The UN Human Rights Council on Wednesday launched a probe into the conflict in Gaza, backing calls by the Palestinians to hold Israel to account despite fierce opposition from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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.
Netanyahu’s media office slammed the decision as a “travesty” that ignored human rights violations by Hamas terrorists.
“This investigation by a kangaroo court is a foregone conclusion,” his office said.
US ambassador Keith Harper warned that 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 attacks.
Speaking for the European Union, Italian ambassador Maurizio Serra also criticized the failure to mention Hamas or recognize Israel’s right to self-defense, despite last-ditch efforts by his team to have such language included.
The session was called by Arab nations and fellow members of the Organization 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 indiscriminate 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.
She said Israelis also had a right to live without constant fear of rocket attacks.
“Once again, the principles of distinction and precaution are clearly not being observed during such indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups,” she said.
Israel’s relations with the council, and with Pillay, have long been strained. In March 2012, Jerusalem cut off all ties with the body after it announced the establishment of a fact-finding mission into Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a decision that was condemned by the government. A few months later, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem slammed Pillay for failing to condemn Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilians.
In the winter of 2013, Israel rejoined the UNHRC after Western member states promised to admit the country into the Western European and Others Group, which significantly increases Jerusalem’s ability to advance its interests at the body. In addition, the WEOG states agreed not to participate in discussions over the council’s notorious Agenda item 7 (“the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories”) for two years.
Since 2007, Israel has been the only country whose alleged human rights abuses are discussed in the framework of a permanent item on the council’s agenda.
Wednesday’s 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 conflagration marks the worst violence since two spikes in the conflict in 2009 and 2012, and has already claimed the lives of 34 Israelis, 32 of them soldiers, and, according to Palestinian sources, more than 685 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Israel says it launched the offensive on Gaza to stem incessant rocket attacks and destroy a large network of tunnels that Hamas planned to use to launch attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers; Hamas has made five attacks inside Israel from the tunnels in recent days, killing 6 Israeli soldiers.
“Twenty-five Palestinians have been killed for every single Israeli. How far is this going to go?” Palestinian ambassador Ibrahim Khraishi asked.
“When we ask for a commission of inquiry, what we want to do is identify those responsible so they can be held accountable, so that we can shed light on the truth,” he said.
Manor, the Israeli ambassador, vowed that Israel would “destroy” Hamas’s military infrastructure.
“However, the Gaza residents are not our enemies. Israel is fully committed to international law,” he said.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this story.