MIDEAST: Cornering of Civilians Unprecedented, Says UN Official

  • by David Cronin (brussels)
  • Inter Press Service

Richard Falk, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, described the sealing off of the Gaza Strip in order to ensure that nobody could flee it as 'a distinct, new and sinister war crime.'

'For the first time in a military operation, the civilian population as a whole has been locked into a war zone,' he told a meeting of the European Parliament by telephone. 'No children, women, sick people or disabled people were allowed to leave. For the first time, the option of becoming a refugee has been withheld.'

Arguing that the conduct of the three-week offensive against Gaza could amount to a 'horrible abuse of Israel's role as the occupying power,' he noted that international law - particularly the 1949 Geneva convention - obliges the occupier to provide adequate food and medical facilities to the population it seeks to control. The 18-month blockade which preceded Operation Cast Lead was 'unlawful', he added.

Aged 78, Falk boasts a lengthy record as an academic, and as a campaigner for disarmament and human rights and on environmental issues. Yet his outspoken defence of Palestinian civilians has made him something of a persona non grata for the Israeli government. Last year it refused to allow him to enter the occupied territories, accusing him of an anti-Israel bias.

Zvi Tal, deputy head of Israel's embassy to the European Union, sought to defend the attacks on Gaza by describing the situation there as 'a very peculiar one.'

Since the Islamic organisation Hamas fought its rival Fatah over who should administer Gaza in 2007, the territory has had the status of a 'hostile entity', he said, claiming that Israel bombed UN schools because some gunmen had taken shelter there 'in order to drag us in.'

'Sometimes in the heat of fire and the exchange of fire, we do make mistakes,' Tal told IPS. 'We're not infallible.'

Of the 1,330 people killed during the operation, 904 were civilians. The Palestinian ministry of health has stated that the dead included 437 children, 123 elderly men and 110 women. By contrast, 13 Israelis, three of them non-combatants, lost their lives.

Raji Sourani, Gaza-based director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, noted that more bodies are continuously being extricated from the rubble of razed buildings. He said 27 persons died Jan. 21 alone from injuries in the bombing.

He castigated the EU for not taking a firm line against Israel's actions. The Union abstained from voting on a motion put before the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month on the need to investigate violations of human rights and humanitarian law by Israel. The Czech Republic, which holds the EU presidency, said the motion 'addressed only one side of the conflict.'

Sourani also protested at the decision of EU governments in December to go ahead with a planned upgrading of their relations with Israel. Despite numerous reports that Israel was systematically discriminating against Palestinians, the EU agreed to continue with moves to make Israel a 'privileged partner'. This would integrate Israel into the EU's single market to a large degree.

'It is a shame to see the conspiracy of silence from official Europe,' Sourani added. 'It is a shame that Europe rewarded Israel's de facto apartheid system and its economic and social suffocation of Gaza by upgrading relations with Israel.'

Next week, the EU's foreign ministers will assess the situation in Gaza when they meet in Brussels. A Cypriot member of the European Parliament (MEP) Kyriacos Triantaphyllides, urged them to call off efforts to develop closer ties with Israel.

'We can't talk about upgrading relations with Israel at the moment,' he said. 'I'm sorry, we just can't.'

Hélène Flautre, a French Green MEP, dismissed claims by Israel that it had to bomb schools because Hamas may have been firing from them. 'Just because a fighter is in a school, you cannot go and kill a hundred civilians,' she said. 'That is not allowed under international law.'

Normally, the Red Cross, a humanitarian organisation, refrains from making public comments. Yet it has strongly denounced Israel's activities in Gaza, complaining about how children have been found hungry beside the corpses of their parents because aid workers had been preventing from reaching them.

Vincent Cassard, deputy head of the organisation's Middle East division, complained that 'a number of people died because of lack of access to healthcare' and that half of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants do not have proper access to water or sanitation. He also protested at how the Al-Quds hospital, run by the Palestinian Red Crescent society, had been targeted by Israeli forces.

Filippo Grandi, deputy chief of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), said that up to 50,000 people sought refuge in schools operated by his agency. On at least three occasions civilians were killed inside or in the immediate vicinity of those schools.

He argued that unless the blockade of Gaza is lifted and progress made towards resolving the underlying political problems there, recovery from Israel's offensive 'will be difficult and I fear impossible.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service