Diplomatic Bullying: Israel Won't Renew Visas to UN Workers in West Bank and Gaza

Israel stopped renewing work visas for members of the international staff at the UN Human Rights Office, forcing them to leave the country

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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United Nations' workers wearing protective clothing hand out medicine to a Palestinian man during the outbreak of the coronavirus, at the Beach refugee camp in Gaza City August 27, 2020.
United Nations' workers wearing protective clothing hand out medicine to a Palestinian man during the outbreak of the coronavirus, at the Beach refugee camp in Gaza City August 27, 2020.Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The branches of the Offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are being emptied of members of their international staff, citizens of foreign countries.

Israel is not renewing their work visas and so they are being forced to leave the country. This is an act of diplomatic bullying. Its purpose is to silence and paralyze any international opposition to the occupation and the settlements – and to portray it as antisemitism.

Bullying is our trademark. Of the self-righteous and God-fearing thugs who descend from West Bank hills and the outposts, the darlings of the Israeli establishment, and assault Palestinian olive pickers and shepherds. They are the auxiliary force of the Civil Administration, the Israel Defense Forces and the "honorable" settlements, which are officially authorized to engage in the task of expulsion.

The hooligans of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Civil Administration and the Regavim NGO are pursuing and persecuting every European-funded humanitarian project in the occupied Palestinian territory in order to destroy it. And the nicely attired bullies from the Foreign Ministry are, in effect, expelling international employees of the United Nations.

Back in February, then-Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz promised to carry out an act of reprisal against OHCHR in the guise of freezing ties with it – because it dared to publish an (incomplete) list of mainly Israeli businesses and corporations (and a few from abroad) that are mired up to their ears in the Israeli settlement enterprise. For anyone who was wondering what “freezing ties” means – the answer came when the ministry failed to extend the staff visas.

Katz made a promise, and the Foreign Ministry headed by former Chief of Staff and Kahol Lavan member Gabi Ashkenazi – is keeping that promise.

The Foreign Ministry's offices in Jerusalem. The passports of nine staff members of the UN Commission, sent to the ministry as usual for extension, came back untouched.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

As reported last Thursday in the online newspaper Middle East Eye, nine members of the UN commission have already left the country: The expiry date of their previous work visas was approaching but their passports, which were sent to the Foreign Ministry, as usual, for extension – came back untouched, with no extension stamp. The visas of another three will expire soon, and three foreign citizens who were supposed to be deployed and submitted visa applications have received no reply.

On June 29 the Foreign Ministry attacked the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile, because she to dared to criticize Israel’s annexation plans. "This was not the first time High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet has politicized her office against Israel, in a one-sided manner," according to a ministry statement.

The announcement also mentioned that already in February, "Israel announced it would freeze its ties with the High Commissioner, due to her one-sided and discriminatory attitude toward the State of Israel.” Annexation is not political, of course: neither the official plan concocted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that was postponed, nor the unofficial one that Israel is in effect advancing all the time. Only opposition to them is political. In other words, forbidden.

Palestinians look at United Nations' workers as they make their way to hand out medicine to Palestinian patients during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease, in Gaza City August 27, 2020.Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

Do other countries who are annoyed by your criticism act the way Israel does, I asked OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville. He replied that on occasion, the work visas of one of the employees is not extended, but "I am not aware of any truly comparable situation anywhere else, where every single visa coming up for renewal has not been renewed."

Colville wanted to emphasize the absurdity, adding: “And this is a unique situation in that the office and staff are not functioning in Israel itself, but they need Israeli visas in order to enter and exit the occupied Palestinian territory.”

Oof, that UN. It doesn’t recognize the West Bank as part of Israel. It recognizes Israel within the borders of June 4, 1967. So antisemitic.

According to OHCHR's website, it is the only body with an “international mandate” to oversee and report publicly on the human rights situation in occupied Palestinian territory. Its main office is in Ramallah and it has branches in East Jerusalem, Gaza and Hebron. The approximately 25 “locals” (mainly Palestinians and a few Israelis) employed by the organization are continuing their work. In any case, due to the coronavirus restrictions, the employees haven't frequented the offices in the past months, and have communicated online.

But Zooming or not, the presence of international staff in the country is supposed to provide better protection to those in need of it, and to make use of the experience that has accumulated in hundreds of other places worldwide.

Is the effective expulsion of the international workers really necessary? Does the Foreign Ministry have information that we don’t have – and do they know of someone in the world who has finally decided to use the incriminating information in OHCHR's reports, thus justifying threatening that body in the same way that Knesset coalition whip Miki Zohar has threatened Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit?

If only the bullying were a hint that the UN member states that are still committed to upholding international law have truly gotten sick and tired of the Israel that settles and demolishes and expels. If only we could say that the UN High Commissioner’s reports have teeth and that now there is someone who is finally about to sink them into Israel’s criminal arrogance.

But unfortunately – that’s not the case. During 30 years of conducting “peace negotiations” Israel has proven beyond any doubt that its sole intention is to keep reducing the Palestinians’ "pales of settlement," while most of the countries in the world – headed by the West – prefer the safe path they chose long ago: verbal condemnation whenever there is a report of additional construction in the settlements. And at the same time, continuing to pursue their excellent economic, scientific, cultural, friendly and military ties with Israel.

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