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Israel and Gaza

The information below on relevant human rights dimensions is provided to support deliberations related to Israel and Gaza, included an expected meeting of the General Assembly on Thursday, 26 October 2023. In the preparation of the analysis it was observed that while there is no shortage of relevant statements by UN officials and experts to address the situation in Gaza, statements were often muted in the way they addressed Hamas's attack on Israel.

Key topics below

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  1. SG statement (and shift) in Security Council (24 October 2023).

  2. SG framing of war until now.

  3. SG additional key messages.

  4. High Commissioner's key messages.

  5. Statements by human rights experts focused on Palestine.

  6. Statement by Special Rapporteur on internally displaced persons.

  7. Statements by other human rights experts.

  8. Gender dimensions, with reference to UN Women and UNRWA.

  9. UNFPA's statement.

  10. UNICEF's statements.

  11. Joint statement by UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, WFP and the WHO.

  1. Comments in Security Council (24 October 2023).

  2. Comments in meeting on ISIS.

  1. Two Presidential Statements addressing terrorism.


Statements by UN officials and human rights experts [1,443 words]

  1. The UN Secretary-General delivered several statements on the situation. In his statement to the Security Council on 24 October he reiterated key messages, in particular the fundamental principle of respecting and protecting civilians. However, at that meeting he also seemed to shift from his usual messaging to frame Hamas's barbaric attack [in his own words] as a response to the Israeli occupation. This framing was first voiced by the Special Rapporteur to the OPT (joined by 34 other human rights mechanisms): "Hamas stated that its actions were taken in response to Israel’s continuous violence against Palestinians." Israel reacted by canceling the Foreign Minister's meeting with the SG, which was scheduled for the same day. Notwithstanding, the SG recalled twice in the same statement that nothing, including the legitimate grievances of the Palestinians, can justify the deliberate acts of terror and the killing, maiming and abduction of civilians – or the launching of rockets against civilian targets (see also 9 Oct and 19 Oct).

  2. It is notable that the Secretary-General had previously offered a different framing, acknowledging that the crisis was triggered by the atrocious 7 October Hamas attacks on civilians – from Israel and, indeed, around the world – and that this led Israel to a total siege on Gaza and a relentless bombing campaign (19 Oct). The SG recognized Israel’s legitimate security concerns, but reminded Israel that military operations must be conducted in strict accordance with international humanitarian law and nothing can justify collective punishment (9 Oct and 19 Oct). The SG has been calling for the creation of an independent Palestinian State, side by side with Israel with mutual security guaranteed.

  3. Additional key messages of the Secretary-General throughout the war included: >> Recalling that international humanitarian law and human rights law must be respected and upheld; >> Calling for rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access (including through Egypt), while acknowledging that there must be a verification which is effective, but also expedited and practical (20 Oct); >> Appealing for a humanitarian ceasefire; >> Emphasizing that hospitals, clinics, medical personnel, and UN premises are explicitly protected under international law; >> Calling for immediate and unconditional release of all hostages; >> Condemning the strike at the Al Ahli hospital (later confirmed as resulting from Islamic Jihad's firing of rockets); >> Calling for the protection of civilians and that they never be used as human shields; >> Condemning Hamas's barbaric attack against Israeli towns (20 Oct); >> Condemning Hamas's firing of thousands of rockets on population centers; >> Condemning Hamas's abduction of civilians; >> Recalling that dehumanizing language that incites violence is never accepted; >> Calling on all leaders to speak out against Antisemitism, anti-Muslim bigotry and hate speech.

  4. The High Commissioner for Human Rights has released similar statements. Additional elements included: >> Recalling that in the conduct of hostilities, the principles of necessity, distinction, proportionality and precautions to minimize incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian property and objects must be respected. ** At the Security Council's meeting on 24 October, Israel's Foreign Minister, Mr. Eli Cohen, said that the proportional response to the killing of babies, the raping and burning of women and beheading of a child is the total destruction of Hamas. >> Recalling that the taking of hostages is prohibited by international law (20 Oct); >> Noting that settler violence has further increased; >> Noting an increase in arbitrary arrests of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and of Arab Israelis in Israel with reports of ill-treatment and lack of any due process (20 Oct); >> Recalling with regard to Palestinians in the West Bank denied freedom of movement, including being prevented from reaching hospitals, that such restrictions must be necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim; >> Calling on Palestinian armed groups to cease the use of indiscriminate rockets; >> Calling on the IDF to avoid using explosive weapons with wide area effects in densely populated areas due to the significant likelihood of indiscriminate effects; >> Expressing concern about overcrowding and spread of diseases, damage and destruction of hospitals, a worsening shortage of medicines, and heavy restriction of movement.

  5. The Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council have issued several statements, led by different mandate holders. To keep things shorter, it should suffice to recommend that for the purpose of conveying a principled human rights-based approach, it would be better to utilize statements led by other mechanisms than the Special Rapporteur or the Commission of Inquiry on the OPT. Their statements have demonstrated the limitations of their mandates to address all parties, as well as their biases which had been pointed out in the past, including by a number of Member States. For additional though not exhaustive examples, see our Making it Simple blog post (scroll down to: UN human rights experts get Israel and Gaza wrong). In another example, they stated their concern of the absolute worst – a possible genocide – rarely expressed in any situation. However, this maximalist statement was based – or at least opened with – a reference to the deadly strike at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital, which was already known to have been caused by Islamic Jihad's rockets.

  6. On 13 October 2023, the Special Rapporteur on internally displayed persons, Ms. Paula Gaviria Betancur (who had also endorsed the statement led by the Special Rapporteur on the OPT), called for the strict respect of IHL and its provisions, including unrestricted humanitarian access to those in need, the cessation of indiscriminate attacks against civilians, and an end to forced displacement of populations and blockade. She recalled that forcible population transfers constitute a crime against humanity, and collective punishment is prohibited under IHL. She made no reference to the crimes of Hamas.

  7. It is also worth noting two statements by Special Rapporteurs who have not joined the statement led by the Special Rapporteur on the OPT. On 23 October 2023, the Special Rapporteur on judges and lawyers, joined by the Special Rapporteur on terrorism, called on lawyers responsible for advising the Israeli military on humanitarian law matters to deny legal authorization and advise against any military orders that would result in war crimes or crimes against humanity. They noted that in Israel lawyers take an active role in determining what is and is not permissible in specific operations. Their advice about issues such as lawful targets of attack, the choice and use of weapons, and the means and methods of warfare is essential to the operational planning of military campaigns. On 17 October 2023, the Special Rapporteur on health called on the international community to intervene immediately to prevent the escalation of conflict and protect and respect the right to health of all, by demanding access through humanitarian corridors and protection of the healthcare infrastructure and health workers. Palestinian families require urgent supplies of food, water, shelter, fuel, emergency health care, psychosocial support and psychological first aid, the expert said. Her statement did not address any health needs of civilians in Israel or of Israeli and foreign abductees in Gaza. Another emerging health concern not addressed in the statement pertains to Hamas's livestreaming of their attacks and posting from their abductees' accounts to "weaponize social media in a way I don't think we've seen before," as said by Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University. “We are not psychologically prepared for this.”

  8. UN Women released limited information on the situation. It noted that Palestinian women's vulnerabilities are rooted in structural gender discrimination, including laws in Palestine that assume women to be under the protection and guardianship of men. HRLO has not been able to locate a statement addressing the gendered dimension of the attack on Israel, including the rape and burning of women and the brutal "verification" of killing of pregnant women's unborn children. A 13-page rapid gender analysis prepared by UNRWA dedicated only one paragraph to describe the attack by Hamas, including a shockingly uninformative and gender-blind description of Hamas's infiltration into Israel towns, merely noting that it resulted in the "loss of Israeli lives and the capture of individuals."

  9. UNFPA Executive Director, Dr. Natalia Kanem, only paid a lip service to deplore the loss of life in Israel and call for the immediate release of all hostages, in her statement more than a week after Hamas attacked.

  10. UNICEF showed a little more capacity to address the "horrific violence in Israel", stating on 9 October 2023 that nothing justifies the killing, maiming or abducting of children – grave rights violations which UNICEF wholeheartedly condemned.

  11. On 21 October 2023, UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, WFP and the WHO released a joint statement on humanitarian supplies crossing into Gaza.


Comments by Members of the Security Council [325 words]

  1. On 24 October 2023, the Security Council held a ministerial-level open debate on the situation in Gaza and Israel. Speakers reaffirmed the obligations under international law and called for humanitarian access, including through Egypt, in view of the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. Speakers also called for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages. Some called for an investigation into the tragedy at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital. The US called to condemn Hamas: “Babies riddled with bullets [the above four words appear to have been censored out of the quote in the UN Secretariat's meeting summary]; young people hunted down and gunned down with glee; people, young people beheaded; families burned alive in a final embrace [this too was not included in the summary]; parents executed in front of their children; children executed in front of their parents; and so many taken hostage in Gaza... It must be asked: where is the outrage? Where is the revulsion? Where is the rejection? Where is the explicit condemnation of these horrors?” The UAE stated that Hamas’s barbaric and heinous crimes against civilians can never justify the policy of collective punishment towards the Gaza Strip and demanded to cancel the order to evacuate more than 1 million people from northern to southern Gaza. Brazil, France, the UK and the US counted their civilians among the people killed and abducted by Hamas. Albania, France and Malta, the UK and the US supported Israel's right to self-defense, while respecting international law. France and Malta emphasized the distinction between Hamas and the Palestinian people. Japan called to protect medical and humanitarian personnel.

  2. It may also be useful to refer to Security Council members' statements addressing other acts of terrorism and abduction of civilians. On 10 October 2023, the Security Council held a meeting on Iraq. The UAE called for the complete disarmament of ISIS/Da'esh. Switzerland and the UK called for atrocities committed by the group not to go unpunished.


References in Security Council outcomes (not verbatim) [187 words]

  1. In the same vein, the Security Council conveyed a consensus on terrorism in its previous Presidential Statements addressing other groups. On 29 May 2015, the Security Council reaffirmed in its Presidential Statement that "terrorism in all forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security and that any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable regardless of their motivations, whenever and by whomsoever committed." On 19 January 2015, the Security Council used similar words in another Presidential Statement. It also expressed its deep sympathy and condolences to the families of the victims of Boko Haram; strongly condemned and deplored all its human rights abuses and violations of IHL, listed in detail; demanded that the group immediately and unequivocally cease all hostilities and human rights abuses and IHL violations and disarm; demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all those abducted; reiterated the primary responsibility of Member States to protect civilian populations on their territories, in accordance with their obligations under international law; and underlined the need to bring perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors of these reprehensible acts of terrorism to justice.


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