Palestinian children play on the rubble of their family home demolished by Israel occupation forces in the East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood, on the pretext it lacked a virtually impossible to obtain permit, 26 October 2016. As Israel’s occupation passes 50 years, demolitions are hitting new records.
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which will exceed the 50-year mark in June, is “the main cause” of Palestinian humanitarian needs, the United Nations has affirmed.
“The occupation denies Palestinians control over basic aspects of daily life, whether they live in the Gaza Strip or in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem,” according to a report released Wednesday by the UN humanitarian coordination agency OCHA.
“At its heart, the crisis in the [occupied Palestinian territories] is one of a lack of protection for Palestinian civilians – from violence, from displacement, from restrictions on access to services and livelihoods, and from other rights violations – with a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable, children in particular,” OCHA head David Carden said.
That crisis is particularly acute right now in the Gaza Strip, where a lack of electricity, on top of a 10-year Israeli blockade and successive military assaults, has brought the territory to the brink of collapse.
Palestinians saw in 2016 the highest number of Israeli demolitions of homes and other structures since the UN began keeping records in 2009.
The number of donor-funded structures demolished was also unprecedented, nearly tripling from the previous year.
A total of 1,601 people were displaced due to all demolitions, about half of them children.
The majority lost their homes on the pretext that they were constructed without building permits from Israeli occupation authorities that are next to impossible for Palestinians to obtain.
But 156 people were made homeless by punitive demolitions or sealing.
In 2014, Israel resumed the practice of collectively punishing the entire family of a person accused of an attack against Israelis, a policy it has accelerated since then.
Israel’s policy of revenge against family members of accused persons is reserved exclusively for Palestinians and is never used against Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
Israel’s demolitions create “a coercive environment” leading to forced displacement and “forcible transfer,” the UN states.
Thousands of families still displaced
Meanwhile, reconstruction in Gaza continues to face major impediments.
By the end of 2016, only 22 percent of homes destroyed during Israel’s 2014 military assault that left more than 2,200 Palestinians dead had been rebuilt.
Nine thousand families – more than 47,000 people – remain displaced.
The UN says the quantity of cement allowed into Gaza is far short of the need, resulting in the ongoing suffering of these families.
Palestinians and international law experts have previously accused UN agencies of complicity in Israel’s illegal blockade, by participating in the so-called Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, through which Israel severely restricts the import of construction supplies.
Israel is also increasingly denying Palestinian employees with the UN and other aid organizations permission to enter Gaza. Almost a third of applicants were denied in 2016, up from just 4 percent the year before.
Palestinian fatalities in Gaza and the West Bank did decline in 2016. In the West Bank, 99 Palestinians were killed, the UN says, a third of them children. Thirty-six Palestinians were killed in the Hebron area and 26 in Jerusalem.
But the UN does not attribute this drop to any positive change in behavior by Israel, noting “concerns” that Israeli forces are still responsible for extrajudicial executions when Palestinians posed no threat.
“While the trends vary from one year to the next, the pervasive lack of protection and accountability for violations of international law remains,” OCHA’s Carden said.
The report also notes that Israeli authorities have failed to take any steps towards accountability for civilian deaths in Gaza three years on from the 2014 offensive: “Impunity denies victims and survivors the justice and redress they deserve, and prevents the deterrence of future violations.”
Earlier this year a report from another UN agency found “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Israel has imposed a system on the entire Palestinian people that meets the legal definition of apartheid – one of the major crimes listed in the founding statute of the International Criminal Court.
That report called for effective measures to compel Israel to respect Palestinian rights, including support for boycott, divestment and sanctions. Instead, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres quickly withdrew the report under pressure from the United States.
As the occupation enters its 51st year, there’s little sign that any governments – or the UN itself – take seriously their own obligations to end their complicity in Israel’s violations and begin to hold it accountable.