UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. human rights chief sharply criticized Israel on Monday, calling recent killings by its soldiers during Palestinian demonstrations along the Gaza border fence "shocking" and saying living conditions inflicted by Israel's 11-year blockade of the territory are "grossly inadequate."
Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a video address to the U.N. Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People that the situation in Gaza has escalated dramatically in recent months with "the potential to generate threats to peace across a far broader region."
Zeid, who heads the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said it is essential for all parties to cooperate with the independent, international commission of inquiry into the recent deadly events in Gaza that his office is helping to establish. It was authorized by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council on May 18 "to advance accountability" for the killings and violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, he said.
Zeid said there are "serious concerns" that Israeli accountability mechanisms don't comply with international standards of "independence, impartiality, and effectiveness."
"Very few investigations ever occur," he said. "In the rare cases where an investigation has led to an indictment, the sentence has been extremely lenient in light of the gravity of the crime committed."
Zeid said it is vital to address the root causes of the Gaza demonstrations, which have resulted in the deaths of over 100 Palestinians, including 17 children, and the wounding of more than 4,100 others with live ammunition since March 30.
In addition to "grossly inadequate living conditions" caused by Israel's blockade for the residents of Gaza, most of whom are refugees, restrictive measures have also been imposed by Egypt that have "exacerbated these conditions," Zeid said.
He added that the situation in Gaza may be "severely aggravated" in the coming months by the financial crisis facing the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, as a result of dramatic cuts to its budget by the Trump administration.
Zeid criticized last week's approval by Israel's parliament of a bill defining that country as the nation-state of the Jewish people. He said that it "anchors inherent discrimination against non-Jewish communities," most notably the Arab citizens of Israel and residents of occupied East Jerusalem. He warned that it "could also further inflame tensions."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the bill's passage a "historic moment in the history of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel," saying: "Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, which honors the individual rights of all its citizens."
Zeid also criticized Israel's approval, planning and construction of settlements across with West Bank and East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.
He called Israel's detention of hundreds of Palestinian children, some without charge, under a system of "administrative detention," a "fundamental human rights violation."
"It should be absolutely clear that international law requires detention only be used for children as a last resort," he said.
And whether for children or adults, Zeid said, detention without trial "contravenes Israel's obligations under international law."
"An estimated 440 Palestinians are being held in 'administrative detention,' according to the latest figures," he said. "Israel should immediately charge, or release, all of them."