The Brutal Status Quo in Palestine Is Creating Insecurity for All

Writing in Jacobin, the UN's special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories argues that the shocking ongoing violence we’re seeing shows the illegal status quo is brutalizing Palestinians while failing to protect Israeli civilians.

A woman stands in front of a damaged residential building hit by rockets in Ashkelon, Israel, October 9, 2023. (Ilia Yefimovich / Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

The events in Israel and Palestine are shocking.

On the barrage of rockets indiscriminately targeting civilians, the horrific mass killing and abduction of innocent women and men, including seniors and children, international law is unequivocal: these are crimes. Under international law, those subjected to long-standing oppression have an absolute right to stand against their subjugation, but they still have responsibilities concerning the means and methods of action. Killing innocent civilians is illegal.

We are not just observers who can limit ourselves to registering shock, however. We have a duty, as many Palestinians and Israelis are asking, to analyze the situation and identify paths to prevent further bloodshed. Human rights organizations in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel and others, including myself and the special rapporteurs who preceded me, have pointed to this risk for decades now, insisting that the root causes be addressed once and for all. The brutal and unlawful status quo has been a recipe for more insecurity for all.

For almost six decades, Israel has held millions of Palestinians under a military occupation that has stripped them of their most basic rights while confiscating lands, demolishing thousands of homes and schools, forcibly displacing hundreds of thousands, killing and arresting children and adults alike. It has established illegal settlements and annexed land in the occupied territory, egregious crimes under international law. It has inflicted daily indignity and humiliations on Palestinians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, where the contrast between the privileges of the occupier and the subjugation of the occupied is striking.

Gaza is probably the most striking example of the occupation, as Israel has kept its population captive in an air-naval and ground blockade for sixteen years, with regular large-scale military offensives that, even before the current offensive, had left over 4,200 dead, including 1,124 children, and hundreds of thousands homeless.

We should be absolutely clear: none of this justifies Hamas’s indiscriminate attacks against Israeli civilians (nor should we assume that Hamas is the representative of the Palestinian people resisting the occupation, whole sections of which are committed to nonviolent struggle). It does provide context to understand the hopelessness and despair of an entire population, especially in Gaza, where half of residents are under eighteen — children of the blockade and constant war, violence, depredation, and violence.

The dominant political discourse that has arisen since the tragedy of October 7 is extremely worrisome. Ethical relativism, selective outrage, framing only one’s own civilian population as worthy of protection and security — this is part of the problem, a huge, ineludible, outrageous problem of inequality that, if unaddressed, condemns Israel and Palestine to reenact the same bloody cycle.

Every one or two years, the violence explodes, and large-scale bombardments systematically kill civilians. Too many innocent lives have already been lost. It is exactly the unlawful and unsustainable status quo that has led to this bloody failure.

The status quo is not only brutalizing Palestinians beyond imagination and forcing them to survive for generations in intolerable desperation; it is also increasingly jeopardizing and failing to protect Israeli civilians, despite promises to the contrary. Many individuals and groups in Israel insist that subjugating Palestinians is necessary for their security. This is legally and morally unacceptable. It is also myopically wrong. Keeping Palestinians under occupation and assuming the situation can be resolved militarily has been revealed to be false once again.

Security for all is only achievable by realizing equal rights, ending the occupation, and removing institutionalized discrimination. Assuming that only one people deserves dignity, safety, and freedom is not only racist; it is politically and strategically unwise, and a guarantee of more tragedies.

As many state leaders have unequivocally affirmed in relation to other occupied territories, peace can only be achieved by restoring international legality. The same is true here. And it has never been more urgent.