Prompted by the 11-day war between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza this month, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted on Thursday to launch an investigation into possible war crimes and alleged abuses committed in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
The resolution passed on Thursday, brought by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Palestinian delegation to the UN, calls for the creation of a commission of inquiry to monitor reports of violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
It will be “ongoing”, meaning it can pursue the inquiry indefinitely, bringing an unprecedented level of international scrutiny to the region. The commission is also mandated to not only look into alleged “crimes” committed during the latest conflict, but also investigate “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” both in the occupied Palestinian territories and inside Israel.
Although the commission could investigate human rights violations by all parties to the conflict, the resolution makes no mention of Hamas, which prompted many member states to criticise it for being one-sided.
“Once again an immoral automatic majority at the council whitewashes a genocidal terrorist organisation that deliberately targets Israeli civilians while turning Gaza’s civilians into human shields,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the vote.
European countries were split by the vote, with Austria, the United Kingdom and Germany voting against an open-ended inquiry. “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.
But Khalil Hashmi, Pakistan’s UN ambassador, who proposed the resolution along with the OIC, argued that the panel was essential to hold Israel accountable for what he called “decades of human rights violations” in the region.
The latest fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza this month was the third war between the two sides since 2008, although there have been countless outbreaks of violence in between.
Israeli airstrikes on Gaza killed some 250 Palestinians, including 66 children, and Hamas rocket fire into Israel claimed the lives of 12 people, including two children. Speaking at the opening of the Human Rights Council session, UN 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 Hamas had violated international humanitarian law with “indiscriminate” rocket fire into Israel.
After more than a week of the worst violence seen in years, a ceasefire brokered by Egypt was agreed early morning on 21 May, bringing an end to the barrage – although there are concerns that it will only be temporary if no progress is made towards addressing the “root causes” of tensions in the region. Many experts welcomed the Human Rights Council resolution as a sign that this time might be different.
“The possible investigations of the Human Rights Council and the result of them can help by putting pressure on the actors in the conflict because they will give evidence of crimes committed, and they're constantly reminded that international law does exist,” said Professor Riccardo Bocco from the Graduate Institute of Geneva, who has been working on the Israel-Palestine conflict for 30 years, speaking to Geneva Solutions. “And to get out of this conflict, as with many others, unless you go back to international law you will not move by an inch.”
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is also closely watching the conflict, with an investigation into the situation in Palestine already ongoing. Israel has rejected the investigation and the ICC as illegitimate, having loudly supported US President Donald Trump's sanctions on the body imposed during his administration.
But despite Israel's resistance, experts say the investigation, like the Human Right Council commission, could be important tools to put pressure on both parties to the conflict to not simply return to the status quo. The court's investigation, which it's believed will target Hamas leaders and Israeli government officials, could also influence the indirect talks which Hamas and Israel have agreed to following the ceasefire.
“[The investigation is] important leverage that can be used for the negotiations,” explained Bocco. “Once the machine of the ICC has been put in motion, it becomes an instrument that can be used as a tool for pressuring Israel and Hamas.”
Shifting US stance. The United States has maintained its staunch support for its ally Israel by refusing to condemn its actions during the latest conflict – attracting widespread criticism both at home within President Biden's government and abroad. The US condemned the Human Rights Council's decision on Thursday as a “distraction” that will contribute nothing to humanitarian and diplomatic efforts, and instead “threatens to imperil the progress that has been made in recent weeks.”
However, there have been a number of movements from the Biden administration that may suggest the beginnings of a shift in US policy. During a trip to the Middle East last week intended to consolidate the ceasefire between the two sides, secretary of state Antony Blinken stressed the US’ commitment to a two-state solution and criticised settlement activity – a rarity for senior members within US government, particularly since President Trump's era.
The secretary of state also announced the reopening of a mission in Jerusalem to manage diplomatic relations with Palestinians, which was downgraded by President Trump who sparked outrage throughout the international community when he shifted the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
Blinken also said the Biden administration will ask Congress for $ 75 million in aid for Palestinians including $ 5.5m in aid for rebuilding Gaza, pledging none of the funds would benefit Hamas. Aid to Palestinians was cut off during under Trump, who also unveiled a peace plan under which Israel would hold on to most settlements, which was strongly opposed by Palestinians.
“As I told the president, I'm here to underscore the commitment of the United States to rebuilding the relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, a relationship built on mutual respect and also a shared conviction that Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity and dignity, ”said Blinken.
“The first change in the outcome of this escalation of violence has been the change of the American administration's attitude,” explained Bocco. “This signals a new departure for the American administration towards the Israeli Palestinian conflict – 'new' compared to the Trump years.”
“We have to see which kind of concrete acts he will develop the new US administration's policy with but so far, in a few days, the fact that they are reopening the American Consulate in Jerusalem – which legitimises the position of the Palestinian Authority as partner in discussions – and the $ 75 million [in aid] are concrete signs, and are possibly paving the way towards [a solution]. ”
Groundswell of interest worldwide. The latest conflict has also sparked a new reaction on the ground in countries around the world. Since the fighting broke out on 10 May, there has been an unprecedented reaction from civil society groups in support of Palestinians in particular, with marches across the US as well as European cities. Again, the intense public interest in the situation could serve to spur on progress towards a solution.
“When you look worldwide, if the diplomats have been unable to say meaningful words during the escalation, there has been important civil society protests and demonstrations in New York, London, Berlin, Geneva, Paris,” said Bocco. “This is an interesting new dimension. If the political decision makers are not able to speak, at least there is the street where people can voice their concern. ”
While Egypt and Israel continue talks this month to shore up the ceasefire with Hamas, and as efforts to rebuild Gaza get underway, the future of Israel and Palestine is as fragile as ever. The sparks that ignited the latest eruption of violence have not gone away. In East Jerusalem where the conflict began, the decision on the eviction of dozens of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah area has been frozen for now, but tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are still at boiling point.
Nevertheless, experts hope that the international reaction to the latest bloodshed could be the beginning of a new chapter in the region's troubled history – particularly if the US makes good on its pledge to reach a lasting solution.
“If there is no plan and dialogue after the ceasefire, the ceasefire itself becomes meaningless,” said Bocco. “Unless there [is] concrete initiative and action, the ceasefire will be a long episode between two battles.”