UNITED NATIONS - After 35 years of investigations, a UN committee monitoring human rights abuses of Palestinians has concluded that the situation in the Israeli-occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank was the worst ever last year.
''We must sadly report that the situation drastically deteriorated in 2002,'' Ambassador Chitambaranathan Mahendran of Sri Lanka, chairman of the Special Committee Investigating Israeli Practices in the Occupied Territories, told IPS.
The Palestinians did not only see their freedom of movement and residence severely restricted through curfews, road closures and checkpoints, but also their economic, social and cultural rights were harshly violated and undermined, he said.
Mahendran said his three-member committee -- including Ambassador Rastan Mohd Isa of Malaysia and Ambassador Ousmane Camara of Senegal -- was barred from entering the occupied territories once again.
''We made a formal request to Israel, but it was turned down,'' he told IPS on Thursday. Israel, he added, ''showed hostility towards our committee''.
The committee, which has never been permitted to enter the occupied territories, has been forced to hold sittings in Jordan, Egypt and Syria. Palestinians who appear before the body travel to Amman, Cairo and Damascus yearly to detail the continued human rights abuses by Israel.
In his report to the 191-member General Assembly, Mahendran said the committee tried to establish a meaningful dialogue with the State of Israel, ''but to no avail''.
''In view of the gravity of the situation, the time has come for the special committee to be allowed by the Israeli authorities to get access to the occupied territories and assess for itself the current situation of human rights, as well as to ascertain the views of the Government of Israel,'' he told delegates.
The Israeli government, which is opposed to the very existence of the special committee, routinely refuses UN bodies entry into the occupied territories -- particularly if they are probing human rights violations of Palestinians.
''Today the intangible and inalienable right of the Palestinians to a homeland of their own is threatened both by the erection of the separation wall, the unabated policy of new Jewish settlements, and the heavy destruction of infrastructure, properties and homes,'' Mahendran said.
He also pointed out that Palestinian sources believe the controversial wall will eventually annex about 55 percent of the West Bank, its central, western and eastern sides, including Jordan Valley, and major water sources.
Mahendran's submission to the General Assembly was backed by the 15-member European Union (EU), which also criticized Israel's decision to continue building the wall after international condemnation.
''The European Union demands that Israel stop and reverses the construction of the wall in the occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around Jerusalem, which is in departure of the Armistice Line of 1949,'' Marco Carnelos of Italy told delegates Thursday.
Construction of the wall also violates various provisions of international law, he added, and entails other illegal activities, such as confiscation of land and demolition of houses.
''The EU is gravely concerned by the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian cities as well as the severe restrictions imposed on the freedom of movement of persons and goods,'' added Carnelos.
While criticizing Israel's abusive policies in the occupied territories, he also condemned violence against Israelis by Palestinians. ''The EU strongly condemns terrorism, in particular the vicious attacks against Israeli citizens,'' he said.
In a separate report Thursday, Miloon Kothari, UN special rapporteur on housing demolitions, told delegates that thousands of residents of the occupied territories have been left homeless because of Israel's policy of ''house demolitions''.
According to information received, he said, the Israeli army has destroyed an estimated 4,000 homes over the past three years, leaving thousands of people homeless, many of who are women, children or elderly.
''Much of the destruction in recent years has been concentrated in and around Gaza,'' added Kothari.
Catherine Cook, senior analyst and media coordinator at the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), told IPS that both the EU and the United States have a number of means available to pressure Israel to make its human rights practice comply with international law.
''To date, none have taken action that would put Israel in a position to actually stop its practices or suffer a financial penalty,'' she added. Consequently, Cook said, Israel is able to continue a campaign of gross human rights abuses.
Washington alone provides more than three billion dollars in outright grants as economic and military aid to Israel every year.
Cook pointed out that Israel's ability to manipulate the UN human rights system reveals one of the shortcomings of the international human rights and humanitarian law framework -- the absence of an effective enforcement mechanism.
''At present, enforcement relies upon political will, and consequently, it is powerful nations who determine when and where human rights principles will be enforced and when and where those not in compliance will be penalized.''
In the case of Israel's abuses of Palestinians' human rights, she added, ''the absence of effective enforcement is counter-productive to the creation of a society that respects human rights and the rule of law''.
Today, added Cook, rather than denying the importance of human rights treaties, Israel simply argues that these agreements do not apply to the occupied territories, therefore Israel is not required to report to UN bodies on its practices there.
Copyright 2003 Inter Press Service