UN to launch investigation into ‘crimes’ committed in Israel and Palestine

Heavy construction equipment is used to sift through rubble in Gaza city (AP Photo / John Minchillo)

The United Nations Human Rights Council voted on Thursday to launch an investigation into alleged crimes committed during the recent outbreak of violence between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza.

The independent investigation will look into alleged violations committed during the 11-day conflict, as well as identify the “root causes” of the violence including “systematic discrimination and repression” both in the Palestinian territories and inside Israel.

Opening the session at the UN in Geneva, human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said attacks by Israeli forces on Gaza earlier this month could constitute “war crimes” if found to be “disproportionate and indiscriminate”, and that the UN had so far found no evidence that the buildings targeted were hosting armed groups or being used for military purposes. The high commissioner also said that Hamas had violated international humanitarian law with “indiscriminate” rocket attacks on Israel.

The resolution adopted by the council was brought by Pakistan – on behalf of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – and the Palestinian delegation to the UN. The text calls for a permanent Commission of Inquiry to be set up to scrutinise alleged violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Twenty-four council members voted in favour of the resolution, nine voted against and 14 abstained.

The commission will look into “all underlying root causes of recurrent tensions, instability and protraction of conflict, including systematic discrimination and repression based on national, ethnic, racial or religious identity” in the Palestinian territories and Israel. It is the first open-ended commission in the council’s history.

Bachelet said her office had confirmed that some 250 Palestinians, including 66 children, were killed by Israeli air strikes during the fighting this month, which ended in a ceasefire after 11 days. The majority of the bloodshed was in Gaza, controlled by Hamas, though there were also deaths in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In Israel, 12 people, including two children, were killed by Hamas rocket fire.

“There is no doubt that Israel has the right to defend its citizens and residents. However, Palestinians have rights too – the same rights,” Bachelet told the council. “The death of and injury of children in this escalation is a source of shame for all.”

Addressing member states during the meeting, foreign minister to the state of Palestine Riyad al-Maliki said "Israel, the occupation and apartheid authority continues its crimes, its policies and laws to consolidate a colonial and apartheid system."

European countries were split by the vote, with Austria, the United Kingdom and Germany voting against it and voicing their opposition to an open-ended inquiry with a “vague” timeframe and “broad” mandate. “An investigation with such a mandate risks hardening positions on both sides and moves further away from a lasting solution,” said the UK representative. France and the Netherlands abstained.

Many member states who voted against or abstained took issue with the resolution’s focus on Israel. In statements addressing the council, the UK, Germany and Austria reiterated Israel’s “legitimate right to defend itself” against Hamas.

Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel's ambassador to the UN in Geneva accused Hamas of using Palestinian civilians as “human shields”. She added that each of the 4,400 rockets fired into Israel - most of which were intercepted by Israel's ‘Iron Dome’ defence system - constituted a “war crime”.

Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu accused the forum of whitewashing "a genocidal terrorist organisation" in a statement following the vote. “Today's shameful decision is yet another example of the UN Human Rights Council's blatant anti-Israel obsession,” he said.

The United States, who has observer status and no vote at the forum, said on Thursday that it “deeply regretted” the decision of the council to adopt the motion. "The action today instead threatens to imperil the progress that has been made," said the US mission to the UN in Geneva in a statement.

Israel and its allies, including the US and UK, have accused the human rights council of disproportionate anti-Israel bias in the past, with a resolution related to Israel and Palestine the only permanent feature on its annual agenda.

Pakistan, who co-sponsored the resolution, was joined by countries including China, Russia, Mexico and the Philippines in voting in favour.

"Regrettably, the self-professed global champions of human rights continue to shield the occupier from global accountability, and literally provide arms and ammunitions for its widely reported war crimes and crimes of apartheid against the Palestinian people," said Khalil Hashmi, Pakistan's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, speaking on behalf of the OIC.

Addressing the council during the session on Thursday, Bachelet said that while she welcomed last week's ceasefire, “there must be a genuine and inclusive peace process to address these root causes and bring the occupation to an end”.