UN Gaza probe head says he’s not anti-Israel, will be impartial

William Schabas, who called for Netanyahu to stand trial at ICC, says past comments won’t bias investigation

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

William Schabas (screen capture: YouTube)
William Schabas (screen capture: YouTube)

The professor appointed to lead a United Nations inquiry into possible war crimes during the recent military campaign in the Gaza Strip defended his record to Israeli media Tuesday and said past statements that paint him as anti-Israel would have no bearing on his probe of the Gaza conflict.

Willam Schabas told Army Radio in an interview on Tuesday that he is not anti-Israel, has visited Israel in the past to give university presentations and is a member of the editorial board of a legal publication.

Schabas was named Monday to lead a commission ordered by the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate possible war crimes.

Israel dismissed the probe as one-sided and said the appointment of Schabas — who has called for both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former president Shimon Peres to stand trial in the International Criminal Court in the Hague — proved the outcome of the report had been predetermined.

However, Schabas stressed that regardless of his personal opinions he will be objective and not let past comments color his report.

“What has to happen in a commission like this is that people like myself have to put anything they may have thought and said behind them and to approach their mandate in the most fair and objective and impartial manner possible. And that’s what I intend to do,” he told Channel 2.

The Canadian law professor indicated his panel would look at all aspects of wrong-doing regardless of which side was behind them.

“The mandate we have talks about violation of human rights and humanitarian law committed on the Palestinian occupied territories and in particular Gaza, and I think a reasonable person would say that involves violations committed on both sides,” he said. “Using people as a human shield is a war crime; if that practice exists it would be reasonable for the commission to investigate and report on that.”

Asked about a comment made last year that he would most like to see Netanyahu stand trial in the Hague, Schabas said the comments were made in reference to the Goldstone Report, a UN Human Rights Council investigation that claimed Israel had committed war crimes during the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead by deliberately targeting civilians during fighting in the Gaza Strip.

“I didn’t prejudge him and I didn’t say he was guilty,” Schabas told Army Radio. “I was making a comment in the context of a discussion about the priorities of the International Criminal Court. I think probably every person in Israel has criticized the government in Israel at some point or other in their lives and the suggestion that I’ve delivered a verdict on this is wrong and unfair.”

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, in an interview with Channel 2 later on Tuesday evening, pointed out that it was former prime minister Ehud Olmert who was in office during Operation Cast Lead and not Netanyahu.

“This is a ridiculous commission, set up by a ridiculous organization,” Lapid said.

Schabas said he would like to visit Israel to “meet with people who were involved with the decisions and the actions. If we are not able, we will ask them to come to Geneva or perhaps somewhere else in the region to be interviewed by the commission.”

However, it’s not clear if Israel, which boycotted the Goldstone report, will cooperate this time around.

“It is in Israel’s interest to be there and give its evidence in the discussion,” Schabas said.

He noted that he was aware of the Israeli point of view that the UNHRC is prejudiced against the Jewish State, but suggested that is countered by the unfairly “light” treatment that Israel gets from the Security Council.

“I am very familiar with the complaint in Israel that Israel gets a disproportionate amount of attention in the human rights council and there may be some merit in that complaint. On the other hand, there are other councils in the UN, and I’m thinking in particular of the UN Security Council, where Israel perhaps gets a disproportionate amount of inattention.”

Speaking with Israel’s Channel 2, Schabas declined to say whether or not he considers Hamas a terrorist organization, averring that it would prejudge the commission’s work.

The two other members of the panel appointed by the UNHRC on Monday were Doudou Dienne of Senegal, who has previously served as the UN’s watchdog on racism and on post-conflict Ivory Coast and British-Lebanese rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, best known for her recent engagement to actor George Clooney

However, Alamuddin turned down the offer and no replacement has yet been announced.

The probe team has been tasked with reporting back to the council by March 2015.

Almost 2,000 people have been killed in Gaza in the past month’s fighting, according to officials in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Israel says 750-1,000 of the dead are combatants, while Gaza has not broken down the deaths.

Israel also blames Hamas for all civilian fatalities, since Hamas set up its rocket launchers, tunnel openings and other elements of its war machine in Gaza neighborhoods and uses Gazans as “human shields.”

Israel lost 64 soldiers and three civilians in the fighting, which is on hold as the sides attempt to negotiate a ceasefire in Cairo.

Eleven of the Israeli soldiers were killed by Hamas gunmen emerging from cross-border tunnels dug under the Israeli border. Hamas fired over 3,000 rockets at Israel, including some 600 from areas close to schools, mosques and other civilian facilities, the Israeli army says.

The report is likely to be seen by many as a new iteration of the 2010 Goldstone Report, the result of a UNHRC investigation, led by South African former judge Richard Goldstone, which accused Israel of a policy of deliberately targeting civilians during the 2009 Operation Cast Lead, a previous military campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Israel sharply rejected the claim. In 2011, Goldstone retracted the accusation of a deliberate policy to target civilians.

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