Michael Lynk is the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, but the Israeli government denies him access. In fact, one of Lynk’s predecessors was detained upon arrival in Israel and was put on a departing plane on the following day. Lynk, who is also a law professor at Western University in London, Ontario, must do all his work from a distance. He relies upon reading everything available, including Israeli newspapers such Haaretz, and connecting with on-the-ground human rights organizations in Israel, Palestine, and elsewhere.
Ignored by media
Lynk provides an annual report to the UN’s Human Rights Council and he did so in June 2020. You could be forgiven if you did not hear about it. I subscribe to the online editions of both The Globe and Mail and the New York Times, each of them considered a newspaper of record. I did a search and found that neither publication made any mention of that report, or of Lynk’s previous reports. The Globe and Mail did carry an Op Ed by Lynk back in 2017.
Recently, a small, Ottawa-based group called Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine had Lynk as a guest in an online event. The call was limited to 100 participants, but the organizers said they had to turn a similar number away. Lynk talked about his report, responded to direct questions from a panel, took written questions from the audience.
There is some context necessary to understand Lynk’s role and how it came about. I will describe it. Israel began its military occupation in Palestinian territory 53 years ago and it continues to this day. In 1967, Israel launched what it described as a preemptive attack upon three neighbouring Arab countries in what is commonly called the Six-Day War. Israeli air strikes crippled the air forces of Egypt and its allies, destroying their planes as they sat on the ground. Israeli forces, in a ground offensive, Israeli forces then seized the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.
The brief war ended with an UN-sponsored ceasefire, but Israel held onto lands that it had seized. There were more than a million people living in the conquered territories, most of them Palestinians. Israel then began to establish Jewish settlements in the West Bank and they are still being built, forcing Palestinian inhabitants from their homes and lands. Indeed, earlier this year Israel threatened a complete annexation of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Those plans have been put on hold but the gradual annexation by settlers continues.
In his 2017 Op Ed in The Globe and Mail, rapporteur Michael Lynk described how in 1967 an Israeli legal advisor told his government that under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 conquered lands were subject to the law of occupation. The expectation was that Israel would withdraw, and the advisor warned that building Jewish settlements in occupied lands was illegal.
Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982 and withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but it has imposed a 13-year land and sea blockade which, in effect, makes Gaza a desperate prison for its inhabitants. And Israel has continued with its occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. That occupation has been the subject of numerous resolutions and condemnations at the UN, which describes it not only as harsh, but also illegal. It was this continued occupation which led to the appointment of a special rapporteur.
Lynk is often asked if he reports on human rights abuses perpetrated on all sides, including Hamas in Gaza and the Palestine Authority in the West Bank. He does, but he adds that the rapporteur was appointed primarily because of the continuing occupation, and not because of the resistance it has spawned.
I invite you to read Lynk’s report as special rapporteur in 2020, and for previous years if you are able. Each report begins with a brief description, which is later supported by considerable detail. Here are the brief descriptors for each of the past three years:
The list of transgressions is long, and includes the continued expansion of settlements, an increase in settlers’ violence, the detention of Palestinians, and what Lynk calls the “collective punishment” imposed upon Gaza. There Israel claims the right to punish the entire population for the actions of those who lash out at its long running occupation.
Articulate and knowledgeable
In his recent online presentation, I found Lynk to be articulate and knowledgeable. In particular, he used some parallels to the Israel’s occupation which had never occurred to me. Following the Second World War, the Americans occupied Japan, while America and other allies also occupied West Germany. The Axis powers were defeated in war, but it was understood that the occupation of their countries would not continue indefinitely, and it did not. Nor was there any attempt by the Allied powers to populate the defeated nations with American, British or French settlers, no bulldozing of homes, fields and orchards along with the displacement of civilians. In contrast, Israel has occupied Palestine for 53 years, with impunity.
Also, when Russia occupied Crimea and sent its thinly disguised fighters into Eastern Ukraine, Lynk said there were consequences. Russia was expelled from the G8 group of countries, and Western nations also imposed sanctions. Israel has paid no similar cost for its lengthy occupation. “The UN says that Israel must accept international law,” Lynk said, “but when Israel defies that law there is no punishment.”
Canada favours Israel
When asked why that is, Lynk said that despite UN resolutions and criticism, some of the world’s most powerful countries have chosen to remain on the sidelines, or even to enable the Israeli occupation. Canada, a middle ranking power, has routinely voted in favour of Israel and against the Palestinians at the UN. Lynk said that the pro-Israel policy under Stephen Harper and the Conservatives has been quietly continued under Justin Trudeau and the Liberals. He said it was likely Canada’s voting record at the UN which prevented this country from winning a much-coveted seat as a member of the UN Security Council in 2020.
Lynk said that Canada issued no statement regarding Israel’s recent plans to annex the entire Palestinian Occupied Territory, an initiative which he said was withdrawn only because its American backers thought it would be too controversial in an election year. Prime Minister Trudeau spoke on the annexation plan when asked a question by a journalist at a COVID-19 news media briefing, but there was no formal government statement.
Asked if there was any room for optimism for Israel and Palestine, Lynk said he is encouraged by the work of human rights organizations on the ground in Israel, Palestine, and elsewhere. “They are the bridge,” he said. “Israelis and Palestinians are going to have to figure out how to deal with this because no one in the region is going anywhere.” He added that Israel will negotiate only if forced to do so by international pressure.