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Top UN official voices concern over Israel's detention of Palestinian rights defenders

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Israeli forces detain a Palestinian during clashes at the compound that houses al-Aqsa Mosque, in the Old City of al-Quds, Occupied Palestinian Territory, on May 10, 20121. (Photo by Reuters)

A senior United Nations official has expressed concern over the Israeli regime’s campaign of arrests, harassment, criminalization and threats targeting Palestinian human rights defenders across the occupied West Bank.

“Arrests and raids on the homes of Palestinian human right defenders [by Israeli military forces] form part of a wider crackdown against those defending the human rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, stated.

Lawlor also criticized the arbitrary arrest and detention of Palestinian lawyer and human rights defender Farid Al-Atrash, who is also the director of The Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) office in the southern West Bank.

Israeli military forces detained Atrash after he participated in a peaceful demonstration in the central West Bank city of Bethlehem, situated about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) south of al-Quds, on 15 June and released on bail eight days later.

The UN expert also voiced concern over the forcible transfer of Palestinians living in the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods of al-Quds.

Sheikh Jarrah has been the scene of frequent crackdowns by Israeli police on Palestinians protesting against the threatened expulsion of dozens of Palestinian families from their homes in favor of hardline Israeli settler groups.

Israel calls it “a real estate dispute,” while Palestinians and rights groups say the case highlights discriminatory policies aimed at pushing Palestinians out of al-Quds.

The Sheikh Jarrah protests in May coincided with a decision by the Israeli regime to ban gatherings in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at the Damascus Gate of the Old City of al-Quds, and riots by far-right Jewish groups.

The escalations further intensified after Israeli forces raided the al-Aqsa Mosque compound – the third-holiest site for Muslims – several times during Ramadan, wounding hundreds of Palestinians.

The raids prompted Palestinian resistance fighters in the Gaza Strip to respond to Israeli acts of aggression, and fire retaliatory rockets into Israeli-occupied territories.

The Israeli army then launched a devastating 11-day offensive on the besieged Palestinian coastal enclave that killed at least 260 Palestinians, including 66 children.

The Silwan neighborhood has for years been targeted by illegal Israeli settler organizations. Some of the Palestinian families in Silwan have been living there for more than 50 years since they were displaced from the Old City in the 1960s. The Palestinian properties in the area are claimed by Israeli extremists backed by Ateret Cohanim, a right-wing foundation that works to strengthen Jewish presence in al-Quds.

“Muna al-Kurd, Mohammed al-Kurd and Zuhair Al Rajabi, human rights defenders at the forefront of protecting their communities against forced displacement, have been arrested and interrogated,” Lawlor pointed out.

Another activist, Salah Hammouri, is also at risk of having his permanent residency permit in al-Quds revoked.

“I am shocked that members of the Health Work Committee, who provide health services to Palestinians living in remote areas of the West Bank, were arrested, interrogated and may be criminalized because of their human rights work,” Lawlor added.

While the committee’s director, Shatha Odeh and its former project coordinator, Juana Ruiz Sánchez, are being held in Damoun Prison, its accountant, Tayseer Abu Sharbak, is in Ofer prison.

They are being tried on charges of participating in what is described as “an illegal organization,” the UN official said.

Lawlor called on Israeli authorities to immediately release them, and to investigate allegations of ill treatment against the two women rights defenders.

“The deteriorating health of Odeh and the solitary confinement of Sánchez are extremely worrying,” she said.

Odeh, who has chronic underlying health conditions, had initially been denied access to necessary medication and clean clothes.

The UN expert underlined the importance of safeguarding Palestinian human rights defenders in the occupied Palestinian territories, especially those who are protecting their communities’ rights to housing, healthcare and freedom of assembly and association.

“I call on the [Israeli] authorities to stop targeting these human rights defenders and allow them to carry out their legitimate and peaceful work free from any kind of restrictions,” Lawlor said.

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