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Israel won’t cooperate with UN team probing crimes against Palestinians

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GENEVA: Israel has formally announced, it would not cooperate with United Nations’ special commission to investigate alleged abuses against Palestinians, blaming the probe and its chairwoman were unfairly biased against Israel.

“It is obvious to my country, as it should be to any fair-minded observer, that there is simply no reason to believe that Israel will receive reasonable, equitable and non-discriminatory treatment from the Council, or from this Commission of Inquiry,” said the letter, signed by Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel’s ambassador to the UN and international organizations in Geneva.

The decision, delivered in a scathing letter to the commission’s head, Navi Pillay, further strained what already is a tense relationship between Israel and the UN-backed Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The council established the three-person investigative commission last May, days after an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. Over 260 Palestinians, including scores of women and children, were killed in the fighting. Fourteen people died in Israel.

At the time, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that Israeli actions, including airstrikes in civilian areas, might have constituted war crimes.

Since then, a number of international rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have said Israeli attacks appear to have constituted war crimes.

Israel blames Hamas for civilian casualties, saying the group uses residential areas for cover while carrying out military activities. Many rockets were fired from neighbourhoods.

But the commission’s responsibilities go well beyond the Gaza war. A “Commission of Inquiry” is the most potent tool of scrutiny of rights violations and abuse at the council’s disposal. The assigned mandate of this one is to monitor alleged rights violations in Israel, Gaza and the occupied West Bank. It is the first such commission to have an “ongoing” mandate.

Israel has long accused the United Nations, and particularly the Human Rights Council, of bias.

Israel is the only country in the world whose rights record comes up for discussion at every council session. Israel has also raised concerns about the council’s makeup, saying it includes countries with poor rights records or open hostility toward Israel. China, Cuba, Eritrea, Pakistan, Venezuela and a number of Arab countries sit on the 47-member council.

Israel also has repeatedly rejected international calls for investigations into its wartime conduct and treatment of the Palestinians. The International Criminal Court in the Hague has opened an investigation into possible Israeli war crimes, a probe that Israel says is motivated by antisemitism and part of an international campaign to “delegitimize” it.

“This COI is sure to be yet another sorry chapter in the efforts to demonize the State of Israel,” Eilon Shahar said.

Her letter took personal aim at Pillay, who is a predecessor of Bachelet as UN human rights chief. It said Pillay, a former South African judge, has endorsed “the shameful libel” branding Israel an apartheid nation and backed the international Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel.

The ambassador was responding to a Dec. 29 letter from Pillay to Israel’s government, obtained by The Associated Press, asking Israel to “reconsider its position of non-cooperation” expressed after the commission was created. Pillay wrote that the commission would “need” to visit Israel and occupied Palestinian areas and requested a visit in the last week of March. She said the commission sought to travel along with six to eight staffers.

The ambassador’s letter all but ensures the commission will not obtain such access or Israeli government cooperation.

Opponents of Pillay have highlighted what they allege is an anti-Israel bias shown by her. That included, for example, comments she made in 2017 to an interviewer about the definition of “apartheid” as a crime against humanity under the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute. She said that “it means the enforced segregation of people on racial lines, and that is happening in Israel.”

Pillay also had said: “The government of Israel really resents a comparison between apartheid South Africa and Israel.”

She has not responded publicly to allegations of anti-Israel bias that emerged since her appointment. The commission said on Thursday that its members “do not intend to make public statements nor publicize their communications between the concerned parties so as to preserve the integrity of the work they are carrying out.”

The council president, Ambassador Federico Villegas of Argentina, defended the selection of the commission members, which also include Chris Sidoti of Australia and Miloon Kothari of India saying the president “places the utmost importance on examining the independence and impartiality of each member in order to ensure the objectivity of the body” and considers their skills and experience in appointing its members.

A growing number of rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and local Israeli groups, have said that Israeli treatment of Palestinians, including its own Arab minority, amounts to apartheid. Israel vociferously rejects the label as antisemitic.

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