'This occupation is not going to die of old age': An interview with Michael Lynk, UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories
In an exclusive interview with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed Newspaper (The New Arab’s sister Arabic site) the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Michael Lynk, said that Israel will not end its occupation of the Palestinian people as long as the international community doesn’t hold it accountable by excluding it from trade, cultural, and investment agreements and ending arms sales.
Ibtisam Azem, Al-Araby al-Jadeed’s senior correspondent at the UN in New York, interviewed the Special Rapporteur Michael Lynk.
The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Ibtisam Azem: In your latest report presented to the General Assembly in October, you said that “the United Nations has long accepted that it bears a permanent responsibility for supervising the Question of Palestine until a just and durable resolution is reached.” Do you believe that the international community is failing the Palestinian people by not delivering on their promise?
Michael Lynk: Undoubtedly, this occupation is not going to die of old age. This occupation is only going to end on a just basis, when the international community accepts its permanent responsibility to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law in the conduct of its occupation. This occupation is now becoming indistinguishable from an annexation at worse.
It's the international community that created the modern body of international law that governs occupations. It’s the international community that passed hundreds of resolutions in the Security Council, the General Assembly, and the Human Rights Council, calling on Israel to strictly adhere to the laws of occupation, to not annex any territory, to not build any of its 300 settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and to end the blockade of Gaza. And the evidence is overwhelming that criticism of Israel without consequences has led nowhere.
"The Security Council said in January 2009, that the Israeli blockade on Gaza must be lifted. Here we are almost 13 years later, and the blockage still continues, as suffocating and as smothering as ever"
Israel is willing to pay the small price caused to its international reputation by failing to or defying international public opinion and international diplomatic opinion by continuing and deepening its occupation and annexation with virtually no request or demand for accountability by the international community in general, and western countries in particular.
Because of the exceptional imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, the only way this occupation is going to end, the only way that the Palestinians will be able to achieve self-determination as promised to them by the United Nations resolutions, is if the international community steps in decisively to hold Israel accountable by excluding it from trade and cultural and investment agreements, by ending arms sales to Israel, and to otherwise the rest of the international community until it agrees to end its occupation, remove its settlements and recognise the Palestinians’ right to independence and freedom.
I.A.: You also talked in your report about the issue of “de facto annexation”. Could you put this in a broader context- what does that actually mean? What consequences does this have for other countries or the region?
M.L.: Annexation has been illegal in international law, since the end of the Second World War. The international community recognised with the founding of the United Nations in 1945 that countries are not allowed to have acquisitive ambitions beyond their own borders, either in forms of colonialism or in forms of trying to expand their borders. Borders have become, if you like, sacrosanct in modern international practice.
When we think of annexation, we often think of what lawyers have call “De Jure annexation”, formal declarations by annexation, which Israel has done in 1980, with the annexation of East Jerusalem, and it's done in in December 1981, with the annexation the Syrian Golan Heights. On both occasions, the Security Council denounced the annexation, and most of the world community does not recognise Israel's claim of sovereignty over those occupied territories.
But there's also the concept of de facto annexation as well. Where a country is putting facts on the ground, particularly and including civilian settlements in an occupied territory in order to be able to change the demographic balance of that territory and to lay the ground for future playing a formal annexation.
And that is what Israel has been doing over the last 54 years with the creation of its settlement enterprise. It is putting Israeli Jewish settlers into the occupied territory in East Jerusalem in the West Bank, and at one point in Gaza, in order to be able to consolidate a claim for formal annexation later on.
In international law, de facto annexation, steps taken towards formal annexation, is just as illegal as the De Jure annexation, and that's why it's important to point out that any formal steps taken towards treating an occupied territory as a fruit of conquest, as Israel has been doing, with East Jerusalem and the West Bank, is strictly and absolutely forbidden by international law. Annexation is now treated as a crime of aggression with the amendments to the 2010 to the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court.
I.A.: The current American administration's foreign policy priorities actually are not in the Middle East, but rather China and Asia. How do you see this and which role do you see them playing now?
M.L.: The current administration has done some positive things, since coming into power in January 2021. They restored funding to Palestinian organisations, restored funding to UNRWA, all of which are positive. They have a desire to reopen the American consulate in East Jerusalem.
The disappointing things with respect to what they're doing, however, take away these positive steps. They are not moving the American embassy back to Tel Aviv, as required by UN Security Council Resolution. They haven't yet undone the Trump administration's recognition of Israel's annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, and they pretty much put any attempt to try to bring a final and durable resolution to the question of Palestine and the end of the occupation, exceptionally low on their priority list.
The only principle priority that the Biden administration appears to have is the positive aspect of wanting to re-enter into a new nuclear agreement with Iran. But in doing that, that seems to where whatever political capital, that current administration is placing in the Middle East, It's at the expense of the of the Israeli occupation.
The new Israeli government, which came into power this past June, has moved ahead with 1000s of housing units plans going through the approval process for new Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The United States administration has criticised that, but it doesn't seem to be willing to up the ante, if Israel was going forward with that. Israel has blocked reopening of the American Consulate and the United States is still in negotiations, but doesn't seem to have the urgency of wanting to have that consulate opened up as a window to dealing with the Palestinian Authority.
"This is no step towards peace and prosperity for the Palestinians. It seems to be one more step [normalisation between Israel and some Arab states] that ignores their plight, and sentences them to an intolerable occupation"
I'm afraid this new shrinking the conflict concept, which has been adopted by the new Israeli government, has pacified international opposition and particularly criticism coming from the American administration towards its deepening of the occupation.
In some ways, the new Israeli government is Benjamin Netanyahu with better manners. The world, the Western international community, seems to be accepting that at the price of wanting to draw any red line with respect to Israeli conduct in the administration of occupation.
So, I'm not really hopeful that the current administration is going to do anything decisive with respect to seeking to end the occupation, and it seems to be allowing a fair amount of freedom for the new Israeli government simply to continue on with its process of trying to make life somewhat better for the Palestinians under occupation, while trying to secure the permanence of that occupation.
I.A.: Six Palestinian human rights and civil society organisations were designated as so called “terrorist” organisations. Some said that this came in at a time where at least one of these organisations, Al-Haq, is documenting Israeli human rights violations for the ICC. What is your reading?
M.L.: This is an astonishing move, in the views of many human rights experts, that Israel will take the step to designate the six Palestinian civil society and human rights organisations as terrorist organisations. The evidence that appears to be available, which has been revealed by several recent news stories, is exceptionally thin.
I don't know if Israel has any more concrete evidence to support its allegation, that these organisations are simply fronts for terrorist organisations. Evidence that has now been presented, it’s exceptionally thin, it doesn't support what Israel is planning to do with these organisations.
You're absolutely right. The fact that Al-Haq has been very active in developing position papers, compiling evidence, and compiling legal statements, with respect to the current formal investigation, being conducted by the office of the prosecutor at the International Criminal Courts, does seem to be one quite plausible motivating reason for Israel to try to designate these groups, and Al-Haq in particular, as a terrorist organisation and thereby effectively force the organisation to shutter its doors.
Amnesty and HRW, who collaborate extensively with many of the impacted organisations, called the move an 'appalling and unjust decision' and 'an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement'. 👇https://t.co/T8OXBykiIf— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) October 22, 2021
Think of it this way. No democracy in the modern world would ever attempt to try to close legitimate human rights and civil society organisations, no matter how critical their reports and their statements are with respect to the observance of human rights for that particular country. This is something that you just don't see, in most Western countries.
Most Western countries would wind up listening to and developing an act of dialogue with human rights organisations. In order to try to improve its track record, and to ensure that it's compliant by international human rights obligations. Israel has been, for a long time, trying to shrink the space that both
Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights organisations can operate in with respect to their human rights reporting on Israel's conduct of the occupation. This is something that I have not seen enough criticism and outrage by Western countries. Because if Israel winds up succeeding in formalising the designation of these organisations as terrorist organisations and shuttering them, this will be a significant body blow to Palestinian civil society, and to the worldwide human rights movement.
I.A.: The blockade on Gaza made the majority of Palestinians there dependent on international aid, in addition to the suffering they face on a daily basis and during several wars in the last decade alone. There is a noticeable silence when it comes to Gaza, except for the times when there is an active war and bombardment against it. What role do you see Egypt playing in supporting the Israeli blocked on Gaza?
M.L.: My main point with respect to Gaza, beyond the continuing for 14-year Israeli blockade and suffocation of a Palestinian economy and a Palestinian society in Gaza. I'm distressed by the fact that this blockade seems to be aided by Egypt with respect to it maintaining a largely closed border at Rafah.
There's no situation that I can think of in the modern world where you have more than 2 million people behind an effective blockade and siege. Where there is no freedom of movement, where there is an economy that's just been kept barely above water through paltry international aid.
70% of the population is under the age of 30, where you've got this entire generation growing up all they've ever know is, blockade, is this confinement within this tiny territory on the Mediterranean shore, where the health care system is flat on its back, where 96% of the aquifer water is undrinkable because of sewage, and sea water leaking into it, where unemployment is around 45% officially, and we're unemployment among people under the age of 30 is closer to 65%.
And yet still Gazans wake up each day and continue on. I'm constantly in admiration of their resilience, for being able to live through all this. I'm constantly in dismay that this seems to be tolerable by the international community. The Security Council said in January 2009, that the Israeli blockade on Gaza must be lifted. Here we are almost 13 years later, and the blockage still continues, as suffocating and as smothering as ever.
And you know, what the international community's commitment by helping with international aid going there, this is no band aid solution. This is a violation among many other things, the prohibition against collective punishment in international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Collective punishment is not tolerated under the Fourth Geneva Convention by an occupying power towards occupied people. And this is precisely what has been going on there.
I feel this is one of the dark holes that the international community has allowed to continue. It's in effect, tolerating the intolerable. All you have to do is look at a night satellite picture of the eastern Mediterranean shore, and you will see on the one hand, Tel Aviv and the area around Tel Aviv to the bright constellation of lights and 75 kilometres away from Tel Aviv is Gaza which in a night-time satellite will be almost completely dark. And this kind of image to me says more than anything else about this vast disparity of power, and this vast absence of rights when we talk about Gaza.
I.A.: What are your thoughts about the latest agreements between Israel and some Arab countries?
M.L.: It's sometimes discouraging to see the role of modern countries and states in the Arab world, which have resumed formal and informal conversations or dialogue and diplomatic relations, at a time when the Palestinian question is further away than ever from resolution.
It's good that countries wind up forming diplomatic relations with each other and discover the promise and the prosperity of cooperation. But if it comes at the expense of a very troublesome human rights situation, and particularly where those recognitions and diplomatic relations wind up furthering the occupation and the de facto annexation going on, then, this is not a step in the right direction.
This is no step towards peace and prosperity for the Palestinians. It seems to be one more step that ignores their plight, and sentences them to an intolerable occupation.
Michael Lynk was designated by the UN Human Rights Council in 2016 as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967. Professor Lynk is Associate Professor of Law at Western University in London, Ontario, where he teaches labour law, constitutional law and human rights law. Before becoming an academic, he practiced labour law and refugee law for a decade in Ottawa and Toronto. He also worked for the United Nations on human rights and refugee issues in Jerusalem.
Ibtisam Azem is a Palestinian novelist and journalist. Her latest novel “The Book of Disappearance” was translated into English and published by Syracuse University Press in the US.