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Israel turning Palestinian territories into 'open-air prison', says UN expert

UN special rapporteur Francesca Albanese says Israel's policies appear to be plan to 'de-Palestinianise' occupied territories
A Palestinian teacher opens an iron door controlled by Israeli forces on 13 February 2019 in the divided West Bank city of Hebron.
A Palestinian teacher opens an iron door controlled by Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Hebron, on 13 February 2019 (AFP)

The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has turned the West Bank into an open-air prison for Palestinians, the UN special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories has said in a new report.

The report states that since 1967, more than 800,000 Palestinians have been arrested by Israeli forces, and many have faced long detentions and are "often presumed guilty without evidence".

"All the more, as these offences appear to be part of a plan to de-Palestinianise the territory. This threatens the existence of the Palestinian people as a national cohesive group. It is critical that the international community recognises the illegality of the Israeli occupation," Albanese told the Human Rights Council during a session on Monday.

While Gaza has often been referred to as an "open-air prison" because of the blockade it has faced since 2007, Albanese has extended this language to include more Palestinian territories, including the occupied West Bank.

"This wider carcerality, made of an array of laws, procedures and techniques of coercive confinement, transforms the occupied Palestinian territory into a constantly surveilled open-air panopticon," Albanese said in the report.

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The special rapporteur also noted that the "presence of illegal colonies" made up of Israeli settlers has further restricted Palestinians' freedom of movement and increased the surveillance apparatus around them.

"Through an array of physical, bureaucratic, and digital mechanisms, the Israeli regime has turned the occupied territory into a ‘panopticon’, where Palestinians are constantly surveilled and disciplined," she said in her report.

There are approximately 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners currently in Israeli prisons, according to the rights group, Addameer.

'These offences appear to be part of a plan to de-Palestinianise the territory'

- Francesca Albanese, UN special rapporteur

Albanese called on Israel to release all Palestinian minors, as well as all Palestinian detainees that are being held "for acts devoid of offensiveness under international law". 

Albanese said the use of arbitrary arrests and administrative detention - arrest without trial or charge for indefinite amounts of time - are some of the pillars of Israel's apartheid system. 

She also called on Israel to release the bodies of dead Palestinians and guarantee they receive "dignified burials".

Since assuming her role in April 2022, Albanese has been critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians and has said Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid and operating as a settler colonial state.

At the same time, she has faced a campaign from Israeli right-wing groups calling for her removal from her UN post.

Israeli settlement expansion

Israeli violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank has heightened over the past few months, culminating in an Israeli military operation in the city of Jenin that killed 12 Palestinians and left scores of others wounded.

Since then, the violence has continued. On Monday, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man near the city of Ramallah.

At the same time, members of the Israeli government have been pushing for the expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.

'No red lines': US response to West Bank assault underlines Israel's free hand
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Nearly 700,000 Israeli settlers live in more than 250 settlements and outposts across the West Bank and East Jerusalem in violation of international law.

The US, a close ally of Israel, has repeatedly criticised Israel for settlement expansion in the West Bank, with the Biden administration saying that increasing Israeli settlement activity "is an obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution".

However, the US has also moved to shield Israel from condemnation over this settlement policy. In February, Washington said it would oppose a resolution that would condemn Israeli settlements at the UN Security Council.

Biden said in an interview with CNN on Sunday that one of the issues regarding the West Bank is that the current Israeli government has ministers pushing for settlement expansion.

“It's not all Israel now in the West Bank - all Israel’s problem - but they are a part of the problem, and particularly those individuals in the cabinet who say, ‘We can settle anywhere we want. [The Palestinians] have no right to be here, etc’,” Biden told CNN's Fareed Zakaria.

Two of the far-right members of Israel's governing coalition, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, said on Monday that Israel has a right to build settlements anywhere in the West Bank, with Ben Gvir saying: "We will not compromise on any hill, on any outpost. This is ours."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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