GENEVA - UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet has deplored Israel’s refusal to grant visas for her staff in the occupied Palestinian territory, according to a statement issued on Tuesday.
The development is occurring in a context where Israeli authorities are increasingly limiting what she called human rights “eyes and ears on the ground”.
Search for solutions
Although the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) in Palestine has been operating for 26 years, the 15 international staff there “had no choice but to leave” in 2020, said Ms. Bachelet.
“Subsequent requests for visas and visa renewals have gone unanswered for two years,” she added. “During this time, I have tried to find a solution to this situation, but Israel continues to refuse to engage.”
Ms. Bachelet reminded the Israeli authorities of their obligations as a UN Member State. Countries must cooperate in good faith with the UN and grant its officials the privileges and immunities necessary for them to independently exercise their functions.
This includes exempting UN officials from immigration restrictions and dealing with their visa applications as speedily as possible.
“Israel’s failure to process visa applications that are necessary for my staff’s access is inconsistent with these standards, and I call on the Government to meet its international obligations in this regard,” she said.
Expulsions and refusals rise
Referring to the current context, the human rights chief noted that a growing number of UN staff and mechanisms, non-governmental organisations, and others are being expelled or refused entry.
“Israel’s treatment of our staff is part of a wider and worrying trend to block human rights access to the occupied Palestinian territory,” she said. “This raises the question of what exactly the Israeli authorities are trying to hide.”
Killings and violence increase
Last year, Israeli Forces killed 320 Palestinians, a ten-fold increase over 2020, she reported. Troops also injured 17,042 people, or six times the 2020 figure.
Furthermore, the UN recorded the highest number of incidents of settler violence since recording began in 2017, while arrests of Palestinians doubled. So far this year, Israeli forces have killed at least 111 more Palestinians.
Commitment to deliver
Ms. Bachelet said despite the visa refusals, the Palestine Office is delivering on its mandated work in monitoring Israel’s compliance with its international human rights obligations and providing technical assistance.
“We publicly report on violations by Israel, but also on violations by the State of Palestine, by Hamas in Gaza and Palestinian armed groups. We also provide the principal support to the Palestinian Government to help it improve its compliance with international human rights obligations,” she said.
“We will continue to deliver on our mandate. And we will continue to demand access to the occupied Palestinian territory for our staff, in line with Israel’s obligations as a UN Member State.”
Protect and support Palestinian children
Although it is back-to-school time for some 1.3 million Palestinian boys and girls, they face challenges "many children across the world cannot imagine", a senior UN official said on Tuesday.
Lynn Hastings, UN Resident Humanitarian Coordinator in the occupied Palestinian territory, detailed how violence, violations, demolitions, and deprivation have had an impact on young lives in the West Bank and Gaza.
“Palestinian children hold in their hands the potential and drive to reimagine education, co-create new pathways for development, and transform their lives. They are tomorrow’s leaders. We must do more to protect and support them, as children must not be exposed to violence or exploited for any purpose,” she said.
Ms. Hastings reported that 20 children have been killed in the West Bank since the beginning of the year, compared to 12 during the same period in 2021.
Additionally, there are 56 outstanding demolition orders against schools where at least 6,400 children are taught in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
The UN has recorded 115 education-related violations in the first half of this year, which include direct or indirect firing of tear gas, stun grenades, and/or rubber-coated bullets, intimidating military and settler presences at schools, detentions, and movement restrictions preventing students from reaching their classes.
Overall, nearly 8,000 students have been impacted, increasing the risk they will drop out of school.
Seventeen children were killed during the latest escalation in Gaza, and schools are overcrowded, with 65 per cent operating on double shifts.
Ms. Hastings added that the conditions in Gaza for children, including having lived through four escalations in hostilities during their lifetime, increase the need for specialized psychosocial support services.
Despite the many challenges, she pointed to bright spots. The youth literacy rate among Palestinians is over 99 per cent, and nearly 94 per cent of children graduating from primary school go on to a secondary education.
“The United Nations wishes all children a successful and fun-filled year where their fundamental right to education is protected and realized by all. We remain committed to protect children from violence and support them to fullfill their potential,” she said.