GENEVA: The UN Human Rights Council on Wednesday launched a probe into the Gaza offensive, backing calls by the Palestinians to hold Israel to account despite fierce opposition from the Jewish state.
The decision came after a marathon seven-hour emergency session of the top UN human rights body, where the Israelis and the Palestinians traded accusations over war crimes. The 46-member council backed a Palestinian-drafted resolution by 29 votes, with Arab and fellow Muslim countries joined by China and Russia, plus Latin American and African nations. The United States was the sole member to vote against. The 17 abstentions were by the council’s European members, plus Japan and South Korea.
The probe team, yet to be appointed, is tasked with reporting back to the council by March. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s media office slammed it as a “travesty” that “ignored violations by Hamas”. “This investigation by a kangaroo court is a foregone conclusion,” his office said. US Ambassador Keith Harper warned the vote would undermine ceasefire efforts. “This resolution is not constructive, it is destructive,” Harper said, noting it lacked “any semblance of balance” because it made no mention of Hamas’ retaliatory attacks.
Speaking for the European Union, Italian Ambassador Maurizio Serra also criticised the failure to mention Hamas or recognise Israel’s “right to self-defence”, despite last-ditch efforts by his team to have such language included. The session was called by Arab nations and fellow members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. The council’s membership rotates, and Israel is not currently part of the UN body. Non-members cannot vote but are entitled to speak. Israeli Ambassador Eviator Manor lashed out at countries that piloted the vote.
“Their Pavlovian instinct demands they react against Israel, in order to divert attention from their own human rights violations,” he said. “Hamas is committing war crimes when it fires rockets indiscriminately at Israel towns and villages. Hamas is protecting its launching sites with the civilian residents of Gaza. Another war crime,” he said. “And this council sits in judgement of Israel? There can be no moral symmetry between a terrorist aggressor and a democracy defending itself,” he added.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki hit back. “What Israel is doing is a crime against humanity,” he said. UN human rights chief Navi Pillay also said Israel’s military actions could amount to war crimes, while at the same time condemning rocket attacks by Hamas. “There seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes,” Pillay told the council, citing attacks that have killed Palestinian civilians, including children.
Citing cases Israeli air strikes and shelling hitting houses and hospitals in the crowded coastal enclave, she said: “These are just a few examples where there seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes. “Every one of these incidents must be properly and independently investigated,” she said. Pillay, a former UN war crimes judge, said that any warning by Israel to Gaza residents ahead of strikes must be “clear, credible and allow sufficient time for people to react”.
Gaza fighting continued to rage on Wednesday, displacing thousands more Palestinians in the battered territory as US Secretary of State John Kerry said indirect truce talks between Israel and Hamas had made some progress. The resolution condemned “the widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” since Israel launched its offensive last month and called for the urgent deployment of an “independent, international commission of inquiry”.
The Gaza offensive marks the worst bout of Israel-led violence since two spikes in conflict in 2009 and 2012, and has already claimed the lives of more than 685 Palestinians, most of them civilians. “Twenty-five Palestinians have been killed for every single Israeli. How far is this going to go?” Palestinian Ambassador Ibrahim Khraishi asked. Meanwhile, Manor vowed that Israel would “destroy” Hamas’ military infrastructure.
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