Jerusalem – On September 20, Makarim Wibisono was expected to begin his first mission as the newly appointed United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories.
However, Wibisono will not be afforded the chance to do so – at least until now – since Israel has not yet granted him access to the occupied Palestinian territory on his first mission. “I deeply regret not having the opportunity to visit the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and to speak face-to-face with victims and witnesses of Israel’s alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.”
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I deeply regret not having the opportunity to visit the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and to speak face-to-face with victims and witnesses of Israel's alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
As Special Rapporteur, Wibisono acts as an independent, unpaid inquirer, charged with investigating allegations of human rights violations in the blockaded Gaza Strip, occupied West Bank, and annexed East Jerusalem. The Special Rapporteur reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) based in Geneva.
Speaking on his new position, Wibisono stressed that it is his “priority to see with [his] own eyes the situation on the ground, to listen and to speak face-to-face with victims and witnesses, and to discuss issues of concern with officials on both sides” of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Instead, Wibisono will travel to Amman and Cairo to meet with NGO and civil society representatives and refugees. He said he hoped to enter Gaza via the Rafah border crossing. This will be confirmed during a press conference due to be held in Cairo at the end of his mission on September 28.
However, Wibisono is not the first Special Rapporteur unable to enter the occupied territories.
His predecessor, Richard Falk, was detained for 20 hours at Ben Gurion Airport and then expelled in 2008, in a move that the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called “unprecedented”. The professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University is a staunch critic of Israeli policies.
According to Husam Zomlot, director and spokesman of the Commission of International Affairs for the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s denial of access to multiple human rights organisations has cast doubt on the hope of a just peace.
“This is very common for Israel,” Zomlot told Al Jazeera. “They even blocked access to Amnesty International during the last war on Gaza.”
Since June, Israel has launched two military operations in the Palestinian territories. Operation Brother’s Keeper in the West Bank, which began after three settlers were kidnapped and later found murdered, and Operation Protective Edge, its third major offensive on Gaza since 2008.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates the Palestinian death toll of Operation Protective Edge at 2,131, including 1,473 civilians, 501 of which were children. Israeli casualties amounted to 66 soldiers and 4 civilians. Many allegations of severe human rights violations linger.
Bill Van Esveld, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch based in the occupied West Bank, told Al Jazeera that human rights abuses had “sharply increased” since the beginning of Operation Brother’s Keeper.
The researcher went on to name a litany of violations, saying that the “operation included hundreds of apparently arbitrary arrests… Israeli forces’ use of excessive and lethal force at protests… Punitive demolitions of the family homes of three suspects in the kidnappings which constitutes prohibited collective punishment, excessive blanket restrictions on movement, [and] the seizure or destruction of other property without due process”.
On September 23, Israel announced that its military had killed the two primary suspects in its investigation into the June kidnapping, although the two men – Marwan Qawasme and Amer Abu Aisheh – had not been charged or tried in a court.
It is not common for Israel to convict soldiers accused of violations. “Only three were convicted of wrongdoing during hostilities in 2008-2009 [Operation Cast Lead] and it appears that only one Israeli soldier was convicted of unlawfully killing a Palestinian in 2012 or 2013,” Van Esveld said. “There is virtual impunity for most abuses by Israeli forces.”
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Addressing the importance of an independent investigator such as the Special Rapporteur, Van Esveld said: “Impartial investigations are extremely important to establish the facts in cases of alleged violations.”
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released a joint statement during Operation Protective Edge stating that Israel was playing “bureaucratic games” with them over admittance to the Gaza Strip.
“The Palestinian people still have hope in the UN, but we no longer place our entire hope there,” Zomlot said. “But we have to have the support of the international community on these issues, otherwise we won’t be able to achieve our inalienable rights,” he concluded.
Israel has often charged the UNHRC with bias, as had been the case with the recent appointment of Dr William Schabas to chair the new Gaza commission of inquiry. Schabas, a professor of international law at Middlesex University, has been a vocal critic of Israeli policy towards Palestinians.
Israeli ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, said in an open letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that the appointment of Schabas to the Gaza inquiry was equivalent to “inviting [the Islamic State militant group] to chair the UN’s World Interfaith Harmony Week”.
When asked if the Gaza commission of inquiry contributed to Israel not allowing entry to Wibisono, Schabas told Al Jazeera that he was “was not aware of any connection” and declined to comment further.
Israeli officials describe the relationship with UN human rights bodies as “difficult”.
“We’ve had a difficult relationship with the human rights bodies of the UN,” Paul Hirschson, spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, told Al Jazeera. “Nearly 50 percent of [UN General Assembly] resolutions deal with Israel,” he added. “We simply aren’t worth half the world’s attention.”
One of the main points of contention was the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, also known as the Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of severe violations of international rights and humanitarian law during Operation Cast Lead. Richard Goldstone, head of the mission, later recanted many of its findings, while the other members of the inquiry stood by the report.
Concerning the status of relations between Israel and the Human Rights Council, Hirschson hoped that Israel would “have a better relationship with the UNHRC in the future”.
Dr Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation Executive Committee and head of the department of culture and information, expressed doubts about Israel’s efforts of reconciliation. “Not allowing the Special Rapporteur access is certainly not improving relations, they’re doing more of the same,” Ashrawi told Al Jazeera. “They’ve always withheld cooperation, making it difficult for inquiries on the issue of human rights in Palestine.”
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