UN human rights chief: ‘Strong possibility’ of Israeli war crimes in Gaza

Israeli officials hit back at Navi Pillay, saying she is ‘intolerably biased’ and has failed to protect Israelis’ human rights

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

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

Israel might have committed war crimes during its current military campaign in Gaza, the United Nations human rights chief said Wednesday, calling for “accountability.”

Israel reacted with anger and scorn to Navi Pillay’s remarks, accusing her of repeating uninformed and “embarrassingly shallow” statements based on what she read in the media, and of having “failed dismally” to protect the human rights of Israelis.

“There seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated in a manner that could amount to war crimes,” said Pillay, the outgoing UN high commissioner for human rights.

Pillay, whom Jerusalem has long accused of being biased against Israel, said that since Operation Protective Edge started on July 8, more than 600 Palestinians were killed, including at least 147 children and 74 women. “As in the two previous crises in 2009 and 2012, it was innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip who suffered the most,” she said, according to an official report on the UN Human Rights Council’s “special session on the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory” in Geneva.

Accountability for one’s action is “the first step toward ensuring that the cycle of human rights violations and impunity [is] brought to an end,” she said. A lasting peace “can only begin with respect for human rights and human dignity on both sides, and ultimately, in the full realization of the right to self-determination.”

Pillay, who will be replaced in her position by Jordanian Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein on September 1, also condemned indiscriminate rocket fire on Israeli civilians. It is “unacceptable to locate military assets in densely populated areas or to launch attacks from such areas,” she said. However, international law clearly states that the actions of one party did not absolve the other party of the need to respect its obligations under international law, she stressed.

Israeli officials fumed at the high commissioner’s statement.

“Navi Pillay demonstrates once again her unfortunate lack of discernment in grasping real situations in real life. She would be better advised to seek credible firsthand information rather than making intolerably biased statements based on newspaper clippings,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Times of Israel. “Her embarrassingly shallow and populist affirmations may pander to the more obscurantist members of the Human Rights Council but do a huge disservice to actual human rights.”

‘Hamas fired 2,000 rockets — that’s 2,000 war crimes’

Israel’s ambassador to the Geneva-based council, Eviatar Manor, slammed the body for convening a special session, saying that some member states have worse human rights records yet jump at the opportunity to condemn Israel to divert attention from their own violations.

“So, we are back at our ritual of naming and shaming Israel,” he said, referring to the council’s alleged anti-Israel bias.

It is Hamas, not Israel, that is committing war crimes, Manor declared, saying that the terrorist group shoots rockets at Israeli civilians, uses Gaza’s civilian population as human shields and stores its missiles in UN-operated schools.

“Hamas fired 2,000 rockets — that’s 2,000 war crimes,” he said. “And this council sits in judgment of Israel? There can be no moral symmetry between a terrorist aggressor and a democracy defending itself. Mr. President, Madam High Commissioner, in the protection of the human rights of Israelis, this council and you, madam, have failed dismally.”

A total of 22 member and 16 observer states participated in the council’s session Wednesday, including Algeria, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Palestine, Tunisia and Turkey. In the general debate, many speakers called for the immediate halt of Israeli operations against civilians and civilian targets in Gaza, as well as for the end of rocket fire at Israel by Hamas and other terrorist groups.

Several speakers called for the establishment of an “independent commission of inquiry into breaches of human rights and international humanitarian law.”

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.

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