Israeli Forces Bringing War To The West Bank, Warns UN Rights Office

Published: Fri 10 May 2024 05:49 AM
As war rages in Gaza, violations against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank have also increased substantially, a senior official with the UN human rights office, OHCHR, said on Wednesday.
“The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is acting as if there is an armed conflict in the West Bank,” Ajith Sunghay, head of the OHCHR office in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, told UN News.
He said the situation there was already very dire even before hostilities erupted in Gaza following the brutal Hamas-led incursion into Israel on 7 October.
Settler violence and demolitions
Last year was the deadliest ever for Palestinians in the West Bank since the UN began keeping records in 2005, and there was also a spike in violations including settler violence, excessive use of force by the IDF, demolitions and evictions.
Demolitions were reported on Tuesday in the northern village of Furush Beit Dajan, the UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA, said on social media.
Mr. Sunghay said that while global attention has been focused on Gaza, the intensity and frequency of violations increased in the West Bank.
“If we talk about the number of people killed or injured, either because of these massive incursions by the IDF into the West Bank – particularly in Tulkarem, Jenin, Nablus, sometimes into Jericho and other parts as well – that spiked up,” he said.
The number of people detained has also “spiked up massively”, reaching close to 9,000, he added.
He noted that “whatever happens in Gaza has a massive impact on the West Bank,” and vice versa, “because they're the same people”.
“We now see huge fear among the population of the West Bank as well on a regular basis, worried about incursions, worried about raids, worried about arrest and detention, worried about settler violence and, of course, with massive significant movement restrictions that impacts their day-to-day life.”
Ajith Sunghay: Our biggest concern is the spike in violence we are seeing, particularly coming from very emboldened settlers. Because the attention is focused on Gaza, they feel emboldened.
There’s been massive lack of accountability or, in other words, impunity for violations that have been committed by the IDF in the West Bank, so they continue to violate or continue to attack Palestinians, Palestinian towns and villages. So, the lack of safety and security of people is at the top-most concern for us.
The Israeli Defense Forces is acting as if there is an armed conflict in the West Bank. The applicable law in the West Bank is the human rights law enforcement framework, which means the force that the IDF can use is limited to that legal framework.
In the West Bank, there is no armed conflict, but the nature of these operations that are being conducted by the IDF indicate that they're using massive numbers of soldiers, drones, sometimes fighter jets dropping bombs, shoulder-fired missiles – heavy weapons – which are used generally in an armed conflict, not in law enforcement.
Another concern is movement restrictions, arrests and detention. People are unable to move between towns, communities and cities within the West Bank. That has had a major impact on the economy and on the family structures, society and, more generally, the Palestinian community.
UN News: In this situation, when we're speaking about an occupied territory, it is supposed that the occupying power acts as law enforcement, as the side that maintains law and order. But, based on what you are describing, it is vice versa. Can you explain?
Ajith Sunghay: That is correct, and unfortunately, that has been the case. In international law, the responsibility and the obligation of the occupying power is to provide protection. That is expected of Israel and that includes the IDF that is to provide safety and security and protect the population of the occupied territory, and that is the Palestinians.
However, what we have seen consistently and that has increased since the 7 October is that the IDF ends up providing security to the settlers who are actually attacking Palestinians.
Many times we have found them being bystanders. In many cases, they have facilitated these attacks. In many instances, we have started seeing that the settlers are also wearing IDF clothes, so it’s very difficult to distinguish between the two.
Unfortunately, the IDF, and more broadly Israel, have not honoured their obligation under international humanitarian law, but, on the contrary, have only committed more human rights violations.
UN News: In such circumstances, who is there to protect Palestinians and their rights?
Ajith Sunghay: That's a good question. This is where, I think, the vacuum comes in. In many instances in many pockets of the West Bank as well, there is a vacuum for the protection of Palestinians. In cases of settler violence, for instance, the Palestinians are expected to go and file a complaint with the Israeli police or IDF who are inside the Israeli settlements.
For me, that doesn't make any sense. When they’re attacked by the Israeli settlers, how do you expect a Palestinian to go inside an Israeli settlement, which is already quite scary for them, and go and complain? And when they have seen consistent lack of accountability, why would they do that?
So, you don’t find many Palestinians going and lodging complaints. In the end, that’s what leaves a massive protection gap for Palestinians.
UN News: When you are speaking of attacks or any actions by settlers, what kind of clashes are those?
Ajith Sunghay: There are many. In the past, we used to see one settler attacking a herder or a Palestinian who is probably moving around. What we have seen in 2023 and moving further into 2024 is much more organised settlers attacking in groups against Palestinian towns and villages and communities.
They coordinate an attack, or coordinate gatherings, and then attack a community. It can be from stones and sticks to weapons, including firearms and guns. That's where we have seen in many cases Palestinians being shot, injured and in many, many cases killed as well.
But, in many cases where they have attacked the community, particularly a village or a town, we have seen shops, vehicles, houses, the entire community being burnt down. So, it has increased both in terms of intensity as well as the frequency and then the kind of attacks that we have seen over the years.
UN News: You mean to say that those are not actions in response to some activity on behalf of Palestinians, but rather something which is organised, coordinated and even instigated by the settlers themselves?
Ajith Sunghay: We have to remember one thing: the settlements over the years have expanded massively, which means settlements and settlers live extremely close or next to the Palestinian community. So, the constant chance of meeting each other or having friction, incidents or clashes increase.
UN News: In this situation, you record all those cases and report on them. Do you also interact with Palestinian human rights defenders’ groups? Are there such groups on both sides, Israel and Palestine, and do you interact with all of them?
Ajith Sunghay: We record all violations, not just settler violence, but also house evictions, house demolitions, detention, ranging from economic and social to civil and political rights. We don’t do this on our own either.
One of our chief functions is to make sure that civil society space is maintained, and we work very closely with a range of organisations, both UN as well as national and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). And when we talk about national, both Palestinian as well as Israeli NGOs. We have established this network over the years.
What has happened, however, over the last few years is a massive shrinking of space for different reasons and, to be honest, it also comes from all three sides: Israel, the Palestinian Authority as well as the de facto authorities. However, I think much of those restrictions come from Israel.
For instance, a couple of years ago, Israel designated with no evidence, six human rights NGOs as terrorist organisations. When you do something of that sort, you will have support dwindling to these NGOs, whether we mean it or not, whether we like it or not. And that's the space we are trying to push back. We are trying to help NGOs do their job. It’s extremely important that we are there on the ground and are able to record these violations.
Similarly, the Israeli NGOs have also faced such threats. For instance, when the Israeli Government threatens 65 per cent tax on any incoming funds from abroad, that was in a way to squeeze the space of Israeli NGOs.
UN News: Since October, a number of Gazans have had to stay in the West Bank. What is the situation with them currently?
Ajith Sunghay: When the 7 October attacks happened inside Israel, thousands of Gazan workers who were in the West Bank and Israel were all detained. No one knows the exact number. A number of them were then released through the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza. We do not have a full picture of the number who were released or of those who are still in detention.
However, of those who have been detained, several of them have given us consistent accounts of being ill-treated, humiliated, sexually abused and tortured. There are many who still remain in detention.

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