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Opening session of the 2024 Conference of Civil Society Organisations Working on the Question of Palestine

Meeting Summaries


CHEIKH NIANG, Permanent Representative of Senegal to the United Nations in New York and Chair of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, welcomed the attendees and the high-level speakers to the Conference, and noted the Conference aimed to gain the attention of civil society organizations from around the globe. Voices for peace and reason were so necessary in these times of painful polarisation.

NADA AL-NASHIF, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, in an opening statement to the conference, said this event took place in a harrowing context of unprecedented devastation. The killing of aid workers was not an isolated incident: as of 20 March, at least 196 humanitarians, including UN workers, had been killed in the OPT since October 2023. As a result of attacks on hospitals and medical personnel, Palestinian civilians were dying of disease and hunger, if not killed by bombs. The Israeli military response in Gaza to the Palestinian violations of international humanitarian law had been disproportionate, and there were evidence of war crimes. These actions had led to a horrific human toll – a staggering five per cent of the population, mostly women and children, had been killed. The bombardment had flattened civilian areas, making them effectively uninhabitable. Civilian infrastructure, protected under international law, had been destroyed. In Gaza, no one was safe: the collective punishment of the population by Israel was indiscriminate and against international law.

All violations of international humanitarian law must be properly investigated, and any crime must be punished. Today, with over 32,000 persons killed, more were dying from malnutrition and dehydration. This humanitarian catastrophe was entirely avoidable. A full-scale assault on Rafah must not take place. Israel was obligated to provide or facilitate the safe distribution of humanitarian aid to the population. Border crossings must be fully opened, and steps taken to ensure the free and fair distribution of humanitarian aid across Gaza and the free movement of humanitarian workers. The Security Council resolution 2728 was welcomed in this regard. The High Commissioner had also called for the immediate release of all hostages; they must be treated humanely and allowed to receive visits by the International Red Cross.

In the West Bank and Jerusalem, the drastic acceleration of Israeli settlements and increasing settler and State violence were worsening long-standing patterns of discrimination, oppression, and restrictions of movement, leading to the displacement of Palestinian communities. The 7 October attacks did not happen in a vacuum but took place after 60 years of suffering. There must be an end to the hostilities and to the conflict, with a genuine effort to ensure the Palestinian right to equality and non-discrimination. Equality must be ensured on all sides. In all efforts, the United Nations counted on civil society organizations, who had worked so tirelessly to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need. Civic space, already dwindling across Israel, had continued to shrink ever since the 7 October events, limiting the opportunities of individuals and the press to express themselves. Most civil society organizations in Gaza had lost their infrastructure and staff: these were huge blows to civil society. Funding to many of these organizations had either been frozen or was under review by donors; but this was not the time, instead the commitments should be redoubled. Gaza had now become the deadliest place for journalists in the world.

The importance of national and international civil society and of journalists were vital for truth, accountability, and future reconciliation. The Office of the High Commissioner would continue to support these and called upon all Member States to do all to support civil society and ensure that civil society actors were empowered to work for the achievement of all human rights for all, in Palestine and across the world.

CHEIKH NIANG, in his capacity as Chair of the Committee, said as Ramadan came to an end, there had been more than 32,000 Palestinians killed and many more injured in Gaza, the denial of humanitarian assistance, including water, causing starvation and the spread of disease, and the destruction of civil infrastructure, including hospitals. Millions had been displaced, meeting international definitions of forced displacement. Israel continued to inflict the Nakba on civilians in Gaza, forcing them from their homes. The war on Gaza and the heavy death toll was supplemented by the escalating forces by Israeli forces and settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. There must be an immediate humanitarian cease-fire, a call which was made from every corner of the globe. The international community must work to protect the lives of those threatened by Israel’s ongoing attacks. He welcomed the adoption of the recent United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a lifting of all barriers to humanitarian assistance and an immediate ceasefire.

Palestinians continued to endure decades of violation of their inalienable human rights. A durable and just solution must be found: the two-State solution based on the 1967 borders was the only viable solution. A just and lasting peace must be reached between Israel and Palestine. The Committee, established in 1975, promoted constructive discussions of the various aspects of the question and mobilised support by the international community. Member States had a collective duty to bring the suffering to an end and to uphold their obligations under international law and international humanitarian law. Civil society was the best partner to provide information on the realities on the ground. Efforts must be synergised to end the war and resolve the on-going conflict.

IBRAHIM KHRAISHI, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the United Nations in Geneva, said today there was a big task with regards to accountability. The world was watching a genocide on television. There were genocides in the past, but they were not watched live. The 1948 Nakba could be seen in documentaries, as could be other massacres. What was happening today was therefore not new, and this had been mentioned in the report of the Special Rapporteur. But the Palestinians of today were the victims of the victims of others. Palestinians did not believe in hostages, including those taken on 7 October, and believed that those detained must be released – as should those held in administrative detention in Israel. There were disappearances in Gaza, in the face of international law. The United Nations resolution was adopted under article 25 of the Charter which stipulated that all countries must work on its implementation. Palestine wanted international law to be implemented. Practical and peaceful measures must be taken to implement the Security Council resolution and respect the decision of the ICJ on 26 January, which said that it was plausible that there was a crime of genocide taking place in Palestine, and that the Occupying Power must implement measures to remedy the situation.

Some were asking Israel to respect international law – this was shameful. Israeli life was not worth more than Palestinian life: an Israeli child’s life was not more important than that of a Palestinian child. All lives must be protected. Were the deaths of the aid workers on 2 April condemned by any President of any country? There was a real problem: things could not continue as they were, there was a need for accountability. All must work on preserving international law, and this was where civil society took an important role: to speak with each other around the world. International law must govern the whole world, otherwise it was the law of the jungle. This must reach all capitals of the world. The United States President must condemn the killings of aid workers, not just express outrage. He must also stop weapons exports. Ramadan would end in a few days, and nothing had been implemented. The world must wake up and try to restore what could be restored. There would be many discussions on that over the next two days of the Conference.

Plenary session

“The War on Gaza: Advocating for a Humanitarian Ceasefire and Assistance for the Palestinian People”

AYED ABU EQTEISH, Director of Accountability Programme at Defense for Children International – Palestine, said the reality lived by children in Gaza now was that they lived in fear and want, due to Israeli practices of violating all international humanitarian law standards. The conflict started years before 7 October 2023, and during this period Palestinians under occupation suffered systematic human rights violations, exacerbated by the apartheid regime, and children had often paid the highest price, whilst also suffering from the humanitarian crisis created by Israel in its near-17 year blockade of Gaza. This had largely cut off its residents off from the rest of the world, with no freedom of movement, resulting in denial of fundamental human rights, including the right to health, education, adequate food and water, and to a family life. Israel had undertaken several major military offenses in the Gaza strip since 2013, with grave results for children.

Israel had, as an Occupying Power, enjoyed impunity for their violations, and when Palestinians rose up they were discriminated against. The support of many Governments around the world for Israel allowed these violations to continue. Many children had died due to bombardments, and had and would continue to die due to the lack of food and clean water. The Israeli army targeted persons waiting for the delivery of humanitarian food, leading to the deaths of many. Hundreds of children had been arrested by Israeli forces, with documented cases of ill-treatment and torture. The children now sheltering in Gaza had nowhere to go: the only way to stop the genocide was a permanent ceasefire now. Children in the occupied West Bank suffered from the violation of their rights, including those under the International Convention on the Rights of Children.

Children suffered threats of physical and psychological violence when arrested by the Israeli authorities, often amounting to torture. Children were placed in solitary confinement. More than one third of Palestinian children were placed under administrative detention orders, which was detention without trial or due process. Since 7 October, Israel had restricted lawyers’ visits to Israeli prisoners, and suspended family visits, entirely cutting off Palestinian prisoners from the world. No information was being provided as to where Palestinian children were being held, or even if they were alive. The failure of the international community to hold Israel accountable for its crimes were a green light to perpetrate more crimes. As humans, Gaza must be the moral compass.

RAJI SOURANI, Director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), said during the deliberations, many in Gaza faced death, displacement, starvation and destruction. Every minute counted: but it was already six months since this criminal war began against Gaza, and civilians and civilian targets were at the eye of the storm, with non-stop genocide taking place. This was clear when Israel began carpet bombing, with 80 per cent of Gaza already destroyed, with 34,000 people being killed, 14,000 of which were children, 12,000 of whom were women. Most of these were civilians. As a result of the bombing and destruction, hundreds of thousands were moved from the north to the south, and almost 1.6 million people were cornered in one area. A new Nakba was underway in the Israeli process. Palestine had never known starvation in its history: this was man-made starvation, and even bread was unavailable. This was unique and unprecedented. Israel should not target civilians. The International Court of Justice was activated, having accepted the case brought by South Africa. The complicit West were partners in the crime of genocide, providing legal cover, money and arms that were killing civilians. Morality and the rule of law in defending civilians, in practicing principles, were lacking.

Everybody should remember that international law, international humanitarian law, the Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statutes were there to protect civilians. The process of genocide was underway, and Israel must stop it. States had the legal obligation to act against it; but neither Israel nor anybody in the international community had acted to prevent Israel to continue. Nothing was being done to prevent starvation: it was an unprecedented situation, the rule of the jungle, beyond any limits. On the ground the conflict was being witnessed and documented, and never before had this been seen nor conceived of. The ICC Prosecutor, who was supposed to ensure accountability during the investigation had not moved one millimetre until this very moment, failing to act according to his mandate in the most-documented genocide in history. Maybe if he had acted before, or during this conflict, it would have influenced the Israeli authorities. 

Palestinians could not forget or forgive the blood, pain and suffering felt by women and children, the starvation being undergone, nor the massive destruction, and would one day hold the criminals accountable. Palestine would keep its strategic optimism, and was sure it was on the right side of history and would one day overcome. All those States who supported genocide, who gave alms to do genocide, who were complicit in this live crime before the whole world should be ashamed.

SAHAR FRANCIS, Director at Addameer - the Prisoner Support & Human Rights Association , said the most important issue was the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. Israel was violating international law at all levels, systematically, in a grave manner that threatened the international order morally, politically, and legally, without any accountability. These crimes relating to Palestinian detainees and prisoners did not start with 7 October, nor in 1967, but with the establishment of a colonial unjust entity, in 1948. The use of law in order to have oppression and hegemony had always been an integral part of the system since 1948. This was a continuing policy, with an increase of use in the system of military rules in the occupied areas.

Thousands were detained in the West Bank and in Gaza, and there was no knowledge of their location nor of the conditions of detention. There were 9,314 detainees in Israeli prisoners, including administrative detainees, held without evidence, charge, or trial. There was an escalation of violations associated to detention: torture, inhumane treatment, barbaric treatment of women, children, the elderly. In addition to direct physical violations, there was sexual abuse, whether verbal or physical, with strip searches, abuse and harassment of women, children and men in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Jail conditions had become extremely harsh. Medical neglect had led to the deaths of many detainees. There were cases of pre-meditated starvation of prisoners. There were also cases of administrative detention targeting civil society workers. This military system had been ongoing for decades, imposed upon the Palestinians of the West Bank, and they did not live up to international standards for fair trial. The arbitrarily detained must be immediately released.

What was needed was an immediate ceasefire, but this would not be enough. What was needed was the direct imposing of economic, social and cultural sanctions on the occupying State, forcing it to respect the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, immediately release all political prisoners, and not repeat such crimes. A cease-fire in Gaza would only mean that the Occupation would have a free hand to continue its crimes and crimes against humanity in the remaining part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

ISSAM YOUNIS, Director at the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights, said death prevailed in the whole area, and every single person in Gaza could be killed or wounded. Since the meeting started at 10 this morning until now, 24 people in Gaza were killed or wounded, 75% of them women and children. Time in Gaza was counted by a drop of water, a pill of medication for children. Solidarity was now behind: what was needed was action commensurate to what was happening. This was the mother of all crimes: genocide. What the various Israeli high-level military figures had said was that in Gaza people were human animals, would have no water, no fuel, no food. Palestinians were forcibly displaced to what were called “safe areas”, and these were shelled. At least 60 per cent of those killed and wounded were bombed whilst believing naively that the blue United Nations flag would protect them.

Trying to provide a minimum just to remain alive, only water and food, was what Palestinian families were aiming for, and it was a huge task. There was no half justice, there was no quarter or half humanity. Either there must be justice, or evil genocide. What was happening in the Occupied Palestinian Territory was documented repeatedly at all levels. 7 October 2023 was not the date when history started. There was apartheid since 1948, protracted occupation since 1967: it was illegal and not a temporary thing. Occupation perpetrated all crimes: settlement, destruction, murder, theft of resources, full control of the movement of persons and goods in Gaza was ongoing since 2007. There was a policy of de-development, the siege of an entire people, depriving them of basic necessities in Gaza.

The world had ignored the situation, with the result that today there was not just a threat to international peace and security, but a potential dismantlement of international law. As long as the war did not interfere to stop the crimes in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, then the situation would continue, and Palestinians felt that they had an eternal problem with justice. The main need was accountability, or the worst was yet to come. Impunity and no sanctions would only lead to more catastrophes, not only for Palestinians but for the whole world. Israel continued to perpetrate its crimes as the whole international community continued to remain silent. Any entity that violated the Rome Statute was open to prosecution. Justice was not about revenge: it was a moral and legal entitlement. The world was counting time through a body count of children killed: it must achieve accountability. Starvation was being used as a weapon, and the world was not moving. This was a moment of truth, and the size and gravity of the crimes being perpetrated must be assessed: they threatened international peace and security across the world, and maybe worse was to come.

In the ensuring discussion, speakers raised a range of issues and questions. Today the international community was witness to a massacre of the Palestinian people, and could not, a speaker said, turn a blind eye to this humanitarian catastrophe, but must act now in order to avoid more loss of human life. The situation was at a critical turning point, given the ongoing deterioration of the situation on the ground. There must be an immediate ceasefire, and an end to the ongoing humanitarian crisis, ensuring humanitarian aid, including fuel, was supplied to carry out basic humanitarian operations, along with food, medicine and drinking water, which must be distributed urgently to those who desperately needed them. A fair, lasting and holistic solution to the Palestinian situation in line with all the international community’s stipulations and laws was the only thing that could be done, and the international community must urgently create a credible political horizon that would lead to the achievement of the inalienable right to self-determination of the Palestinian people, in line with the 1967 agreements.

This gathering was, another speaker said, an attempt to find a solution, and it would seem that the world bodies had not saved Gaza and were now hoping that civil society organizations could bring an end to the Nakba. The underlying issue of why Zionism and the State of Israel was able to bomb, torture and kill the people of Palestine had to be addressed: it was as they had de-humanised the people of Palestine and Gaza. Using religion as a pretext was unacceptable. The only impediment to peace was the movement of Zionism, which turned Judaism into base nationalism: if this was recognised, then change could be made. The removal of the Occupation could bring back together Jews and Palestinians.

Many had called for sanctions, a speaker noted, asking the panellists what types of sanctions could be imposed by Member States, and that civil society organizations could appeal to their governments to apply. Another noted that tears and joy did not help in living: instead it was action, and asked what measures could be applied right now by the General Assembly to help the Palestinians in living and achieving their rights, putting an end to the genocide and holding the Israeli authorities accountable for their apartheid crime.

The panellists then responded to the questions and Issues raised, also delivering their concluding remarks.

AYED ABU EQTAISH, Director of Accountability Programme at Defense for Children International – Palestine, said the crux of the issue of sanctions was that these measures had been used in the past, whether economic, diplomatic or other, including military sanctions on States that violated international law or international humanitarian law. The lack of political will was the problem with regard to this situation, and had been for various reasons pre-dating 7 October. Many had pointed out the importance of punishing the Israeli authorities, and yet they continued to enjoy impunity. Although the international community had developed norms and standards to protect human rights over the last 70 years, the gap was still wide between these norms and standards and their application, mostly due to political interest in keeping the relationship going with the Israeli Occupier. Had any international action been taken earlier, then maybe this genocide would not be taking place.

SAHAR FRANCIS, Director at Addameer - the Prisoner Support & Human Rights Association, said the time was now to review the entire system: the United Nations system, the role of the General Assembly and the Security Council. This was a real test, the litmus test for the international justice system and whether it was implementable on an equal footing for all, not just in this situation, but around the world. The Security Council could be hijacked by the interests of one State, and this had been seen, and should lead to review the use and performance of the Security Council. This was the entire difference between life based on an international respectable system that heeded the needs of all on an equal footing, and the law of the jungle. The General Assembly had to act and implement existing treaties, and step in where the Security Council failed. The apartheid system must be broken.

RAJI SOURANI, Director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), said when Russia invaded and occupied Ukraine, the entire West was shaken and claimed the right of self-determination of the Ukrainian people and to resist the occupation by all means, including armed struggle, supporting Ukraine to achieve their liberties. Ukraine was supported politically, legally, financially and with arms of all types. Seven waves of unprecedented sanctions to paralyse the entire Russian economic and political system took place. Palestine had the most well-documented conflict in history: with invasion and belligerent occupation. It had believed that the Ukraine situation would make the world wake up to the situation in Palestine. Genocide legislation was colour- and religion-blind, it was an obligation of all States, and could not be applied in a selective and discriminative way. There could be no double standards. Palestinians were entitled to self-determination. Self-determination was the best American invention that it had gifted humanity. Palestinians would achieve and practice self-determination some day with the support of other countries, and some day, it would overcome.

Issam Younis, Director at the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights, said there were two reasons that international law and sanctions were not applied. What was needed was political will: States could, either individually or multi-laterally, ensure international peace and security. International law was flouted due to a lack of political will, and Israel committed crimes such as genocide, being rewarded, gaining privileges in various areas, including the arms trade. The State which provided arms was an accomplice in genocide. Those that supported Israel as an occupying power should question their own stance with regard to indigenous people. Those who criticised Israel were accused of anti-Semitism, and thus refrained, so as not to damage their political or diplomatic careers. This was a moment of truth. There were serious human rights violations, and the international community must put an end to the privileges enjoyed by Israel. The world was at the doors of a real disaster that could threaten international peace and security.

CHEIKH NIANG, Chair of the Committee, concluded the plenary by stating that civil society was vital to awaken public responsibility and awareness, as States could then be held accountable by the public. The General Assembly was made of a combination of many countries, including those that were not engaged in putting an end to the situation. This was why an international campaign was needed, and some countries were shifting to being more responsive to the situation of Palestine. This was a moral and sacred cause, and all should make sure that their faith remained unbreakable, as this was what the enemies of peace wanted.