Video: From Dialogue to Accountability: The Struggle to Implement Rights in Israel/Palestine

June 16, 2021
Video: From Dialogue to Accountability: The Struggle to Implement Rights in Israel/Palestine
"From Dialogue to Accountability" took place June 16, 2021.

On June 16, 2021, the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights hosted its third webinar in its latest series focused on health, human rights, and the pursuit of accountability in the overall context of Israel/Palestine.

Centering on the recent attacks on the Gaza Strip, panelists discussed the context, challenges, and urgent action for health and human rights accountability. The organizations represented in this discussion are involved in the daily pursuits of justice in Israel/Palestine. Speakers include Beth Oppenheim, Ghada Majadle, Nuriya Oswald and Suhad Bishara. The conversation was moderated by Harvard University's David Mills.

This event was co-sponsored by Religion and Public Life’s Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative (RCPI) at Harvard Divinity School.

Full transcript:

David Mills: Excellent. I think we'll get started now. So I just want to say, good afternoon and good morning to everyone. I want to welcome everyone to the third panel discussion in our FXB series on health and human rights in Israel and Palestine. We have a distinguished group of panelists from an array of Palestinian and Israeli health and human rights organizations here to speak with us about their efforts to seek human rights accountability in the aftermath of the recent attacks on the Gaza Strip. 

My name is David Mills. I'll be the moderator today. I'll keep the introductions brief to allow the most time for our speakers to engage in discussion. 

Nuriya Oswald is the Director of international legal and advocacy work at the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights in the Gaza Strip. Ghada Majadli is the Director of the Occupied Palestinian Territories department at Physicians for Human Rights Israel. Beth Oppenheim is a Director of International Relations at Gisha, the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement. And Suhad Bishara is a lawyer and Director of the Land and Planning Rights unit at the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. 

So thank you all for being here. Just to lay some of the groundwork, each panelist will be posed a question and will speak for about 10 minutes. We'll finish up with a 20-minute question and answer session. 

And to give a framework of the discussion-- so in the next hour, we'll discuss the concept of accountability in the context of the recent attacks on the Gaza Strip. And we'll also discuss how we move from discourse that seeks accountability for violations of human rights to utilizing mechanisms, both domestically and internationally, to deliver on accountability and justice. And in this forum, specifically, as it relates to the health of Palestinians. 

And so with that in mind, let's start the discussion. So Ghada, would you be able to give us a contextual background to the state of health in the Gaza Strip prior to the attacks? And then, can you also elaborate on the short and long-term impacts of the attacks on Palestinian health? 

Ghada Majadle: Yeah. OK, so hi, everyone. And I want to first thank you for organizing this panel. And I'm happy to be here today. 

Without any delay, I will start, because it's only 10 minutes. And I want to say that the health crisis in the Gaza Strip has emerged years before the recent attack and the COVID 19 crisis. Prior to the current attack in the Gaza Strip, the health care system was in a chronic state of crisis and de-development, mainly as a result of restrictions imposed by Israel under the economic siege and blockade on the Gaza Strip. Some of these restrictions were restrictions on the movement of medical teams and the passage of medical equipment and items, in addition to repeated damage to the medical infrastructure by Israeli military assaults such as the one we witnessed in 2014. All of this, combined with poor public health conditions, such as the density and the water crisis. 

This state of health was manifested in a shortage of medical equipment which made it impossible to treat patients with specific medical problems, such as cancer patients, in addition to shortage in medicine, in manpower, and in medical expertise. These shortages resulted, of course, among other things, in referring an estimated 9,000 patients a year to hospitals outside of Gaza. Also resulted in a burden on local hospitals and inconsistent and ineffective treatment of patients. 

To this we add the Israeli permit regime and Israel's control over checkpoints. Thus, also, the management of passage of Palestinians within the fragmented Palestinian territories. This affected the health of Palestinians in two main ways. The first one, it caused limited access to medical care, as advanced Palestinian hospitals are located in annexed East Jerusalem. And the second one is creating a fragmented health care system that was forced to duplicate health services in the Gaza Strip, in East Jerusalem, and in the West Bank, to be scattered across as wide a geographical distribution as possible. 

So we can argue that the health care system in Gaza has been challenged and has been struggling to meet the needs of the local population over a decade now as a result of Israel's control over the Palestinian economy, national resources, social determinants of health, and checkpoints and passage of people. And just to demonstrate the dire condition of health in the OPT, including Gaza, one of the examples for the striking gap between health among Palestinians and Israelis is the average life expectancy of Palestinians, which, in 2018, was 75.9, a gap of nearly 10 years compared to the life expectancy in Israel. Another example is the infant mortality rate, which stood at 12.8 per 1,000 births, much higher than in Israel, which was 3.1 per 1,000 births in the same year. 

So it is important to remember that many of the limitations and restrictions that Israel has been imposing on the health system in Gaza and the distress experienced by Gazans have been ongoing and intensifying for 15 years now since the blockade. Right now, we are in a situation where to the challenges that have existed for years has been added the war in 2014, the 2018 Great March of Return, where Israel severely wounded about 30,000 of protesters and traumatized hundred of thousand, resulting in a tremendous load in the entire health care system. Then, we had the corona crisis, which has brought the system to the edge of the capacity limit, and the last attack on infrastructure, on civilian targets, and on medical facilities, which, naturally and unfortunately, exacerbated the crisis. 

In the couple of minutes left, I will try to cover the health state during the pandemic and the damages we witnessed in the recent attack. So what happened during the COVID-19 crisis is that the health ministry in Gaza called consistently for assistance from international community, even to secure basic supplies such as gloves and masks. We saw that the hospitals in Gaza reached full capacity. And even more, we saw increased infections among health teams in the last five weeks in Gaza, an increase in corona death toll, the highest since the outbreak of COVID-19. And also, an increase in critical cases hospitalized in hospitals in Gaza. And in terms of the vaccines, less than 5% of the population at risk were fully vaccinated in Gaza. 

So the health teams had to handle the Israeli aggression while still struggling with all of this. Nothing has changed. During the last attack, we witnessed attacks on civilians, on health care facilities and health care workers. 

Israel bombed the main roads that lead to the large hospitals in Gaza, Al-Shifa Hospital, and damaged health infrastructure. Israeli air strikes on civilians killed health care professionals, including Dr. Ayman Abu al-Ouf, the head of the Internal Medicine department and the coronavirus response at Al-Shifa Hospital and Dr. Mooein Ahmad Al-Aloul. And he was one of the few neurologists in Gaza. And as I said, many expertise lack in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, Israel targeted health facilities, including the only COVID-19 testing laboratory in Gaza. 

So in terms of infrastructure, they were largely damage as a result of direct and indirect bombings. And this delayed the ability of medical staff, including the emergency crews, to perform life-saving operations and to evacuate injured. We heard that some families waited for seven hours to be evacuated, and some died while awaiting. 

This attack on medical infrastructure brings severe damage to the public health infrastructure. In addition, at a certain point during the attack, some 800,000 people had no regular access to safe drinking water. The harm inflicted upon infrastructure will have a huge impact on COVID-19 state in Gaza. We've seen thousands of displaced person concentrated on [INAUDIBLE] schools and in host families, making it impossible to maintain social distance and even more difficult to maintain hygiene measures that require effective coping with COVID-19. 

I know that I have only one minute left. So I want to say something about patients in the Gaza Strip. As I mentioned at the beginning about the referrals of patients outside of Gaza, it is important to note that the restrictions placed on patients' movement were deepened since the outbreak of the coronavirus. And the option to leave the strip during the last attack was completely blocked and has not yet returned to normal. 

We at PHR-I had to petition the Supreme Court to overturn the decision of Minister of Defense Benny Gantz to allow the exit, without any delays, for patients in need to access an available medical care in Gaza. And it should be also noted that the burden of the wounded-- and we have some 2,000 wounded and injured in Gaza now-- also exacerbated the crisis. Thank you. 

David Mills: Great. Thank you, Ghada. I think it's really helpful the way you have given that contextual analysis. 

And I think it's helpful for us to understand how, off of some of your points, the health outcomes of Palestinians, as you mentioned, are very much structural. Occupation, siege resulting in a limited freedom of movement and de-development, these targeted attacks on health. And also, how those descriptions that you've mentioned have played out multiple times over the past 10, 15 years. 

So I'll turn to Beth. And Beth, can you discuss how we can contextualize those recent attacks in the setting of the 14-year blockade, limited freedom of movement, and multiple devastating attacks on the Gaza Strip over the past 10 years? And then, if you have time, would you be able to comment on the lens in which the international community views the Gaza Strip and Israel and what needs to be done to potentially reframe some of those current understandings? 

Beth Oppenheim: So thanks a lot, David. And I think for many of us, unfortunately, this feels like a familiar lapse back into cycles of violence. And now, the cycles of destruction and reconstruction that we find ourselves in. 

I think it's important to say that the recent escalation with Gaza really can't be divorced from the bigger political context of the conflict. And of course, that broader context is, as you mentioned, this 14-year-long suffocating closure on Gaza. It's West Bank settlement expansion, home demolitions-- including, of course, in East Jerusalem, which was one of the main triggers for the recent escalation-- toleration of settler violence, and of course, also, discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

And that was one distinctive feature of the latest escalation, was that we saw, also, unrest, violence, discrimination taking place very, very, very violently before our eyes inside Israel itself. So all of these factors came together in the recent escalation, and shows just how connected what happens in the West Bank, what happens inside Israel itself, is to what happens in Gaza too, despite Israel's attempt to try to separate Gaza from the rest of the Palestinian territory and to fragment the Palestinian territory into these distinct parts through the way that it treats them differently in terms of movement restrictions, legal treatment, et cetera. I won't go too much into the detail of the situation now, because I think Ghada already covered some of it. 

But I will just say in brief that the closure has grown more hermetic still. Of course, over the last year, during the pandemic, Israel has been imposing what it calls a coronavirus closure on Gaza. And that already comes on top of the existing closure. 

And following the escalation, things have being closed down further still, as you can imagine. We have very limited entry of goods. There are no construction materials entering. There is no diesel for Gaza's only power plant. No goods are exiting. 

So of course, the economy is in tatters. And the fishing zone is being restricted down to six nautical miles. And movement of people is pretty much at a standstill. 

The whole closure itself is, basically, a tool of political pressure that Israel uses. Or at least that's how it was conceived following the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas in 2007. Israel has imposed movement restrictions on Gaza even before that. But the most stringent ones came into place in 2007. And Israel began this process that it continues up until this day of, basically, expanding and contracting access to and from Gaza, calibrating it in response to its political goals. And that forms part of frequent negotiations with Hamas, which, of course, is the de facto governing authority in Gaza since 2007. 

And so Israel has a very stringent permit regime-- military permit regime-- through which it controls movement of people to and from Gaza and, more broadly, across the Palestinian territory as a whole. It's important to say that the closure as a whole is illegal under international law because, of course, it punishes civilians for acts that they haven't committed, and it amounts to collective punishment. And on top of that, we also see other punitive measures in place. So things like revoking permits, closing crossings-- which is something that we have pursued during this recent escalation and hasn't been restored, as I mentioned-- and also, the fishing zone. 

Why is Israel relevant or responsible? So Gisha was founded back in 2005, following Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip-- or so-called. So after Israel pulled its army, it pulled its settlers out of the Gaza Strip, that led to this myth that developed that has become very, very powerful. 

While successive Israeli governments have basically sought to blur Israel's legal responsibilities towards Gaza in particular, but also the Palestinian territory more broadly, during the recent escalation, we had Netanyahu and others threatening to reoccupy Gaza. Which, to those of us who are working in human rights organizations or legal organizations, is quite ridiculous, because our position is that although Israel may have pulled out its army and its settlers, it remains what you might want to call a disengaged occupier. So Israel continues to exercise control over nearly every aspect of life in Gaza via its control every movement and access. 

So Israel controls land via the crossings at Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings. It controls sea and air access. It controls who and what can come in and out of Gaza, as that applies to goods and people. 

It even controls Gaza's airspace. It controls the electromagnetic frequency, keeping Gaza on 2G. It doesn't allow the building of an airport, seaport, et cetera. 

The role of Egypt is significant, but less, given that Egypt is not an occupying power. Of course, there is the Rafah crossing and a small gate for goods through which goods can enter. But it's not an official crossing for goods. And it's significantly smaller. 

And of course the, Israeli crossing is the only access point directly to the West Bank. So it's very, very important. And Israel is the occupying power, unlike Egypt. 

So as the occupying power and because of the level of control it exerts, Israel has obligations. And we know that, of course, Israel denies these obligations. And we see that playing out all the time. 

So it's something that's very alive at the moment with the issue of reconstruction. It's something that has been very alive during the pandemic with the issue of the vaccine. So Israel should be meeting the population's humanitarian needs, protecting human rights, and, to the greatest extent possible, preserving normal civilian life in Gaza and in the OPT more broadly. 

We know that Israel does quite the opposite. And it does that under the broad rubric of security. So to speak briefly about the Israeli perspective on Gaza, of course, it's not a monolith. And also, the international perspective. 

So when it comes to the Israeli authorities, the military authority, COGAT, that is responsible for administering the occupied territory. The lens through which Gaza is viewed is, of course, primarily security. And it's not just the military authority that takes this position. It's also a very broad position that's taken in the highest political echelons as well. 

Israel doesn't see Gaza as occupied anymore. It doesn't acknowledge that the scope of Israeli control engenders responsibility. It takes a very, very minimalistic interpretation of its obligations towards Gaza, one that is a very lonely position in the international arena. There's a broad international consensus that Gaza is still occupied and Israel still has obligations, therefore. 

There has been some interesting differences of opinion in the past when it comes to Israel's defense establishment, who have been more willing to advocate for easings of the closure. Because particularly post-2014, the 2014 war, that was a sense that the dire socioeconomic situation inside Gaza was not conducive to Israeli security or to stability. So there were these quiet easing measures that were going on as a result of negotiations. 

I think, unfortunately, that we're hearing is that the perspective has somewhat hardened since the recent escalation. There's a sense of going back to this idea of-- not really back to-- but, again, reinforcing this idea of punishment, the idea of using the stick. Hence the ban on the entry of diesel for the power plants still and a desire to maybe pare back even more in terms of access. 

It doesn't work. We've seen it before. It drives people into dire humanitarian conditions. It, of course, violates human rights. 

But this is the strategy that we see, time and again, Israel returning to, trying to posture to be tough towards Gaza. How it will work out with the new government, we don't know. But we're seeing it now with the issue of reconstruction of Gaza, where instead of being seen as a basic right, it's becoming a political football. 

Israel wants to make it conditional, for example, on the return of bodies that are being held in Gaza, and soldiers. So basically, to try and make these fundamental rights and obligations that Israel has towards Gaza conditional on political agreements. So of course, this is something that we're calling out strongly. 

And just before I finish, I think it's also important to mention briefly that the closure of Gaza has been justified for so long under this rubric of security. And of course, Israel has legitimate security concerns that can't be denied. And as well, as the occupying power, has the right and the responsibility also to protect its own civilians. 

But the closure of Gaza is not just about security. As I mentioned briefly earlier, there were also political drivers of this. So deliberately keeping Gaza isolated, Israeli politicians and officials quite openly referred to what they call a separation policy. 

We see officials basically saying that having Hamas in power is actually quite convenient for them. It suits everyone because there's no need to engage. There's no need to talk to them. And you can keep Gaza quite separate. 

And of course, we see what happens in the West Bank with Israel's strategy there, which is to try to take maximum land but to keep minimum Palestinians in order not to threaten Israel's demographic balance of Jewish majority. And so the issue also with Gaza is to be able to keep two million Palestinians closed in and make it very difficult for them to be able to, say, access the West Bank. We know from our legal work that it's very difficult for people to actually move to the West Bank. But it's much easier for people in the West Bank to move to Gaza. So we see that the permit regime is set up very deliberately in one direction and one direction only. 

There's a real issue also with the international community and the way in which the international community views Gaza, which is, primarily, often through a humanitarian lens. And also, through a security lens. I think there's a sense that it's easier to engage at a humanitarian level. But perhaps development and sustainable economic activity is seen as too difficult and not practical. 

But of course, we know that these cycles of humanitarian response, much as it's necessary and it's important, is not sufficient. People need dignity. People need opportunity. People need sustainable economic activity. 

These are their fundamental rights. These are Israel's obligations. So of course, Gaza is not economically viable in its current state because of the restrictions Israel puts on it, the limitations on resources, and so on. 

So I think there needs to be a re-framing in terms of both the Israeli perspective and also the way in which internationals respond to that. So rather than co-opting Israel's language around security, internationals need to think about what are their foundational values, what are their policy goals when it comes to, say, Palestinian territorial continuity, and to hold dear to those values and to challenge Israel when it comes to these sweeping security narratives. And I think it's important to say that Israel is a very integrated member of the international community. 

It has diplomatic support. It has deep trade links with Europe, with the US, military aid, cooperation, defense ties, intelligence ties, R&D, et cetera. And those things come with obligations and rules and responsibilities. And so it's up to the international community to hold Israel to account for those obligations, not just to provide incentives and hope that something will change. So I'll stop there. Thanks. 

David Mills: Great. Thank you, Beth. I think that was, again, a really nice analysis of just to understand what the situation is like in Gaza right now. 

And I wanted to explore a little bit more the idea of those legal obligations after 2005 in regards to the responsibilities of occupation and what that means for human rights accountability. So I'll turn it to Suhad. I wanted to ask you about the challenges of working within Israel's domestic legal system while defending the human rights of Palestinians in Gaza, and how do those, as Beth has mentioned, those blurred legal obligations affect that work. And then, also, can you give us a little bit of an idea of what conclusions we can draw from your work in regards to the utility of domestic investigations of accountability? 

Suhad Bishara: Yeah. Thank you, David. Thank you for having me and organizing this webinar. 

I will start from the conclusion, and then elaborate along the way. And after many years of experience in Adalah, like many other human rights organizations, we all have reached the conclusion that Israel's system of investigation for investigating suspected international law violations by its military is unfit for purpose and falls far short of compliance with international standards of independence, impartiality, effectiveness, promptness, and transparency. And the chronic failure of its investigatory system allows illegal conduct by agents of the Israeli military and state agencies in general to continue with a wide margin of impunity. And this has been systematic and ongoing since the beginning of the occupation, but I will give a few examples, starting with the Gaza war in 2014, named by Israel Operation Protective Edge. 

According to official UN reports, during the attacks-- was around 51 days-- killed thousands of Palestinians. And most of them-- I mean, the vast majority of them-- were civilians, including hundreds of women and children. And injury of thousands more. 

And now, following many complaints filed by several human rights organizations demanding to open an investigation into violations of IHL-- International Human Rights Law-- and international criminal law. And according to the Israeli military, they received 500 complaints relating to around 360 what they call exceptional incidents alleged to have occurred during the operation. And the latest data that the military advocacy general provided on these complaints was in August 2018. 

Clearly, indicates that Israel is not conducting any effective investigations or prosecuting perpetrators to grave international humanitarian and criminal law violations. Most cases, according to the MAG latest update from 2018, again, were closed without an investigation being conducted at all into incidents that resulted into the death of civilians and the massive destruction of civilian objects. In the very few cases in which the MAG did order an investigation, there is no evidence that steps were taken with regard to any suspects in accordance with international laws data. 

According to that data provided by the MAG, it seems that they investigated only 8.6% of the exceptional incidents. Only one case led to indictment. This is a case concerning looting. No cases of gravity involving civilian casualties or the destruction of civilian objects led to any kind of criminal or even disciplinary proceedings against those involved. And again, up until now, we have no indication that things have changed or further investigations took place along the years. 

Now, there failures continued systematically until the Great March of Return and the military's killing of Palestinian civilians, protesters, in 2018. These marches or demonstrations took place every Friday since the end of March, 2018, until the end of the year. And from the first week onward, the Israeli military responded to these civilian protesters with excessive and often lethal force. 

We are talking about over 217 Palestinians that were killed. Many of them are children. Some of them are women. And over 19,000 persons were wounded. Thousands of them are children. Hundreds of them are women. 

Now, this time, we, as human rights organization, decided to work in a different strategy. And a few weeks after the demonstrations started and after we saw what is happening on the ground, we decided to submit an urgent petition to the Israeli Supreme Court in April 2018-- that was maybe two, three weeks of the beginning of the Great March of Return-- demanding, basically, that the court order the Israeli military to cease using snipers, live ammunition, and lethal force to disperse the protesters. We argued, basically, that the rules of engagement employed by the Israeli military which authorized the deadly open fire policy against the protesters were excessive and illegal. 

In May, 2018, a few weeks after we filed the petition, the Israeli Supreme Court unanimously rejected the petition, thereby sanctioning the Israeli military's continued use of snipers and live fire against Palestinian protesters. And it failed to interfere and provide legal accountability or any other remedy to the victim. The court neither ordered the military to reexamine its rules of engagement, nor to open a criminal investigation into any of the killings or injuries. Rather, the court fully adopted the state/military position as advanced during the legal procedures. Thereby, the court suspended the applicability of the relevant law and created a black hole, which means full immunity to the illegal actions that took place against the demonstrators. 

And contrary to the Supreme Court, in 2018, the inquiry committee nominated by the UN into the events and human rights violations in the OPTs, they investigated 189 fatalities and tracked more than 300 injuries. And the commission found that with the exception until that date of two incidents, there is reasonable grounds to believe that in all other cases, the use of live ammunition by Israeli security forces against the demonstrators was unlawful. They talk about less-lethal alternatives that remained available and not used by the Israeli soldiers. The commission found reasonable grounds to believe that the demonstrators were shot in violation of the right to life and of the principle of distinction under international humanitarian law. And of course, as also expected, the commission concluded that the government of Israel has continuously failed to meaningfully investigate and prosecute commanders, soldiers, for crimes and violations committed against Palestinians, and to provide repatriation to victims in accordance with international norms. 

And the latest attacks on Gaza, we have no reason to believe that Israel, unfortunately, will behave differently this time. And we have no doubt that Israel will continue with its unwillingness to investigate. This time, attributing to this doubt the two main reasons-- or 3. 

One is because, again, it's a continuous, systematic way of the system. This is how the system functions. The system is designed not to investigate. It's designed to give immunity and lack of accountability. 

Second, because of the nature of the operation, we are talking about, mainly, air strikes and the high level of commanders that would be investigated if such an investigation would be launch. And the third is the prime minister's-- Netanyahu back then-- in the middle of the attacks, where he stressed, again, that they are attacking forcefully, and they will continue to attack and respond forcefully. Which leaves no doubt that the state of Israel is not at all willing to open a criminal investigation into the suspicions of violation of laws of war, including killing and injuries of civilians and targeting civilian objects. 

And this is why we think that it is very important that the international community should step in. And we are, basically, pressing the need for international actors to step in and provide remedies and accountability for the Palestinian victims, who are, currently and systematically, being denied by Israel any kind of accountability and justice. I think I will stop here. And then, maybe, during the Q&A, will be able to elaborate. 

David Mills: Great. Thank you, Suhad. From your analysis, it seems fairly clear that you feel that there is somewhat of a futility of domestic investigations with regards to accountability. And so with that in our mind, I wanted to ask Nuriya, can you describe the experience of Al Mezan in pursuing international mechanisms of human rights accountability in the Gaza Strip? And how does that compare to what Suhad just mentioned to us regarding domestic investigations? 

Nuriya Oswald: Thanks, David. Absolutely. So the impunity that Israel grants itself domestically that Suhad just described has so far been extended to the international level. Namely, the level of the UN, EU, third states, ICC. Of course, there are other bodies. But those are the main bodies that Al Mezan is engaged with. 

But whereas Israel's domestic investigative mechanism is designed to deliver impunity, the international arena is not. The international mechanisms are designed to function in contexts exactly like the one in Palestine. But the common link between the two and the reason that both are, so far, ineffective comes down to the role of the international community. In particular, the US and most European states, which-- A-- don't require that Israel hold itself accountable, and then-- B-- also don't support the use of international justice mechanisms to hold Israel to account. And this either cripples those mechanisms or greatly undermines them. 

A few weeks ago, the UN Human Rights Council voted on a resolution to mandate another commission of inquiry. The geographic scope was different in this one, including Israel. And it's an important commission of inquiry because it's mandated to investigate not just one bombardment, but to investigate root causes of the recurrent violations and continuous violence. 

And not one EU member state that that has voting rights at the council supported the resolution. The US isn't a member of the Human Rights Council right now. But I looked back to 2006, and the US has consistently also voted against resolutions under Agenda Item 7, which concerns Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territory. 

Palestine's accession to the Rome Statute in 2015 was not welcomed by the EU, with the exception of Sweden and Finland. And this contrasts the longstanding EU practice of welcoming all third state accession to the court. In 2020, the Trump administration issued an executive order that led to sanctions on two high-level officials from the ICC, including the prosecutor of the court, because of their examination of the situation in Palestine, including, also, their work in Afghanistan. And the Biden administration only repealed the executive order three months into his presidency, and only while, "continuing to disagree with the court's actions on Palestine." 

In February of this year, when the ICC's pre-trial chamber ruled in favor of jurisdiction in Palestine, Germany, for example, publicly objected to the ruling of the independent court. Hungary as well. Then, after the opening of the investigation by the ICC was confirmed, it was in April that the UK prime minister publicly opposed the investigation, attempting to undermine an international criminal investigation. 

And then, back to the UN. In May, during the 11-day escalation, the Biden administration blocked a proposed statement by the Security Council that would have condemned the violence in Gaza and called for a cease fire. And there are many more examples of this double standard being applied between other contexts, and then, Palestine. And it's very clear that Palestine is being exceptionalized for international justice. And this is the case despite, for example, the fact that EU and EU member states have repeatedly stressed publicly-- and then, of course, in bilateral meetings with us-- that accountability is a cornerstone for peace and security in the region. 

So states call for accountability. But then, they conversely fail to support efforts at any of the fora that have a viable chance of bringing some form of accountability. And states, for the most part, then fall back on recommending accountability coming from Israel's domestic mechanism. But of course, as Suhad described, the need to pursue justice internationally is very much borne out of the results of Israel's domestic system. 

And yet, we saw, recently, Secretary of State Blinken responding to representative Ilhan Omar's comment-- or question, sorry-- in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that, indeed, Palestinians should look for justice within Israel's system. And we would-- at least, I would-- be happy if Israel's system did indeed serve to hold government leaders to account, military commanders to account. But for over two decades, Al Mezan has been documenting violations committed by all parties on the ground. And then, for much of that time, we've been engaging in good faith with the Israeli investigative mechanisms with the aim of facilitating access to victims' rights. 

And the output has always been the same. It's been impunity. The system is indeed built to deliver impunity at every different level. And this is not just on an individual case level, but it's on the macro level. And it's not just due to the output of the system, but it's within the structure and the mandate itself. 

So for the 2014 bombardment, just to reiterate that there were zero prosecutions for killing or injury, for serious crimes. For the Great March of Return demonstrations, there was just one conviction. And it was actually into a case that Al Mezan brought. 

It was for the killing of a child by an Israeli soldier. And the sentence was woefully inadequate. It was just another form of impunity. The soldier got a 30-day prison sentence to be served through military-related labor. This is for the killing of an unarmed child. 

For daily incidents, there was another very rare prosecution. It was in the last few years. Again, in one of Al Mezan's cases. And it was for the shooting of a fisherman while he fished on the shore in Gaza. And again, a derisory verdict in the form of a disciplinary charge and punishment that is akin to community service. 

And then, fundamentally, the system is not geared toward investigating policies like Israel's policy of targeting family homes. So we saw this most prominently in the 2014 bombardment, when families were being systematically targeted in their homes and whole families were being wiped out. And then, this policy resurfaced in the 11-day bombardment in May. 

Also, crucially, the Israeli investigative mechanism lacks independence and impartiality. So the Military Advocate General's office is tasked with overseeing the planning of military operations, and then deciding whether or not a case should be prosecuted. And so the system really just doesn't function to deliver justice. 

Instead, it's used as a PR mechanism for Israel to say, look, we have a system that is processing cases. It is active. We don't need the commission of inquiry. We don't need the ICC investigation. We're holding ourselves to account. 

Of course that's really not the case. So Al Mezan has information. We monitor and document incidents and possible violations of international law on a daily basis. 

And we do so both of incidents relating to Israel, the occupying power. And of course, the occupying power, as you heard from my colleagues already, has a certain set of obligations under international law. But we also monitor and document violations and incidents by all parties. So by the Palestinian authorities present in Gaza as well. 

And our only option, then, is to bring that information internationally. The only hope for redress and justice for the thousands of Palestinian victims of the several Israeli military operations in Gaza is international accountability. And despite the lack of political will to support international justice mechanisms, as I've described, there is still progress. 

Madam Bensouda at the ICC didn't bow to political pressure. And the pressure was immense on her, and personal. And as I'm sure most of you are aware, the investigation into the situation in Palestine is now underway as of a few months ago. And today, actually, the new prosecutor took office. And Al Mezan expects the appropriate resources to be dedicated by his office to the situation in Palestine. 

As I mentioned in the beginning, there's a new commission of inquiry that will be conducting an investigation, albeit without the support of the EU. But this is an important investigation because it's going to look at root causes, as I said. So it will look at systemic discrimination and oppression in addition to looking at the 11-day bombardment in Gaza. 

And it's crucial. Because when Al Mezan talks about accountability, we don't just mean for military bombardments in Gaza. We're demanding accountability for the crimes against humanity of persecution and apartheid as well. And we're demanding that the root causes of this conflict be addressed, and for victims to receive justice. I hope we can discuss this more in the Q&A. Thanks very much. 

David Mills: Great. Thank you, Nuriya. That was very helpful to get a good understanding of the challenges of utilizing the international mechanisms for human rights accountability. We have about 10 minutes left. And I wanted to pose a few questions to the group that is now looking forward on the future of health and human rights accountability in the Gaza Strip and in Palestine in general. 

The first question that I have-- and I'll throw this out to the group-- is, how is the evolving discourse in mainstream spaces advancing the conversation in the political and legal realms? Or are we still stagnant? And if you are able to comment, it would be great if you could also comment on the changing political environments in Israel, Palestine, and internationally, and if that's contributing to this conversation. Nuriya, feel free to unmute and go ahead. 

Nuriya Oswald: Thanks, David. So I would say that one of the most important evolutions in discourse within mainstream spaces in recent months came when Israeli and international organizations began discussing apartheid. Of course, Palestinian organizations had, for decades, been describing Israel as an apartheid state. And this is because of Israel's laws, policies, and practices that affect Palestinians in the OPT, in Israel, in the diaspora, and as refugees, how these laws, policies, and practices are aimed at imposing and maintaining a settler colonial regime, and one that's based on domination and oppression over Palestinians. 

But it's not a Palestinian organization saying that that catches the attention of the international community. It's Israeli and international organizations that can change the conversation. And we very much welcome the step by B'Tselem and Human Rights Watch in particular. And what these organizations are doing is simply applying to the context the relevant and appropriate legal terminology. Al Mezan, we've been doing our own work to analyze and understand how the particularities of Israel's closure of Gaza, its military force, how its justice system is applied-- specifically, through legislation to Palestinians in Gaza-- how Israel's water domination as it relates to Gaza, selective vaccine application, movement restrictions, everything that my colleagues have just described, denial of adequate health care, destruction of family life, what all of that means under the apartheid legal system. 

So we very much acknowledge that Israel's regime is just one apartheid system, but that it applies to all Palestinians, but that Palestinians, through the fragmentation that Beth described, are treated differently in different parts of Palestine and in Israel and abroad. And so we're working on analyzing the particularities of how apartheid is applied to Palestinians in Gaza. And this is crucially important overall, for apartheid to be addressed. 

Because as I'm sure you're aware, the international community has failed to recognize Israel as a settler colonial state and as an apartheid regime. And this is what has extended the conflict, of course, with impunity very deeply embedded within this system. But it is this system. It is the main driver of the conflict. 

So we'll continue to push the ICC to investigate both the crime against humanity of persecution and also the crime against humanity of apartheid. And in any case, this is a crucially important conversation, because we have to get the basics right. We have to call a spade a spade. And we have to apply the correct legal definitions. 

David Mills: Thank you, Nuriya. Does anyone else want to tackle this question? OK, I'll move on to the second question in this. We have about five minutes left. What do you think is the way forward in the pursuit for accountability and justice? And especially for this audience, when thinking about the roles and responsibilities of international actors or third states? 

Suhad Bishara: OK. Obviously, since we are talking about an international dispute and international law is the main legal framework here, there is a great importance to promote the international rule of law. And it should fall within the interests of international community or international community that the rule of law speaks to them nationally and internationally. 

And the situation described through this webinar triggers obligations of third states under international law deriving, in part, from international humanitarian law. More specifically, Article I of the fourth Geneva Convention-- that entails the obligation of state parties to the convention to respect and ensure respect for the convention in all circumstances, not only that the disputed party, but all parties to the convention as well as something called Articles on the Responsibility of State for Internationally Wrongful Acts-- also puts an obligation on third parties in this regard. And it's of great importance, because it obligates the states to cooperate to bring an end to unlawful situation amounting to a violation of fundamental overriding principles of international law, not to recognize an unlawful situation, and not to render aid or assistance in maintaining an unlawful situation. 

And this is-- most countries are parties to the Geneva Convention. These rules are part of the international customary law. So it should be binding on everyone, regardless. 

And although the UN bodies-- EU, US-- have raised concerns about the situation in Gaza and in general, the occupied territories-- more specifically, targeting civilian population in Gaza in recent attacks and previous ones-- up to this date, nothing has actually been done beyond raising concern. In best case scenario, condemning in some place or another, but nothing more. But it seems that also within this framework, not much is being done in terms of the obligations of third state parties. 

Of course, there always will be claims of there is some kind of margins of action, including the right of Israel to defend itself, how other states perceive what's happening on the ground beyond the condemnation and raising the concern. But definitely, much more should be done in terms of third states' obligations under international law in this regard. Otherwise, impunity will lead, at some point, to a change in the game and in the rules. And I don't think anyone in the international community wants to see that in any way. 

David Mills: Thank you, Suhad. We have one more minute. Does anyone else want to comment on this? 

Beth Oppenheim: If I could just add, briefly, to follow up with what Suhad said. I think there's also a problem in terms of the responsibility that the international community sometimes takes on insofar as they don't push Israel to meet its obligations. Which, I think, is what Suhad is saying, that third states have an obligation to prevent violations of international law by actors within the full extent of their power to do so. And of course, the international community is not doing that. 

And in some ways, it's actually abetting some of these violations in the sense that it's not pushing Israel to meet its obligations. And if you take, for example, humanitarian access to Gaza, of course, there's an important role for the international community to play there. But to provide humanitarian assistance without also putting proper pressure on Israel to meet its obligations as the primary duty bearer and the occupying power, it's basically relieving is one of those obligations. And that's not a long term strategy. So it can't just be about emergency humanitarian assistance. There needs to be pressure on Israel to meet its obligations, not relieving Israel of that pressure. 

And there are tools for that. Of course, we've touched on the ICC. There's also the bilateral relationships that Israel has. I mentioned earlier that it's embedded in the international community. 

It has, of course, this close relationship with the US, with EU member states. We didn't touch on the arms trade. But we know that Israel's arms trade with the US is very strong, and also with certain EU member states. Following this escalation there's been renewed scrutiny on whether those arms sales can continue if there is the evidence, as there is, that Israel are using those weapons to violate IHL. 

So that is the question on arms. There's the question on bilateral relations in terms of trade ties. There are a lot of tools in the toolbox to put pressure on Israel to meet its obligations. And the issue, of course, as ever is political will. 

If I could say one positive thing, I think that I hope and believe and can see that there has been a kind of upsurge in interest and attention and scrutiny on this issue following the recent escalation. We're seeing that there is pressure being applied to the Biden administration from inside Congress. There's an opening here. There's an interest. 

And I think it's really important to continue that pressure. And hopefully, we will see that there are shifts. I think there's much more openness in D.C. than any of us might have actually expected. So perhaps a change of light there. 

David Mills: Great. Thank you, Beth. I think that's the perfect way to end the discussion. I want to thank each of you again for taking your time to share your insights. And again, thank you, everyone, for joining us for this webinar. 

I just want to put out there as well that we will be continuing the conversations on topics related to health And human rights in Israel and Palestine this fall. So please stay tuned to the FXB Center's website for upcoming event information. But that's the end of the webinar. And again, thank you all for participating.