Fears are growing as Israel escalates its military presence along its heavily militarized separation barrier with Gaza. Israel has deployed 60 tanks to meet Palestinian protesters gathering today to protest the ongoing Israeli occupation and demand the right of return for those displaced from their homes. Israel has announced it is implementing a “zero tolerance” policy toward protesters in Gaza, who have been staging weekly Friday protests since March 30 under the banner of the Great March of Return. Since then, Israeli forces have killed at least 170 Palestinians, including more than 30 children, and injured at least 18,000. We speak with Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the human rights group B’Tselem, who testified Thursday in front of the United Nations Security Council about the crisis in Gaza and the West Bank.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Fears are growing as Israel escalates its military presence along its heavily militarized separation barrier with Gaza. Israel has deployed 60 tanks to greet Palestinian protesters gathering today to protest the ongoing Israeli occupation and demand the right of return for those displaced from their homes. Israel has announced it’s implementing a zero-tolerance policy towards protesters in Gaza, who have been staging weekly Friday protests since March 30th under the banner of the Great March of Return. Since then, Israeli forces have killed at least 170 Palestinians, including more than 30 children, and injured, it’s believed, close to 20,000 more Palestinians.
On Thursday, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem was invited to address the United Nations Security Council about the crisis in Gaza and the West Bank. This is the group’s executive director, Hagai El-Ad, addressing the Security Council.
HAGAI EL-AD: The Gaza Strip, with a population of nearly 2 million, has essentially become an open-air prison. Its inmates have been staging protests for the past six months, after suffering for more than a decade under an Israeli-imposed blockade that has led to economic collapse, soaring unemployment rates, polluted drinking water, dwindling power supplies and, ultimately, to deep despair.
AMY GOODMAN: Israeli officials have roundly slammed B’Tselem executive director Hagai El-Ad’s speech. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted, “B’Tselem’s conduct is a disgrace to be remembered as a short and [temporary] episode in [our nation’s history].”
We spend the rest of the hour with Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of B’Tselem.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
HAGAI EL-AD: Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you expand on what you said yesterday at the U.N. Security Council? Again, this just the second time that you’ve been invited there. You have enraged Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.
HAGAI EL-AD: Yeah. It’s essential for us to try and bring about an end for the occupation. It’s a reality that is so well documented. All of this is happening in broad daylight. And the sense that we have—B’Tselem has been working on this issue for more than almost 30 years already at this point. And actually, the place where I would have agreed with the prime minister is that we would have wished that we would have been a short episode in our country’s history. We want to exist only as long as the occupation exists, and our mandate is to bring about an end to that reality. But, of course, this has been going on for more than half a century already.
And the only nonviable [sic] path that we identify to change this reality, also because of the huge imbalance of power between the occupied Palestinians and the ruling Israelis, is through assertive international action. And that’s the voice that we have been repeating already a number of times in recent years. And the one place—the most important place perhaps on the planet—to assert that point precisely is the U.N. Security Council.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the facts on the ground in Gaza. What is happening there just since March 30th has gotten almost no attention in the U.S. media. And people might have thought I misspoke when I said—when I talked about the casualties, both the dead and the number of Palestinians who have been shot and injured by Israeli forces.
HAGAI EL-AD: Yeah. The entire situation in Gaza, in many ways, is getting closer and closer to a humanitarian catastrophe. In some aspects, we have already arrived at that terrible point. But I think usually when people discuss humanitarian calamities, it’s a result of some natural disaster. In Gaza, everything that we’re seeing is a result of consistent policies that have been applied by this point already for more than 10 years. And discussions of issues, such as the deteriorating quality of water, the most basic essential need for human living, that’s not something that people woke up to a week ago. People have been warning from these developments already for years. So that, as well, is something that we’ve all been walking towards, stepping towards, already for quite a while, and now we are reaching those results.
You know, people say that Gaza is in crisis mode when there are three hours of electricity a day. But, hey, when there’s six hours of electricity a day, then that’s somehow acceptable or reasonable? And we’re also not talking about a reality that is happening in some distant corner of the world; this is at Israel’s doorstep. This is an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv, barely, right? Right next door to the First World economy of the country that I live in, just one next to the other, and this is the way we police the reality in Gaza.
And it’s not a coincidence that we described it yesterday and also earlier as probably the largest open-air prison on Earth. The people don’t necessarily have even the understanding that this is already one of the most crowded places on the planet, but people can almost never leave the Gaza Strip. And even the lucky ones that occasionally are successful in doing that, because they can cross through the Rafah Crossing into the Sinai and then through Egypt to travel abroad, in many cases, they won’t even know when they will be able to come back into the Gaza Strip, because maybe that crossing, that is only open for short periods of time during the year, will be closed.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what are the casualty figures since March 30th? How many Palestinians killed?
HAGAI EL-AD: Yeah. So, there are more than 170 Palestinians that died through Israeli soldiers firing—snipers—from inside Israel at demonstrators inside the Gaza Strip. And there are more than 5,300 that were injured just through the usage of gunfire, live gunfire.
AMY GOODMAN: And how many injured beyond the live gunfire?
HAGAI EL-AD: We don’t have that data.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to what just happened on Wednesday. Israel bombed the Gaza Strip, killed yet another Palestinian?
HAGAI EL-AD: Actually, I was not able to follow the news on that day.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about Israeli public opinion? I mean, you’re an Israeli. What does B’Tselem mean?
HAGAI EL-AD: B’Tselem is from the Old [Testament]. It means “in the image.” And, of course, the idea that we want to express here is one of universal and Jewish values, that all human beings were created in the image of God.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you believe needs to happen?
HAGAI EL-AD: We believe that the only future that we would embrace, that we will accept, is a future that is based on the realization of rights, dignity and equality for all people that live between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River—all 13 million people, Israeli and Palestinian. Now, I don’t know, and we have no position, how many states exactly—one state, two states, five-and-a-half states—would be the right political answer to that. We don’t—we’rew not a peace organization, so we don’t focus on that.
The essential question is: What would be the rights, what would be the level of equality and dignity, for the people who will live in that future agreed-upon solution? And there is one absolutely incompatible future with the realization of those rights, which is what we’re living in: a one-state reality that includes within it a perpetual occupation.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to end it here, and then we’re going to continue with Part 2 of this discussion and post it online under web-exes at democracynow.org. Hagai El-Ad is the executive director of the human rights group B’Tselem. He testified for only the second time before the U.N. Security Council.