Mideast situationPalestine question – Interview with HR High Commissioner on Mideast visit – Press release (excerpts)

The High Commissioner:  As you know, I carried out a mission to the occupied territories, to Israel, and briefly to Egypt and Jordan, from 8 to 16 November. When I finished my visit to the occupied territories,

I did briefly address the press in Gaza about the fact that I would be preparing my report. I know that some of you have been hoping to have the opportunity to ask questions about the visit. But I felt it was important as a priority to prepare, and indeed submit my report. I presented it this morning to the Chair and extended Bureau. I have also sent a copy to the Chairman of the General Assembly.

And yesterday, I sent an advance copy to the Secretary-General and discussed its terms with him last night.

So I think you have had some opportunity to see the way in which the mission was carried out, the opportunity that I had, which I very much welcomed, to meet with a very wide cross section of authorities and people both in the occupied territories themselves and also in Israel. And then toward the end of my visit to the occupied territories, I had a meeting with senior officials of the Israeli Defence Force and was able to put to them some key issues. I tried to reflect all this in as fair and as balanced a way as possible in the report while retaining my overall concern at the seriousness of the situation, and at the deteriorating human rights situation. I described it in the report as bleak, there is not any other word I think that can be used at the moment. In part 8 of the report, I list some conclusions and recommendations that flow from the visit itself. But I think that at this stage it would be better to respond to your questions. I am also conscious that I have come back from a visit to China and Indonesia, so perhaps afterwards if there are questions on that visit, I would be very happy to answer those as well.

Question: Thank you for coming at last. Indeed we waited a long time. It is too long, Mrs. Robinson. But at last, we have the occasion to ask our questions. My question is about this length of time spent in the United Nations system when dealing with the issue of Palestine and the Middle East.

Everything related to Palestine goes slowly. You, Kofi Annan, ECOSOC, everything takes so long. Why can't you act very quickly? Lately, there have been talk of basic food problems and unemployment and lots of problems in the occupied territories. My second question, if I may have it, is to know your feeling on this mission. We heard your car was shot at and we want to hear your feelings about that.

The High Commissioner:  First of all, in response to your emphasis on the urgency, I in fact very much took that position myself. I had been urgently requested by the Commission on Human Rights to go to the occupied territories. From the moment that resolution was adopted, there was the planning of going. I attended the Third Committee in New York where I reported on my work and my Office as High Commissioner, and also on the Special Session that the Commission had held. I then held discussions with the Secretary-General who was supportive, with the Israeli authorities facilitating my visit, and that was very helpful. Then I immediately planned to carry out the visit from 8 to 1 6 November. That was prior to ECOSOC dealing with the resolution. The approval by ECOSOC did not come until 22 November. But it was because of the sense of the urgency of the situation that I went. And I must say that I was, to a very real extent, shocked and dismayed and even devastated by the impact of the present conflict in the occupied territories in particular. It is very clear that it is having a devastating effect on the civilian population. The number of killed and seriously injured who are disabled for life is very serious indeed. A high percentage of those, nearly 50 per cent, are under the age of 18. I visited a number of them in Shiva Hospital in Gaza. It is terrible to be at the bedside of a 15-year-old who is a paraplegic, who for the rest of his life will be unable to have a normal life of a teenager. It is really a shocking situation. And this is because he had gone to throw stones because his classmate had been killed the previous day. Another 14-year-old, and I do set these out in my report, and gone to revenge the fact that his classmate had been blinded in both eyes. The doctors confirmed that they had treated the other boy.

There is the devastating effect on children generally in their opportunity for education, in the fact that a number of schools are closed, in the teachers that I spoke to who emphasized that it is extremely difficult for young people to concentrate in such situations. They describe that although the children are physically in class, mentally and emotionally they are not able to concentrate or focus. There was deep hurt at the repeated suggestions that the Palestinian parents had pushed their children into the frontline. I think that at every single meeting that I attended, official meetings or meetings with NGOs, what was raised with me was the deep hurt that that caused, that Palestinians have great concern for their children and they had been insulted and hurt and deeply affected by the suggestions that they did not care about their children and were prepared to push them into the frontline. Rather, the point was to emphasize that the impact of the situation itself was a reality that had a direct bearing on the human rights situation. In other words, you could not look at the human rights issues separately from the reality of the occupation.  And that that reality was one of daily grinding humiliation and that over time it had an effect, particularly on young people, of building up a sense of utter frustration, anger, and that this came to boil in this recent intifada. It was not a case of anybody pushing out, it was understandable that these youngsters who had grown up in this situation would feel that sense of frustration.

Having said all that, I also appreciated the visit to Israel itself and the facilitating of the discussion with the Israeli Defence Force in order to put to them various points. They are set out in the section on Israel in the report. I put to them issues of excessive use of force; and issues of the use of live ammunition and use of rubber bullets at close range which has a lethal impact. I also put to them issues of compensation for the knocking down of orange and olive groves that I have seen personally, and the destruction of houses. Their responses are recorded in my report. So I had an opportunity to assess this really serious situation. I was aware of the fear that families are living in, particularly in the occupied territories, although there is a great feeling of insecurity and fear in Israel itself. I met three families from the Gilo settlement who set out their worries and concerns. I have included that in my report. The overall situation is extremely serious. That is why, in my recommendations, I refer to the fact that the need for international protection or some international monitoring presence was urged on me. I urged this as being important.  Another issue that was particularly focused on was the relevance of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and the fact that it had been reiterated by the General Assembly and indeed by the Commission on Human Rights that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies, and I refer to the fact that it would be appropriate for the High Contracting Parties to assume their responsibilities under the Convention. I also try to address specific areas where the violence might be reduced, or higher standards of responsibility for use of live ammunition would be born in mind.

My feelings in discussing with people their situation was a responsibility to try to convey in this report the urgent need to address the situation, the urgent need to find a way to break the escalating cycle of violence, the intolerable situation in which the civilian population in the occupied territories was living, because on top of the excessive use of force and the impact of casualties and the impact on children, there is also the economic impact. It is very striking how devastating the economic impact is: the closures, the fact that a very significant number of those in the occupied territories cannot get to their jobs, the jobs that they had in Israel, or even jobs in other parts in the occupied territories that they cannot travel to because of the closures. The fact that a lot of families it appears are using the last of their savings to buy essential food, and are very very worried about the future.  I summarized the position of the UN bodies by saying that they have ceased development programmes because they are all on an emergency focus at the moment. They have emergency plans to deal with the seriousness of the economic situation. And the serious problem about the access of humanitarian aid. There is also the serious problem of any raw materials such as cement entering Gaza or the West Bank. All local construction has stopped. There really is a devastating impact on unemployment.  It is hard to express my feelings. It was quite devastating to see this and to be in a position of trying to bear witness to it in this report.

It was important that we went into the Israeli-controlled part of Hebron called H2. I describe this in the report. We were looking out at the Israeli installations that are on top of some civilian houses and in a school, and this was being pointed out by the observer force, the TIPH. I had got back into the mini van of the observer mission. A colleague and one of the observers were still looking down at these installations. I actually saw the trace of the shot, we heard a single crack shot. I did not realize at that stage that it had lodged in the car just in front. It was quite frightening.  My two colleagues got into the mini van and we went up and around the corner. Our problem was that to leave that part of Hebron, we would have had to retrace our path down that slope again where that shot had been fired because it was the only exit.  The curfew was very severe and there was only one road in and one road around a very substantial military presence. So the observer force telephoned the Israeli Defence Force people who came quite quickly and they escorted us back down that road and out. It was an indication of the volatility and the amount of firing that is going on. The following day, on our way back from Ramallah, we passed a check point where young people were throwing stones and the shooting seemed to be from both sides. Again I think it's an indication of the dangerousness of the situation.

Question:  High Commissioner, it has been 10 days since the end of your trip. Mr. Diaz told us that an investigation was underway about this shooting incident. Have you arrived to a conclusion on who shot your motorcade. And second, I saw you on television talking to an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint when he did not allow your motorcade to pass. I do not know what you were telling him, but could you explain to us what happened there. And third, with all due respect to the report and recommendations, I do not feel that you are speaking about Israel as an occupying power. I feel you are putting both sides on an equal level, while you have a killer and a victim. This is not very clear in the report. Thank you.

The High Commissioner:  On the first point, it is not possible for me to assess who was responsible for the warning shot that appeared to be fired. Nobody has claimed responsibility. It isa matter that I understand is being investigated, but I cannot clarify. I did, at the request of some journalists who wished to go with us into the Israeli-occupied part of Hebron, approach the checkpoint. We were going to be allowed in, but they were not going to allow the press who were with us in.  They were facilitated. That was when a woman settler smashed the car of one journalist, I think he had Palestinian plates.  They were behind us so I could not see exactly. I did see the woman hitting the car.

As for the point about the thrust of the report, I would like to make a very important statement on that. I do not equate the situations. I was particularly focusing on the human rights situation in the occupied territories. I make it clear that I am addressing issues of excessive use of force, the impact on children, the impact on medical personnel, the very serious economic situation, and in my conclusions, I echo the call for international protection and advocate it would be important to have an international presence. I refer to the Fourth Geneva Convention. I refer to the efforts that I made myself, both in calling on Chairman Arafat to speak out himself about shootings on the Palestinian side, and I equally called strongly for the Israeli Defence Force to pull back their military presence and military installations. They are on the main road in Gaza. It was pointed out to me again and again that they cause flashpoints, that they actually attract youngsters who in their frustration are demonstrating and throwing stones, and then they end up killed or very seriously injured. This was at the heart of the thrust of what I was examining and of the report.

I do give the points that were made to me. For example, I met the owner of an orange grove whose entire livelihood had been destroyed because it so happened that the orange grove was beside one of these military installations. On the Israeli side, they claimed that the Palestinians were shooting from that grove, and that it is a military necessity and they do not have to offer any compensation. I think it is important to record these events in the report. But it does not equate the situations. I am very worried about and very concerned about the serious and bleak human rights situation in the occupied territories and the excessive use of force and the economic closure and other sanctions that have been imposed.

Question: On your recommendation for an international monitoring presence, have you discussed this with Kofi Annan in your telephone conversation last night, and to what extent do you think that the Israeli authorities will be willing to accept such a presence and in what form?

The High Commissioner:  The text of the report was with the Secretary-General yesterday evening. He was aware of the recommendations and he referred to discussions that were taking place. I am not going to refer in detail to what he said. The question of a possible international presence was raised by me with the Israeli authorities. I put it to them that there had been a call for international protection and a call for an international monitoring presence. The view point put to me was that Israel did not favour internationalizing the conflict in this way and that they would prefer if possible to have the dialogue resume on the previous basis, continuing basically with the Oslo process. But I had an impression, and it is just an impression, that it was not in fact completely ruled out on the Israeli side. And I would hope that that is the case.

Question:  Two questions. First of all, I wonder if you could comment on your reaction to what you mention in paragraph 73 on the IDF's evaluation of the current situation as a state of active warfare and that the rules of war apply and so on.  And the second question, can you explain why you come to the conclusion that construction of new settlements should cease and that those located in the midst of heavily populated Palestinian areas should be removed?

The High Commissioner:  First of all, on the reference by the Israeli Defence Force to a state of active warfare, I must say that at the time it did surprise me somewhat. I had not understood that they would characterize it in that way and I thought that it was important to include that in the report as the evaluation that they were making. I was certainly aware that the violence had escalated during my visit, but this was the first time that I had actually heard that particular evaluation of the IDF. I do not make any comment on it other than to say that it did take me aback a little bit and that it was important, I think, to record it.

As to the reference to the settlements, I hesitated but I must say that when I was in Gaza and was taken to the south of Gaza to the refugee camp there, I then travelled with UNRWA in their vehicles along the settlement because Palestinians are prohibited from travelling on such roads, and we passed through an area where there was clearly an expansion taking place on the area of settlement. That seemed to be almost incomprehensible at the moment, in a situation where the settlements were causing such an amount of tension; where land and water were at such a high premium; where you have a very large population feeling under siege because of the closures; and where they are prohibited from leaving the Gaza strip. They live in a very densely populated sector. Already, about 25 per cent of the land is taken up by the settlements. And more than that percentage of the available water. So I felt that I had to record my surprise and shock that there would still be an expansion of settlements. And it is also clear that the existence of settlements in highly populated areas is itself evoking very serious reaction. I am aware that there is a whole political dimension to that. I do not really want to get drawn into it. But from the human rights perspective, it seemed to me that this was a seriously aggravating factor that was leading to flashpoints and resulting in the loss of life and permanent disablement of young people, in particular, from the occupied territories.

Question:  Is it your impression in your discussion with the Israelis that they are very concerned about how these events are hurting the country's image and threatening the peace process?  Do you think they are seeking a way out? Perhaps you can give them a way out? Also, do you have concerns that the violence which is escalating might in fact spread to other areas. There have been problems in Lebanon recently.

The High Commissioner: On your first question about the image of Israel being hurt, I think there is a consciousness of that.  I think there is a very developed way of ensuring that the Israeli perspective is put forward. There is a very efficient public information and public relations approach. But I think in a deeper way, there is a recognition that this is a particular conflict that is bringing into broader perspective the impact on the people in the occupied territories of the occupation itself. And the reality of the inequalities and daily humiliation of the occupation.

Certainly, I feel it important to try to encapsulate some of the ways in which it was described to me. It was described as dehumanizing, that word was used many times by representatives of non-governmental organizations, and by two women doctors that I spoke to in Gaza. They had a very big impact on me because they described that they are involved in a programme of primary health care for primary school children and that they would travel from Gaza to the West Bank for this, but that they could no longer do this. But even when they could, they were humiliated by the whole process of going through the checkpoints. One of them said she had studied Hebrew and spoke it well and she would listen to insults about them as they were going through. And they even would be strip searched on occasion. This had been in the past. So it is a cumulative daily humiliation. I think that that has not been fully appreciated by the Israeli side, even by Israeli human rights NGOs, the scale of that degrading humiliation and the impact it has and the frustration that it brings about. So in answer to your question about the image, I think that because of the intensity of the conflict, because of the number of young children and teenagers who have been wounded or killed, there is a very serious question, obviously it was my impression, on the excessive use of force, excessive use of live ammunition, and the type of ammunition used. I think that is a big problem.

Your second question on whether the situation could spread in the region. I found it helpful to visit both Egypt and Jordan and to meet with the Secretary-General of the Arab League. Certainly there is a very deep concern by both those countries, and expressed by the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, about the situation in the occupied Arab territories.  They welcomed the fact that I was visiting, but really wanted to emphasize the necessity for international action and concern. Reference was made to the Cairo meeting, to the meeting which had just taken place in Qatar, and to the fact that this was on top of the agenda for those countries. To that extent, there is a wider, political prioritizing of what is happening in the occupied territories. And then as you said, there is at least a danger of the conflict itself spreading.

Question: Coming back to the question of my colleague, when you refer to the security force of the two parties, you give the impression that you are referring to a legitimate authority whereas it is an occupation force. My question is if in human rights standards, the right to self-determination and freedom are secondary?

The High Commissioner:  I am very conscious that I had an opportunity not only to visit and assess the situation in the occupied territories, but also to visit Israel after I had been to the occupied territories and to have discussions with Israeli authorities, including Israeli Defence Force authorities. Part of my responsibility is to report on what I have directly witnessed. But I reiterate that my focus was on the human rights situation in the occupied territories, that it was represented to me and I accept that you cannot separate the human rights situation from the reality of occupation. I have underlined both here and in the report what that reality means:  the daily acts of discrimination, inequality, humiliation, powerlessness etc. of occupation. And that this has been intensified by the conflict, intensified by the excessive use of force, by the impact on children, on medical personnel, the use of the economic levers, the very serious economic impact.

Therefore, my report does bring out the seriousness of the human rights situation in the occupied territories. And in my conclusions and recommendations, I sought to find ways to address those issues, in particular to respond to the urgent pleas made to me. I cannot overemphasize that at every meeting in the occupied territories, they asked will you bring home the need for international protection, we cannot endure this. Why are we being required to submit to such force and pressure?  Why is it not appreciated? Why does nobody listen to the Palestinian side? This was said to me over and over again.  And that it what I tried to reflect in my report. But in full discharge of my responsibility as High Commissioner, I have also reflected the discussion that I had on the Israeli side because it was not a question of equating situations, it is a question of the integrity of my mandate and my responsibility to report of what I heard and what I thought. But the thrust of the report is urgently calling international attention to the bleak human rights situation in the occupied territories, the need for an international monitoring presence, the need to have the high contracting parties to the Geneva Convention assume their responsibilities, and the need for measures to be taken to reduce the terrible violence.

Question: There are different initiatives to solve the situation. What is the role of the Office of the High Commissioner in terms of coordination?

The High Commissioner:  As you say, there are different initiatives. There is the resolution of the Commission on Human Rights at its Special Session that has recently been approved by ECOSOC on 22 November. So now it is for the Commission to decide in what way it wants to establish the Commission of Inquiry. As High Commissioner, and with my colleagues in the Office, we will support and provide secretarial assistance and backup to that Commission of Inquiry. We are also supporting visits by rapporteurs and special mechanisms to the occupied territories. The position of Israel has been that it does not accept the resolution and its operative sections, so it remains to be seen how Israel will respond to requests of the rapporteurs to visit. There is also separately the task force of Sharm el Sheik. The responsibility that I have as High Commissioner was to respond to the urgent request of the Commission and go and assess the human rights situation. And that is what I have done in this report. And then to support the Commission's Commission of Inquiry, the visit by rapporteurs if these are made possible or at least if the work can be done in as far as possible, even if a direct visit is not possible.


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