UNITED NATIONS (IPS) - When the United Nations General Assembly established a three member special committee to investigate Israeli human rights violations back in December 1968, Israel reacted with obvious anger.
And not surprisingly, the committee was barred from entering any of the territories occupied by Israel — forcing the three members to hold sittings in Cairo, Amman and Damascus where Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza were given a hearing twice a year.
But geopolitics in the region has changed the political climate — much to the chagrin of the Israelis.
For the first time in 43 years, members of the UN Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices in Occupied Territories gained entry into Gaza in July, through Egypt which ousted its Israeli-friendly president Hosni Mubarak following massive public protests earlier this year.
The Egyptian authorities facilitated the visit via the crossing at Rafah, bypassing the longstanding Israeli ban.
The visit further reinforced the continued criticism by the committee of the horrible living conditions in the West Bank and Gaza and the devastating impact of the Israeli economic blockade, as chronicled in several of the committee’s previous reports.
In a critical report, the committee expressed dismay at Israel’s “continuing disregard of its obligations under international law.”
“Unfortunately, what we found [in Gaza] was that the oppressive restrictions imposed on Gaza by Israel have the effect of collectively punishing the population,” it said.
With around 35 percent of Gaza’s land area excluded from agriculture due to Israel’s vague buffer zone along its boundary line with Gaza and its fishing areas limited to only three nautical miles from the coast, the people of Gaza could hardly feed themselves, much less revive a decimated economy through exports, the committee said.
“We were alarmed by allegations that Israel enforces these policies employing live fire, including in some instances against children and the elderly,” said the committee.
The committee — comprising Palitha TB Kohona, ambassador of Sri Lanka to the UN; Hussein Haniff, ambassador of Malaysia; and Fod Seck, ambassador of Senegal to the UN based in Geneva — is expected to submit a more comprehensive report to the 193-member General Assembly in September.
Kohona said the conditions in Gaza, “to say the least, are very unsatisfactory and the blockade is to be blamed for this.”
“The economic, educational, psychological, health and social conditions are affected by the blockade,” he asserted.
The lifting of the blockade will have an immediate and positive impact on the people of Gaza, both economically and psychologically, and will contribute to confidence building, he added.
Israel’s continuing blockade of Gaza contravened the human rights of the people of Gaza and international humanitarian law and standards, said Kohona, a former chief of the UN Treaty Section.
“It is oppressive and diminishes the lives of the people of Gaza and must be ended now,” he declared.
Urgent need for water
In its report, the committee said it listened to victims, witnesses and UN officials who underlined the dire impact on human rights of the Israeli blockade.
Homes, schools and other infrastructure that were destroyed by Israeli attacks in December 2008 and January 2009 could not be rebuilt due to restrictions on importing building material.
The economy declined significantly and has been sustained by imports through tunnels.
“It would be the occupying power’s responsibility to assist with the reconstruction of Gaza,” noted the committee.
Beyond the homes, schools and businesses that were destroyed, there is an urgent need for water treatment facilities, roads, sewage treatment and the restoration of power, it said.
For many of Gaza’s children, life was difficult and the future hopeless, the committee pointed out, referring to testimony concerning worrying health, psychological and social problems, increasing school dropout rates, and an increasing incidence of child labor.
“We hope the government of Israel will seriously consider the potential consequences of a generation of Gazan children being raised in an environment of near-total deprivation and a lack of opportunities to lead a productive and hopeful life,” it said.
Children jailed at age seven
The practices of the government of Israel which violate the rights of Palestinian children was a constant theme throughout the hearings in Gaza.
Witnesses and officials reported that Palestinian children’s access to education is being impeded through, among other things, restrictions on freedom of movement, constraints on access due to Israel’s wall in the West Bank, a lack of schools especially in East Jerusalem and Gaza, and threats and actual violence by Israeli settlers.
The committee said its attention was drawn to the large number of children held in detention, and cited a range of practices of serious concern, including harsh interrogation techniques, torture and expulsion from their villages.
The committee also underlined its deep concern regarding reports that Israeli security forces were raiding Palestinian homes in the middle of the night to detain children, allegedly as young as seven years old.
The committee’s nine-day investigative visit to the region also included hearings in the Jordanian capital Amman, where it met victims, witnesses and officials working on human rights in the West Bank and the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
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