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Detaining the United Nations


By Phyllis Bennis

Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories,wasn't allowed into Israel on a recent trip. That action fits a pattern of Israeli efforts to hide the human consequences of the siege of Gaza and of the escalating settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Richard Falk was detained at the airport and denied entry to Israel on December 13, when he arrived in Tel Aviv. The American professor of international law was traveling to the West Bank and Gaza, to fulfill his mandate as the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories to investigate the human rights conditions affecting the civilian population. His most urgent task includes monitoring the rising humanitarian crisis facing the 1.5 million Palestinians, of whom half are children, living in the besieged Gaza Strip.

The decision to keep Falk out fits a pattern of Israeli efforts to hide the human consequences of the siege of Gaza and of the escalating settlement expansion in the West Bank. Denying entry to the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights is part of the same occupation playbook as keeping Palestinian human rights defenders such as Raji Sourani, director of the Palestine Center for Human Rights, locked up in Gaza and denied the right to leave to speak to the outside world. It's at one with the Israeli policy of blocking international journalists who might report on the spiraling humanitarian crisis (especially in Gaza). The same goal is evident in the beating and effort to intimidate the few Palestinian journalists who do manage the rare opportunity to get out and tell the world, such as Mohamed Omer, the young Gazan winner of the prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize in Britain.

Falk's detention and exclusion echo earlier Israeli moves to deny access to other UN human rights monitors. Most notably, perhaps, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was denied entry when he was appointed by the United Nations to conduct a special investigation of the 2006 attack on Beit Hanoun in Gaza in which the Israeli Defense Forces killed 18 people in a single house. (Tutu was only able to carry out the investigation, 18 months after the attack, when Egypt was pressured to open its crossing at Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.)

And this history goes back further. In 2002, after the Israeli military assault on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank that left dozens of civilians dead, the UN Security Council agreed to send a fact-finding delegation to investigate the dire conditions in the camp and report back to the Council. Israel was consulted and agreed to facilitate the visit, but then began to backtrack, imposing more and more stringent restrictions on the composition, leadership, and access of the team. The UN acquiesced to virtually every demand, but soon Israel reneged on its agreement altogether. Israeli officials told U.S. reporters at the time that they "preferred the short-term cost in world opinion of resisting the United Nations to the long-term risk of possibly exposing the army to war-crimes trials." The UN monitors, then cooling their heels in Geneva, were withdrawn.

This pattern of exclusion and suppression of human rights monitors and defenders reflects a clear goal of preventing international knowledge and understanding of - and thus accountability for - the harsh realities of Israel's military occupation.

Israel's recent decision, made by its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to deny entry to the Special Rapporteur of the UN, represents a grave assault on the legitimacy of the United Nations itself. Ironically, Falk's exclusion also closely mirrors the November 24th decision by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who refused to allow entry to a group of prominent international human rights notables, including South Africa's first lady Gra├ža Machel, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and former President Jimmy Carter, a deplorable decision rightly criticized by many of Israel's supporters. But in a broad sense, Israel's decision to bar Richard Falk from the occupied territories, which have languished under Israeli control for more than 40 years, portends even more serious consequences than that of Zimbabwe because Special Rapporteurs for Human Rights represent the UN. So when Richard Falk was exhaustively searched, his papers painstakingly examined, and he was held incommunicado in a small detention room in the Tel Aviv airport used for those accused of entering Israel illegally, it was as if the United Nations itself was detained.

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Phyllis Bennis's books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer as well as the just-published Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer and Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

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