UNITED NATIONS - The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay last week lambasted the Israeli government for detaining and expelling a human rights expert, Richard Falk, who was on a U.N.-mandated assignment to probe the human rights situation in the occupied territories.
"It is difficult to assess Israel's motives for barring my entry to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but it certainly seems to fit with a pattern of minimizing to the extent possible, reporting on the realities of the occupation, especially in Gaza," Falk told IPS.
Falk, whose official title is U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, is a Professor of International Law who has served in several U.S. academic institutions, including Princeton, Ohio State and the University of California.
The detention and expulsion were "unprecedented and regrettable," Pillay said, complaining that Falk was not only separated from two U.N. staffers accompanying him but was also held incommunicado for more than 20 hours at the Ben Gurion airport last week and denied the use of his U.N.-issued cell phone.
Pillay, whose criticism of Israel was backed by Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon, said U.N. human rights experts reporting to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council do not require a formal invitation by Israel to carry out official missions to the occupied Palestinian territories.
According to the U.N., Israel has kept the border crossings into Gaza closed for almost two months -- cutting off food supplies and humanitarian aid to Palestinians. The borders have been closed on the grounds that Palestinian militants have been firing rockets into Israeli territory.
While condemning the rocket attacks, Ban has urged Israel to lift the blockade and permit the delivery of humanitarian aid to the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza. But his appeal has fallen on deaf ears.
Asked if he was barred from the occupied territories because Israel had plenty to hide, Falk told IPS U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen: "In recent months Israel has prevented credible observers from Gaza -- such as fellowship students and journalists, from leaving; and disallowing similar qualified observers to enter."
This tactic, he said, is reinforced by Israeli efforts to shift attention from the truthfulness and accuracy of what is observed to the supposed bias of the observer.
"It is a mind game that has proved very effective with the media, especially in the United States," Falk said. Falk explained that the fact that high-ranking U.N. officials have spoken out with grave concern about the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is a strong indication of how desperate the situation has become.
"Because of the strong influence of the United States within the United Nations, U.N. civil servants and officials have been reluctant in the past to criticize Israel," he added.
Excerpts from the interview:
IPS: How should the U.N. and the Human Rights Council respond to Israel's decision to keep out Special Rapporteurs, human rights organizations and journalists -- particularly from Gaza, currently under siege?
Richard Falk: It is my hope that the U.N. and the Human Rights Council will take this incident seriously. My exclusion was, after all, a slap in the face of the U.N., as well as being a clear violation of Israel's duties as a member of the U.N. to cooperate to ensure that its official undertakings are allowed to take place without interference. It would be important to protest the decision to bar the entry of the Special Rapporteur, and seek assurances that this would not happen in the future.
IPS: How futile is it to even attempt to have Israel censured or condemned when it is strongly supported by the U.S., Britain and France -- three veto- wielding members of the Security Council?
RF: Of course, the geopolitical realities of great powers unconditional support for Israel places a great obstacle in the path of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, and continues to expose the Palestinian people living under occupation to severe hardship that has been harmful to health and well-being.
But it is important also not to lose hope. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa also seemed to be decisively blocked by political obstacles and the relation of forces, but unforeseen results produced a positive outcome due, in large part, to the anti-apartheid campaign waged globally.
Often, with oppressive circumstances, the situation seems invulnerable until it collapses unexpectedly. The transformation of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the 1990s illustrated this sudden shift in circumstances.
IPS: How would you respond to the Israeli charge that you are biased and hostile toward Israel?
RF: I have never been biased or hostile toward Israel. My basic commitment is to non-violence and a just peace for both peoples. What Israel calls bias is merely the nature of my effort to tell the truth about the realities of the occupation, and the legal consequences that follow from these realities.
I would welcome a debate about the accuracy and truthfulness of my observations, but this is a controversy that Israel evidently wants to avoid. The charges of bias and hostility are intended to distract attention from matters of substance.
It is my goal to shift attention away from myself, back where it belongs, on the plight of the Palestinian people, the denial of Palestinian legal rights, and the responsibility of the U.N. and sovereign states to respond to the Palestinian catastrophe.
IPS: Is it correct that during the past three years, Israel has permitted visits to the occupied territories by seven U.N. Special Rapporteurs?
RF: What is correct is that my predecessor, John Dugard [a South African Professor of International Law], made seven visits while serving as Special Rapporteur. As his reports became more critical of the occupation, Israel mounted strong attacks on him, especially when he compared the occupation to conditions he had worked to overcome during the apartheid period in South Africa.
After Dugard's term came to end, Israel campaigned vigorously in Geneva against my selection as his successor, and seemed angered by their failure to block my appointment.
From this angle, blocking my entry was an expression of this anger, a signal to the U.N. that if Israel does not get its way, then adverse consequences will result. It is rather sad that such a relationship of tension now exists between Israel and the United Nations.