Palestinian territory - Israel’s assault was an act of aggression, violating the integrity of the occupied Palestinian territory and the besieged Gaza, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Francesca Albanese said in a webinar organised by Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.

Euro-Med Monitor hosted Albanese and other experts, including James Heenan, the Head of the UN Human Rights Office in the oPt, Richard Falk, Euro-Med Monitor’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees, and Ramzy Baroud, a Palestinian-American journalist. The speakers discussed Israel’s decades-long evasion of accountability and its ongoing rights violations practised against the Palestinians, especially in light of the recent Breaking Dawn military attack on Gaza and crackdown on the six Palestinian civil society organisations.

   Israel has refused to renew my visa for two years, and not just me, twenty of my international staff have been [kept] out of the country for two years   

James Heenan, Head of the UN Human Rights Office in the occupied Palestinian territory

The webinar was titled Decades of unaccountability: What’s needed to end Israel’s impunity, and was moderated by Euro-Med’s Board of Trustees, Vice Chairman Hanine Hassan. Four prominent human rights defenders spoke, three of whom were current or former UN experts. The speakers offered their individual perspectives on various topics related to Israeli impunity, the international community’s role in pressuring Israel to adhere to its responsibilities, and what is needed to end Israel’s pursuit of attacking and smearing rights defenders.

In her opening remarks, Hassan outlined the grim situation. She spoke about the dire conditions Palestinians have suffered for two decades now, whether due to Israeli collective punishment through its blockade on Gaza, excessive military attacks that have continued to strike Gaza for the past 15 years, and even violence in the West Bank, exemplified by Israeli authorities’ extrajudicial killing of Palestinians, arbitrary imprisonment of minors, classification of civil society organisations as “terrorist” groups, and the killing of journalists like Shireen Abu Akleh. “The violations are numerous”, said Hassan. “They happen every day. Israel is perpetually violating its obligations as the occupying power…without being held to any form of accountability”.

On her part, Special Rapporteur Albanese commented on the latest Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip from the perspective of an independent UN institution, and in the eyes of international law.

“As soon as the last offensive [on Gaza] commenced, I [followed] the situation, and based on my analysis it was very clear that this was an act of aggression,” Albanese said of her initial statement condemning the recent airstrikes. “Israel’s assault…violated the integrity of the occupied Palestinian territory, and the besieged Gaza, in particular”.

Albanese, who has been slammed and targeted since the first day of her appointment to the UN post, shed light on the pro-Israeli lobbies targeting those who advocate for Palestinian rights and stand up against abusers.

She reflected on the fact that, following her statement on the attack on Gaza in early August, many people were taken by surprise. “I was criticised for being so blunt”, she said, “but it is what it is, and [the Israeli authorities] argued [that the attacks were justified] on the grounds of international law”.

Albanese stressed that the use of force is only permitted in two circumstances: “When the UN Security Council authorises it, and this was not the case, or when it’s in self-defence, [i.e] in response to an attack. Now, I know that Israel uses self-defence…to justify its assault, but it’s a concept of pre-emptive self-defence, which has no legal grounding and doesn’t exist in international law”.

James Heenan, the Head of the UN Human Rights Office in the oPt, has worked with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for 15 years. He spoke to attendees about recurring Israeli attacks on human rights defenders and civil society organisations in Palestine. “Those who are the eyes and ears on the ground, who are getting the information, are currently under attack”, Heenan asserted, calling the Israeli designation of seven organisations as “terrorist” as unlawful.

Israel refrained from giving Heenan and additional international colleagues of his visas to perform their work in Palestine. “We know that Human Rights Watch’s representative, good friend Omar [Shakir], has been removed from the country, and I’m not in the country”, said Heenan. “Israel has refused to renew my visa for two years, and not just me, twenty of my international staff have been [kept] out of the country for two years."

“We’re still able to do our jobs because we have our national staff in the country, but my point is that this whole idea of getting the truth or getting the facts out there is very much key to the issue of accountability”, Heenan added.

Euro-Med Monitor’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees Richard Falk tackled the issue of why the international community is becoming increasingly silent when it comes to Israeli rights violations. Professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Falk is a veteran rights defender and former UN Special Rapporteur on the oPt himself.

He emphasised the fact that international law is somehow not applicable when it comes to Israel. Falk said the application of international law by the UN has always been problematic, and that this “goes back to World War II…the winners are given impunity. The losers are subject to accountability”.

Falk also said that the UN “is not empowered to impose accountability in situations where permanent members of the Security Council have interests”. He added that although international law is unable to be implemented under current conditions, it is still crucial to draw on during the struggle for liberation and self-determination.

Finally, Palestinian-American journalist Ramzy Baroud has been covering Israeli violations against Palestinians for the past 25 years. He provided webinar attendees with an overview of the current situation and of what has happened recently on the ground in Palestine. “As a Palestinian refugee born and raised in the Nuseirat refugee camp, I have been puzzled by how the so-called international community has failed to do anything about our situation in these refugee camps”, Baroud said. He then pointed to bias by the international and Western media, which “tries to cut Israel slack and provide […] justification for why Israel has to do what it does to the Palestinians”.

Baroud also illuminated the Western media’s failure to address rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians, citing their pattern of referring to blatant injustices civilians are forced to live with as “flare-ups” of violence. He said the Western media has failed and continues to fail Palestinians by not pointing fingers at the fact that Israel has carried out what can only be described as “unprovoked aggression against the Palestinians”, referring to the latest onslaught on Gaza.