'A politically motivated outcome tailored in advance'

Israel rejects cooperation with ‘morally bankrupt’ UN rights probe into May fighting

In scathing letter, ambassador Meirav Eilon Shahar says commission headed by Navi Pillay is biased and will not treat Israel fairly; ‘We expect such bodies to act in good faith’

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Palestinians inspect the damage to their homes following a ceasefire between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, Friday, May 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Palestinians inspect the damage to their homes following a ceasefire between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, Friday, May 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Israel on Thursday formally announced 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 probe and its chairwoman were unfairly biased against Israel.

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.

“It is obvious to my country, as it should be to any fair-minded observer, that 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,” wrote Meirav Eilon Shahar, Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations and International Organizations in Geneva, in a letter to Pillay.

She charged that the probe “both reflects and compounds the moral bankruptcy of the Human Rights Council’s obsessive bias against Israel, causing lasting harm to the very values of human rights and respect for the rule of law that it was intended to uphold.”

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

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.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay speaks during a news conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday, December 2, 2013. (AP/Keystone, Salvatore Di Nolfi)

The Israeli envoy said the three members of the commission, including Pillay, a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “have repeatedly taken public and hostile positions against Israel on the very subject matter that they are called upon to ‘independently and impartially’ investigate.”

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.

While the council has previously ordered eight investigations into rights violations committed in the Palestinian territories, the inquiry established in May was the first open-ended probe, and the first to examine “root causes” in the drawn-out conflict.

Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel’s Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations and International Organizations in Geneva. (Israel’s Mission to UN and International Organizations in Geneva)

It was tasked with looking beyond that surge in violence and to investigate “all alleged violations of international humanitarian law and all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law” in Israel and the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem.

“We expect such bodies to act in good faith, without bias, and not in the service of a pre-determined political agenda,” the letter read. “Regrettably, none of this can be expected from this COI.”

Palestinian volunteers sweep dust in front of a building destroyed during the latest round of fighting, in Gaza City’s Rimal district, on May 25, 2021. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Eilon Shahar wrote that Pillay herself is “well known for personally championing an anti-Israel agenda and for numerous anti-Israel pronouncements, including the shameful libel comparing Israel to apartheid-era South Africa, as well as advocating for the radical BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction) campaign against Israel.”

She also alleged that the commission members were appointed because of their history of accusations against Israel, “so as to guarantee a politically motivated outcome that is tailored in advance.”

“It should be of no wonder that Israel, and anyone who actually cares about human rights and the rule of law, will treat the establishment of the COI, its functioning and its findings accordingly,” she wrote.

Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, on May 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

The letter was in response to a December 29 letter from Pillay to the Israeli government to ask it to “reconsider its position of non-cooperation” expressed right after the commission was created. In her letter, she said 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.

On Monday, UN Watch, a Geneva-based rights group that monitors UN activities, demanded that Pillay resign because she had displayed “demonstrable bias against Israel, including on issues specifically related to the case and controversy that is the object of this inquiry.”

Hillel Neuer of UN Watch (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash 90)
Hillel Neuer. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

“Many of the utterances in question occurred mere weeks before she was appointed by the UN [last] summer, leaving little room to imagine how Pillay could envisage the issues any differently so soon afterwards,” UN Watch chief Hillel Neuer said in a statement.

UN Watch gave as an example quotes from a June 14, 2021 joint letter to US President Joe Biden in which Pillay lamented Israel’s “domination and oppression of the Palestinian people” and called on the US to address the root of the violence by ending Israel’s “ever-expanding discrimination and systemic oppression.”

In June 2020, Pillay also signed a petition organized by the South African Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (SA BDS) Coalition, entitled “Sanction Apartheid Israel!” UN Watch said.

Then, in a May 2021 lecture, she described Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as “inhuman” and compared Israel to apartheid-era South Africa.

And while serving as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights she said that the Israeli government treats international law “with perpetual disdain.”

Pillay served as UN rights chief from 2008 to 2014, and also served as a judge with the International Criminal Court and as Judge President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Agencies contributed to this report. 

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