Independent UN investigators have drafted a list of individuals who may bear responsibility for war crimes regarding Israel’s expulsion of a Palestinian human rights lawyer last year.
A new report by the high-level commission of inquiry finds that Israel’s forcible deportation of Salah Hammouri was a grave violation of international law.
“We have no doubt” that the expulsion of Hammouri “constitutes a war crime,” Chris Sidoti, one of the investigators, stated.
Hammouri’s forced expulsion is but one example given in the report demonstrating how Israel “attacks, restricts and harasses … civil society actors” to secure its “goal of ensuring and enshrining the permanent occupation.”
It is the second report by a team of experts tapped by the UN Human Rights Council to examine Israel’s system of oppression against Palestinians as a whole. Previous probes have been limited to rights violations occurring in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Hammouri, a lawyer with the human rights group Addameer who was born in Jerusalem to a Palestinian father and a French mother, was expelled to Paris in December 2022 after being detained without charge or trial for several months.
Israel’s pretext for deporting Hammouri, who “faced a barrage of punitive measures by Israeli authorities from an early age,” the UN report states, was “breach of loyalty” based on a 2018 amendment of the law on entry into the state.
Hammouri “was not informed what evidence had led to that decision,” the investigators add.
“Demanding allegiance from protected people in occupied territory is contrary to international law and violates international humanitarian law,” the UN report states.
The investigators who authored the report say that they have preserved “information about the individuals who may bear criminal responsibility for what may amount to the war crime of unlawful deportation.”
Personnel with El Al, Israel’s national airline, “may have committed the war crime of aiding, abetting or otherwise assisting in the commission of a war crime” if they had knowledge of Hammouri’s unlawful deportation, the investigators add.
The report examines violations of the rights of civil society members “by authorities in all areas,” finding that human rights defenders, including journalists, are targeted by Palestinian and Israeli authorities alike “with the aim of silencing dissenting opinions.”
The investigators say that the May 2022 killing of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh will be discussed extensively in its next report.
They emphasize that “the majority of violations are being committed by Israeli authorities.”
In their report, the UN team rejects Israel’s designations of seven Palestinian nongovernmental organizations as terrorist groups, saying they were “undertaken to silence civil society voices.”
The investigators state they “received information” that Israel’s intelligence ministry had advised the government “to incriminate individuals and organizations receiving foreign funding, tarnish their reputation and expose their connections to ‘terrorist’ elements.’”
The team adds that “Israeli authorities and right-wing organizations had waged a long campaign against these Palestinians organizations prior to their designation” as terror groups.
The designations have impacted “thousands of Palestinians receiving support,” particularly “marginalized communities relying on services provided in relation to farming, food security, legal support, gender-based violence and women’s health care.”
Staff members of the targeted organizations have been arbitrarily detained and subjected to “travel bans, interrogations and threats.”
Israeli intelligence agents have harassed more than a dozen Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees staff members and some of their children “with a clear gender dimension.”
The UN team adds that one woman who works for the organization reported that Israel’s secret police even “threatened to interfere with her daughter’s college application.”
Three of the groups designated by Israel are engaged with the International Criminal Court’s investigation in Palestine, and their targeting is likely because of this – but that motivation is not specifically mentioned in the UN report.
The investigators recommend that the ICC prosecutor prioritize the Palestine probe, which has not been adequately funded or treated with the same urgency as the investigation in Ukraine, leading to accusations of double standards and selectivity.
The investigators do say that they documented “numerous examples” of Israeli government officials “using abusive rhetoric” in particular against groups and individuals who “have spoken in international forums, issued reports on international crimes, including apartheid, and/or reports on business activity in the settlements.”
Breaking the Silence, a group of whistleblowing former Israeli soldiers, is one of the most targeted Israeli groups, the report states, with the defense ministry instructing the military to investigate the group “on suspicion of leaking classified information.”
The UN team notes that an Israeli lawmaker belonging to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party branded Breaking the Silence as anti-Semitic, invoking the controversial IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism.
Hagai El-Ad, the outgoing director of B’Tselem, a human rights group in Israel, has also been a target by top politicians in the country, who have branded him as a “traitor” and “collaborator” with the state’s enemies.
The report notes that a number of pro-Israel groups “have been increasingly established with the dedicated purpose” of undermining advocacy of Palestinian rights, both locally and internationally.
Some of these groups that attack human rights defenders have consultative status with the UN, the investigators observe.
“These organizations effectively work in tandem with the Israeli government’s strategy against civil society,” according to the UN team, implying that they are essentially proxies for the state.
The commission points out that “a key strategy used by both the Israeli government and right-wing organizations” is to conflate criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Jewish bigotry, relying on the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism.
This has had a “growing chilling effect on voices critical of Israeli policies and actions,” with the definition being adopted in 30 states in the US and at local authorities and institutions in the EU and around 200 universities in the UK.
The investigators note that policies and legislation criminalizing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in support of Palestinian rights “mirror many of the steps undertaken by the Israeli government to silence human rights defenders.”
The UN team interviewed dozens of human rights defenders for their report, illustrating the cruel means by which Israel attempts to break any and all resistance to its colonial domination.
Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship who was arrested over a poem she wrote, was verbally, physically and sexually abused during her five months of imprisonment and at one point left in a secured vehicle for three days without access to food, water or a toilet.
Another Palestinian woman who works as a journalist and who has been arrested multiple times was denied female sanitary products by her interrogator until she confessed, the report states.
A defender of women’s rights living in East Jerusalem told the UN team that settlers and police raided her home and forcefully entered the bathroom while her daughter was showering. With their home no longer a sanctuary, she and her daughter usually wear a hijab when they’re in the house in case they are raided again.
Investigators also documented cases of sexual and gender-based violence by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, particularly in the protests that followed the beating death of Palestinian Authority critic Nizar Banat in 2021.
Women human rights defenders were “subjected to online harassment and smear campaigns,” with security forces disseminating on social media private pictures obtained from confiscated phones.
A woman human rights defender testified to the UN investigators that members of the Palestinian Authority security forces set up a fake Instagram account in her name and posted private pictures from her confiscated phone.
“Rumors about her having sexual affairs and fabricated pornographic videos with her name were posted widely on social media accounts reportedly belonging to persons associated with the Fatah movement,” the report states.
In a similar case, fabricated pornographic videos of a woman journalist were sent to her father and young son.
“The impact of the smear campaigns varied depending on the level of support that the woman had from their family,” the commission states, “with some women finding themselves at risk of gender-based violence within their families, including femicide.”
Revolving door of torture
Interviewees told investigators that they were targeted by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, who arrest or summon activists repeatedly for interrogation, “often working collaboratively,” the report notes.
This “revolving door” warrants further investigation, the UN team states.
Hamas authorities in Gaza are also alleged to have used torture and ill-treatment “to punish and intimidate critics and opponents.”
The use of torture and ill-treatment by Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza is widespread in the absence of accountability, according to the investigators.
The UN team also notes that the Israeli government and right-wing groups have targeted Palestinian culture and identity, with a particular focus on the Nakba, in an attempt to erase Palestinian historical narrative.
This includes the Israeli authorities’ efforts to remove the Jordanian film Farha, a historical fiction depicting the events of the 1948 Nakba, from the streaming service Netflix.
The report also notes that Israeli universities have taken disciplinary actions against Palestinian students involved in Nakba Day events and protests “following complaints made by right-wing Israeli student organizations.”