A Real Mensch Speaks at the UN (B'Tselem head Hagai El-Ad at the Security Council)

October 18, 2018

In Blog News

Hagai El-Ad’s address at the United Nations Security Council, 18 Oct. 2018

Thank you, Mister President,

Thank you, members of the Security Council,

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to fully convey the indignity, the outrage and the pain of a people denied the benefit of human rights for more than fifty years. Here, in these chambers, it is hard to articulate the flesh and blood meaning of the exposed lives Palestinians endure under occupation. But no matter how hard it is to describe, the real hardship is that of facing such an intolerable existence day in and day out, of trying to live, and raise a family, and develop a community, under these conditions.

It has been almost two years to the day since I last had the honor of speaking before the Council. Two more years of occupation, two years in which the routine of the first 49 years of occupation continued. Since I last spoke here, 317 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces and thirteen Israelis have been killed by Palestinians. Israel has demolished 294 Palestinian homes and has continued making arrests on a daily basis, including of minors; Israeli settlers have vandalized and uprooted thousands of olive trees and grapevines; Israeli security forces have continued to regularly enter Palestinians houses, sometimes coming in the dead of night to wake children, register their names and take their pictures; Palestinians have lost countless hours waiting at checkpoints, with no explanation. And so the routine of the occupation marches on.

All this is often referred to as “the status quo.” Yet there is nothing static about this reality. It is a calculated and deliberate process of slowly splitting up an entire people, fragmenting their land, and disrupting their lives: separating Gaza from the West Bank, breaking up the West Bank into small enclaves, and walling off East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. Eventually, what remains are isolated bits, the easier to oppress: a family slated for “eviction” in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan; a community such as ‘Urif, south of Nablus, trying against all odds to hold on to its land and farm it in the face of Israel’s long arm of unchecked settler violence; or Area A of the West Bank, conveniently said to be “under full Palestinian control,” but in fact essentially large Bantustans, slowly but surely being hemmed in by ever more new or expanding Israeli settlements.

None of this is random. All of it is policy-driven. Two of the latest and most conspicuous examples are Israel’s conduct in the recent protests in Gaza, and its plans for Khan al-Ahmar, a Palestinian shepherding community. Some 200 people live in Khan al-Ahmar, just a few kilometers east of Jerusalem, in an area where Israel has long endeavored to minimize Palestinian presence and expand settlements.

Israel plans to raze the entire community, claiming that all its structures were built “illegally.” The government further claims that it has generously offered to relocate the community, even going so far as to guarantee it would foot the bill for the relocation site. Israel also contends that its actions are legitimate: the High Court had given its seal of approval, had it not? But these claims are nothing short of distortions carefully constructed by eager attorneys, building on the unsound, and unjust, foundations of hollow legal formalisms. For one thing, there’s no argument that the homes were built without permission from the Israeli authorities. But this is the case not because Palestinians are inherently law-breakers, as some in Israel suggest. Rather, it is because they have no other alternative. It is all but impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits from the Israeli authorities because the Israeli-established planning regime in the West Bank is meant, by design, to serve settlers and dispossess Palestinians. Secondly, the government failed to mention that the two relocation sites it so generously offered leave something to be desired: one is beside a garbage dump and the other next to a wastewater treatment facility. Moreover, relocation would completely undermine the community’s ability to make a living. Finally, in its ruling, the High Court completely ignored the reality of the planning regime in the West Bank. So the fact that the High Court approved the government’s decision does not make the demolition just or even legal. It only makes the justices complicit, by approving an action that is nothing short of the war crime of forcible transfer of protected people in an occupied territory.

The Gaza Strip, with a population of nearly two million, has essentially become an open-air prison. Its inmates have been staging protests for the past six months, after suffering for more than a decade under an Israeli-imposed blockade that has led to economic collapse, soaring unemployment rates, polluted drinking water and dwindling power supplies, and ultimately, to deep despair. Since March 30, more than five thousand Palestinians have been injured by live Israeli gunfire and more than 170 killed – including at least 31 minors. The youngest were just little boys. Majdi a-Satari, Yasser Abu a-Naja and Naser Musbeh were just eleven years old when they were killed.

As with Khan al-Ahmar, Israel’s High Court of Justice has found Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip to be “legal” on a range of issues: from authorizing various aspects of the blockade to recently approving rules of engagement that allow Israeli snipers to continue firing, from a distance, at demonstrators inside Gaza.

The only problem with all this is that none of it is in fact legal, or moral, or even remotely acceptable. Yet as long as this methodical, relentless process doesn’t trigger international outrage and international action, Israel can successfully continue to carry off this contradiction in terms: oppressing millions while somehow still being considered a “democracy.”

This, in a nutshell, is the pattern the occupation follows: Israeli institutions, in which Palestinians have no representation, move pieces of paper along a well-choreographed dis-assembly line. How do we “legalize” the demolition of this community? How do we whitewash yet another killing? How do we take over this plot of Palestinian land? With more than 50 years of experience, we have had plenty of time to perfect this well-oiled farce. We are now quite expert at constructing this façade of legality, which has been very successful at allowing us not to have to deal with any real international consequences.

None of these actions has anything to do with security, as Israel tries to argue. They do, however, affect the amorphous construct called the Middle East Peace Process. If one looks beyond the blinders of this process, it is clear to see how its supposedly yet-to-be-negotiated outcome is in reality being dictated, day in and day out, by unilateral Israeli actions. Members of the Security Council, the only thing being “processed” here is Palestine.

Consider these historical analogies: Voter suppression was a cornerstone of the American South under Jim Crow laws, but we have gone and done one better, delivering no less than voter obliteration. As the occupied Palestinians remain non-citizens, not only can they not vote, but they have absolutely no representation in the Israeli institutions that govern their lives. Or take a look at the discriminatory planning mechanisms and the separate legal systems in the occupied territories. They are reminiscent of South Africa’s grand apartheid. Granted, neither analogy is a perfect fit, but history does not offer precision: rather it offers a moral compass. And that compass points towards rejecting Israel’s oppression of Palestinians with the same unwavering conviction with which humanity’s conscience rejected these other grand injustices.

Israel, however, appears to be following a different compass, and while at it, is also busy removing any obstacles that might keep it from its objective. Ongoing efforts to legislate against Israeli human rights organizations now go hand in hand with the routine in which opposition to the occupation is being equated with treason. The Israeli government’s statements ahead of today’s Council meeting are just one more unfortunate example of the spirit of the times. So, to Prime Minister Netanyahu I say this: you will never silence us – nor the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who reject a present founded on supremacy and oppression, and stand for a future built on equality, freedom and human rights.

I am not a traitor, nor am I a hero. The heroes are the Palestinians who endure this occupation with courage and perseverance; who wake up in the middle of the night to find soldiers barging into their homes; who know that if a loved one is killed, impunity is all but guaranteed to the perpetrators; who stay on their land knowing that it is only a matter of time before the bulldozers arrive.

I am one of a team of some 40 committed Israelis and Palestinians. We do not focus on how many is the right number of states to achieve a “solution.” Instead we focus on the realization of human rights. That is why we reject the occupation. We reject it because the current reality is wholly and utterly incompatible with what is right and what is just. It is a reality wholly and utterly incompatible with a life of freedom and dignity for all 13 million people – both Israeli and Palestinian – living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And that is the future we strive for.

Even if it now seems far off, and receding ever further away, we can make that future a reality. Assertive international action can make it happen. It is the only viable non-violent option. The world must let Israel know that it will no longer stand idly by, that it will take action against the continued dismantling of the Palestinian people.

The rules-based international order will not defend itself. And the successful fragmentation of Palestine is detrimental to both Palestinians and Israelis, as well as to international law and the values enshrined in it. It is the role of the UN Security Council – your delegations, seated in this chamber – to oversee precisely that. The stakes are high. The Security Council must take action. In fact, it has already decided to do so, even if in a very limited fashion. However, it is a matter of record that the Secretary General has so far had little to report to the Council on the implementation of Article 5 of Resolution 2334.

Before closing, I’d like to take us all back to Khan al-Ahmar. The need for action there is acute and urgent.

As Israel tests the international community’s resolve to see how far, and how fast, it can proceed, what might happen any day now in Khan al-Ahmar will determine the fate of Palestinian communities all over the West Bank. So far, Israeli preparations to demolish Khan al-Ahmar continue unabated. High-level international statements have had no impact, not even the united voice, as expressed on September 20, of the five current European members of this Council, joined by former member Italy and future members Belgium and Germany. You have my sincerest thanks and deep appreciation for these statements. Without your efforts, I doubt if Khan al-Ahmar would still be standing today. Yet Israel has already answered your call, by continuing with preparations for the demolition. Just a few days ago, the Minister of Defense described actions that are nothing short of forcible transfer as “moving a small group of people within a several kilometer radius.” He called on you to stop your “flagrant interference” in Israel’s plans, as if the forcible transfer of Khan al-Ahmar, a strategic step in Israel’s dismantling project, is somehow an internal, domestic matter.

Members of the Security Council: you have spoken, and you have gotten Israel’s answer. Action must now follow.

Thank you very much.