UNITED NATIONS — The open-ended United Nations Commission of Inquiry into rights abuses by Israel and the Palestinians said Thursday it will investigate apartheid charges against Israel, confirming fears in Jerusalem that the controversial probe would seek to brand it with the toxic term.
The ongoing UN investigation was set up by the Human Rights Council following last year’s 11-day battle between Israel and Gaza terrorists to probe rights abuses in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, but has been almost exclusively focused on Israel.
The commission released its second report last week, calling on the UN Security Council to end Israel’s “permanent occupation” and urging UN member states to prosecute Israeli officials.
On Thursday, the three members of the commission said future reports will investigate apartheid by Israel, during a briefing at the United Nations in New York. They said the investigation had so far focused on the “root causes” of the conflict, which they ascribe to Israel’s presence in the West Bank.
Navi Pillay, a former UN human rights chief who chairs the commission, called apartheid “a manifestation of the occupation.”
“We’re focusing on the root cause which is the occupation and part of it lies in apartheid,” Pillay said. “We will be coming to that. That’s the beauty of this open-ended mandate, it gives us the scope.”
Commission member Miloon Kothari also said the open-ended nature of the probe allowed it to examine the apartheid charge.
“We will get to it because we have many years and issues to look at,” he said.
“We think a comprehensive approach is necessary so we have to look at issues of settler colonialism,” Kothari added. “Apartheid itself is a very useful paradigm, so we have a slightly different approach but we will definitely get to it.”
Israel has refused to cooperate with the commission and has not granted it entry into Israel or access to Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank and Gaza. It rejected last week’s report, calling the panel neither credible nor legitimate. On Thursday, Israel’s ambassador to the UN said the panel’s members were chosen because they “abhor” Israel.
Reports earlier this year said the Foreign Ministry was planning a campaign to head off accusations of apartheid by the commission. A leaked cable reportedly revealed Israeli officials were concerned about the damage the commission’s first report could do if it referred to Israel as an “apartheid state.”
Prime Minister Yair Lapid, while serving as foreign minister earlier this year, warned that Israel would face intense campaigns to label it an apartheid state this year.
The UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others have accused Israel of apartheid in the past two years, borrowing the term from South Africa’s system of codified race-based discrimination.
Israel has adamantly denied apartheid accusations, saying its Arab minority enjoys full civil rights, while most Palestinians, who live outside Israel’s sovereign territory, are subject to Palestinian Authority rule under the Oslo Accords.
It also bristles at the term “occupation” to describe its activities in the West Bank and Gaza. It views Gaza, from which it withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005, as a hostile entity ruled by the Islamic terror group Hamas, and it considers the West Bank to be disputed territory subject to peace negotiations — which collapsed nearly a decade ago. The Palestinians claim the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war — for an independent, future state.
The commission presented its latest report to the UN General Assembly on Thursday.
The 28-page report accuses Israel of violating international law by making its control over the West Bank permanent, and by annexing land claimed by the Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Syrian land in the Golan Heights. It also accuses Israel of discriminatory policies against Arab citizens, of stealing natural resources, and of gender-based violence against Palestinian women.
It does not mention Hamas, rockets or terrorism at all, though the panel has repeatedly noted that alleged Palestinian crimes are within the scope of the probe.
The three members of the commission have been harshly critical of Israel in the past, and Israel has said the investigation is prejudiced and antisemitic.
Lapid has called the report antisemitic, “biased, false, inciting and blatantly unbalanced.”
Pillay on Thursday denied allegations she has previously called Israel an apartheid state. The UN Watch monitoring group said it has documented multiple instances of her accusing Israel of apartheid as recently as 2020.
She has also faced criticism over her defense of Kothari, after he sparked an uproar earlier this year when he said social media was “controlled largely by the Jewish lobby,” invoking antisemitic tropes about Jewish power. He also questioned why Israel was in the United Nations.
Israel’s envoy to the UN, Gilad Erdan, decried the report on Thursday alongside the parents of Ido Avigal, a child who was killed by Hamas during the 2021 conflict.
In all their reports, the COI didn’t mention one Israeli victim of terrorism,including Ido, a 5 year old boy murdered by a Hamas rocket. I asked the commissioners to look into the eyes of his parents, whom I invited to the committee, and explain why his life meant nothing to them pic.twitter.com/uNe3hgsE0x
— Ambassador Gilad Erdan גלעד ארדן (@giladerdan1) October 27, 2022
“[The commissioners] were chosen precisely because they abhor the Jewish State,” Erdan said.
The panel’s members said Israel’s criticisms did not “deny the findings” of the report.
The US has also repeatedly condemned the commission. US President Joe Biden denounced the investigation as biased during a meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday.
The investigation “continues a longstanding pattern of unfairly singling out Israel and does nothing to establish conditions for peace,” the White House said.
Pillay dismissed allegations of antisemitism on Thursday, calling the claims “offensive” and “a diversion.”
“All three of us are not antisemitic. Let me make that clear, and then to add insult to injury, they said the report is also antisemitic. There isn’t a word in this report that can be interpreted as antisemitic,” she said. “This is always raised as a diversion.”
“We’re so committed to justice, the rule of law and human rights and we should not be subjected to abuse such as this. They’re totally false, all false and lies,” she said.
She said Israel may be guilty of international crimes, including war crimes, by transferring civilians into “occupied territory,” referring to West Bank settlements, where nearly 500,000 Israelis live.
Kothari denounced settlers as a “paramilitary force.”
“They can do whatever the hell they want, they can raid homes, they can destroy olives,” he said.
Pillay dismissed security concerns Israel cites for maintaining a presence in the West Bank as “a fiction” the country was trying to “hide behind.”
“Some of Israel’s policies in the West Bank are only cosmetically intended to justify security concerns,” she said.
The commission has called for Israel to immediately withdraw from the West Bank, while making no demands of the Palestinians.
Kothari dismissed the idea of an Israeli withdrawal as part of peace talks toward a two-state solution, a process backed by much of the international community.
“How can we talk about peace or negotiations before there are any measures taken from the Israeli side?” Kothari said.
While most Israelis support a two-state solution, Israel argues that a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank without security guarantees would create a terror state on its doorstep, pointing to Gaza, where it has waged repeated wars to stymie Hamas rocket attacks on civilians, as an example. Israel also justifies its blockade on the Gaza Strip, maintained alongside Egypt, as security measures needed to stop terrorism.
The first report, released in May, briefly mentioned rocket attacks and Palestinian terror, but blamed Israel’s “persistent discrimination against Palestinians” for violence between the two sides.
The commission said Thursday it “condemns any form of violence.”
Commissioner Chris Sidoti said future reports will have “more comprehensive coverage,” and said reporting on Israel was limited because Israel has not allowed the commissioners in.
“If we’re allowed into Israel we’ll ask the relevant officials these questions,” Kothari said. “Give us your side of the story because we want to represent facts fairly.”
The commissioners also do not have access to Gaza or the West Bank.
The commission was established last year during a special session of the Human Rights Council in May 2021 following fighting between Israel and Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip. The UNHRC tasked the body with an investigation into “all alleged violations of international humanitarian law and all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law” in Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
The commission was the first to have an open-ended mandate from the UN rights body — rather than be tasked with investigating a specific crime — and critics say such permanent scrutiny shows anti-Israel bias in the 47-member-state council. Proponents support the commission as a way to keep tabs on injustices faced by Palestinians under decades of Israeli rule.
“They seem to accept an occupation that has no end but they have complaints about this commission. The open-ended mandate allows us to address in depth some of these issues,” Pillay said.
The commission also argued it did not set up the investigation — member states did — and said they believed there should be more open-ended UN investigations.