the political process of peacemaking between the Palestinians and Israel; but with the single exception of the parliamentary elections of 2006 -- which it won -- its efforts at political inclusion have always been rebuffed.)
But for a UN body to portray the (actually, very small-scale) violent acts of Hamas and other Palestinian forces in Gaza as being somehow illegitimate and beyond that as somehow "justifying" Israel's massive and continuing application of violence against Gaza seems to me to be very unhelpful.
I do realize that, since Israel is in such an overwhelmingly strong position in the occupied Palestinian territories, all entities that carry out humanitarian/relief missions in those territories, including UN entities, need to be careful not to anger the Israeli authorities too needlessly.
But guys! You are the United Nations! Can't you stand up for your core principles? Why do you need to engage in such craven acts of Israel-appeasing wordsmithing as including those (really pathetic, and wholly one-sided) "counts" of missiles sent from Gaza into Israel in your report, when they add nothing to it?
UN's Recent Palestine Conference: Guide to the Videos
Helena Cobban / Just World Books
(JULY 4, 2017) -- On June 29 and 30, the UN's Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People convened a highly informative conference in New York to mark the 50th anniversary of Israel's occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip. The conference brought together political leaders from Palestine and elsewhere and (especially on the second day) leading thinkers and activist on the issue including law professor Noura Erakat, rights leaders Wesam Ahmad and Hagai El-Ad, Palestinian parliamentarian and grassroots leader Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, and the head of the US organization Jewish Voice for Peace, Rebecca Vilkomerson.
My report on the first (more formal) day's proceedings is here. Now, however, with admirable speed, the UN's videographers have posted excellent videos of the whole proceedings of both days of the conference, so people everywhere can share the experience of those of us who were lucky enough to be at the conference.
The best portal I could find for the videos is here. If you scroll down on that page, the items listed under the two modest-looking headings "29 June . . . " and "30 June . . ." are all links to the videos.
As you can see there, most of the videos contain the records of more than one part of the conference, but the listings on that portal page handily tell you where in each video to find the panel you're looking for.
On June 30, the Keynote Speech was given by Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams (see at left in the screengrab here.) She drew on her experience as the coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which was overwhelmingly an effort led by civil-society organizations, to provide some helpful pointers for how civil-society groups working around the world could become more effective in pushing for an end to the occupation and the realization by the Palestinian people of their inalienable rights.
Ms. Williams's speech was followed (at 00:54:00 on the same video) by a very rich, two-hour panel on Gaza. This panel was supposed to include two leaders from community-based organizations in Gaza, Majeda Alsaqqa of the Culture and Free Thought Association and Mohammaed Azaiza of Gisha. They had, however, been unable to secure the "permission" of the Israeli occupying authorities to leave the Gaza Strip, so they participated in the conference only over a voice-phone link.
The other panelists speaking on Gaza were Noura Erakat of George Mason University, Tania Hary of Gisha, and Nuriya Oswald of of the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. (Their lineup can be seen in the photo at the head of this blog post.)
Mr Azaiza talked with anguish about having gotten caught up along the way to the UN office from where he was speaking, in a crowd of thousands of families going to spend a day at the beach -- while he (and probably most of the adults in the families) knew that the beaches are horribly polluted with raw sewage that cannot be treated because of the extreme cut-back of the electricity required by the water-treatment plants that serve Gaza's 2 million residents.
Ms. Erakat spoke eloquently about the fact that the catastrophe visited upon Gaza's people is not the result of a natural disaster, but is entirely human-made. The remedy must therefore, she concluded, be found not just in the realm of humanitarian "aid", but also in the realms of politics, diplomacy, and international pressure on Israel.
Ms. Hary described the policies Israel pursues toward Gaza as one "of hubris and cruelty." She added: "It is a sort of test. How do you test the breaking point of two million people? And I am sorry to see that some Palestinian leaders have joined in this test."
Ms. Oswald talked about the many different ways in which Israel's policies violates the basic human rights of the residents of Gaza.
When Ms. Alsaqqa spoke, she said "Everybody knows about how bad the situation is, but we want to know what to do about it."
This panel was complemented with a very informative discussion among the panelists and attendees in the "floor" of the conference hall.
In the course of this discussion, Ms. Erakat expressed some skepticism about the value of relying on some eventual case being brought against Israel for its abuses at the International Criminal Court. She argued (at around 01:56:00) that there are already other mechanisms through which states that want to curb Israel's abuses can act including by following through on the recommendations made by the fact-finding mission that the UN had sent to Gaza after Israel's 2008-09 assault on the Strip, or by following the recommendations of the International Court of Justice's 2004 advisory opinion on many aspects of Israel's occupation policy.
She was followed by Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, speaking from the floor (starting 2:00:47), who made a number of strong arguments about the Gaza situation. He said, "There is clear evidence that Israel wants to separate Gaza from the West Bank so it can absorb the West Bank."
He asked, rhetorically, "Do people have the right to resist the harsh conditions of occupation? If they did not, they would be acting like slaves . . . The problem is that the Israelis don't regard Palestinians as human. The problem is that one country has violated all the international laws and has not been punished at all. It needs to be sanctioned."
The second panel of the day was titled "Enforcement of International Law and Accountability: How to Make a Difference?" The video is here.
This panel featured (from left to right in the photo) Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch, Dalit Baum of the American Friends Service Committee, Wesam Ahmad of Al-Haq, panel moderator Mona Khalil, Hagai El-Ad of B'Tselem, and Muna Haddad of Adalah.
The third panel of the day was titled "Beyond Occupation: In Search of a Just and Lasting Peace." It starts at 01:47:00 in the same video. This was the panel of which I had the honor of being the moderator.
The panelists were, in order, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace, David Wildman of the United Methodist Church, Jessica Nevo of the Coalition of Women for Peace (Israel) and also Zochrot, and Diego Khamis of Club Palestino in Santiago de Chile.
so here he is at right. He brought a welcome voice from Latin America to the conference.
Both the second and third panels of the day included substantial discussions involving both panelists and other attendees of the conference, of the tactic of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Both panels are very well worth watching.
Big thanks to everyone at the United Nations who organized this conference -- though the occasion for it, that is, the 50th anniversary of Israel's military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, was truly a sobering one.
Links to the full UNTV Videos of the Forum Sessions
June 29: Ending the Occupation: The Path to Independence, Justice, and Peace for Palestine
Panel I - The Costs and Consequences of Fifty Years of Occupation (starting at 00:31:50)
Statements of Intergovernmental Organizations (starting at 2:06:00)
Statements of Member States and Intergovernmental Organization (written statements submitted to date)
Panel II - Beyond Occupation: The Path ahead to Palestinian Independence and a Just Peace
30 June - Ending the Occupation: Creating the Space for Human Rights, Development, and a Just Peace (Civil Society Forum)
Welcome Remarks & Keynote Address
Panel I - The Gaza Strip: An Integral Part of the State of Palestine (starting at 00:54:00)
Panel II - Enforcement of International Law and Accountability: How to Make a Difference?
Panel III - Beyond Occupation: In Search of a Just and Lasting Peace (starting at 01:47:00)
For questions or additional information, please contact the UN Division for Palestinian rights at: firstname.lastname@example.org