GENEVA – Israel officially announced on Thursday that it would not cooperate with a special commission formed by the United Nations’ top human rights body to investigate alleged abuses against Palestinians, saying the inquiry and its chair were unfairly biased against Israel.
The decision, delivered in a scathing letter to the head of the commission, Navi Pillay, further strained what is already a strained relationship between Israel and the UN-backed Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“It is obvious to my country, as it should be to any impartial observer, that there is simply no reason to believe that Israel will receive reasonable, fair and non-discriminatory treatment from the Council or this commission of inquiry,” says the letter, signed by Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel’s ambassador to the UN and international organizations in Geneva.
The council established the three-person commission of inquiry last May, days after an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. More than 260 Palestinians, including dozens of women and children, have been killed in the fighting. Fourteen people died in Israel.
At the time, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said Israeli actions, including airstrikes in civilian areas, could have constituted war crimes.
Since then, a number of international rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have said the Israeli attacks appear to have amounted to war crimes. Bachelet and HRW also said Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket fire at Israeli towns also violated international laws of war.
Israel blames Hamas for civilian casualties, saying the group uses residential areas for cover during its military activities. Many rockets were fired from the neighborhoods.
But the commission’s responsibilities go well beyond the Gaza war. A “commission of inquiry” is the council’s most powerful tool for examining rights violations and abuses. Its mandate is to monitor alleged rights violations in Israel, Gaza and the occupied West Bank. It is the first commission of this type to have a “continuing” mandate.
Israel has long accused the United Nations, and in particular the Human Rights Council, of bias.
Israel is the only country in the world whose rights record is discussed at every council session. Israel has also raised concerns about the composition of the council, saying it includes countries with poor rights records or open hostility towards Israel. China, Cuba, Eritrea, Pakistan, Venezuela and a number of Arab countries sit on the 47-member council.
Israel has also repeatedly rejected international calls for investigations into its wartime conduct and treatment of Palestinians. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has opened an investigation into possible Israeli war crimes – an investigation which Israel says is motivated by anti-Semitism and part of an international campaign to “delegitimize” it.
“This COI is sure to be another deplorable chapter in the effort to demonize the State of Israel,” Eilon Shahar said.
His letter was personally aimed at Pillay, who is Bachelet’s predecessor as UN human rights chief. He said Pillay, a former South African judge, endorsed “shameful libel” calling Israel an apartheid nation and backed the Palestinian-led international boycott movement against Israel.
The ambassador was responding to a December 29 letter from Pillay to the Israeli government, obtained by The Associated Press, asking Israel to “reconsider its position of non-cooperation” expressed after the commission was established. Pillay wrote that the commission would “need” to visit Israel and the occupied Palestinian areas and requested a visit in the last week of March. She said the commission was looking to travel with six to eight staff members.
The ambassador’s letter guarantees that the commission will not obtain such access or cooperation from the Israeli government.
Pillay’s opponents have pointed to what they claim is an anti-Israel bias she exhibits. This included, for example, comments she made in 2017 to an interviewer about the definition of “apartheid” as a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. She said that “it means the forced segregation of people on racial grounds, and that is happening in Israel.”
Pillay also said, “The government of Israel really does not like a comparison between apartheid South Africa and Israel.”
She has not publicly responded to allegations of anti-Israel bias that have surfaced since her appointment. The commission said in an email to the AP on Thursday that its members “do not intend to make public statements or publicize their communications between affected parties in order to preserve the integrity of the work that they perform”.
Council chairman Ambassador Federico Villegas of Argentina defended the selection of commission members – who also include Chris Sidoti of Australia and Miloon Kothari of India – saying the chairman “gives the utmost importance to the examination of the independence and impartiality of each member in order to guarantee the objectivity of the body” and takes into account their skills and their experience in the appointment of its members.
A growing number of rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and local Israeli groups, have said that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, including its own Arab minority, amounts to apartheid. Israel vehemently rejects the anti-Semitic label.
Federman reported from Jerusalem.