UN Names Gaza Probe Panel, Headed by Harsh Israel Critic

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A group of displaced Palestinians at Beit Lahia, August 11, 2014. The UN probe will investigate Israel for potential war crimes.Credit: AP

The United Nations Human Rights Council last night named the three members of the international commission of inquiry to investigate possible war crimes by Israel during Operation Protective Edge. A senior official in the Foreign Ministry said that despite Israel’s attempts to influence the composition of the panel, the final outcome is unbalanced and problematic.

The three-member panel will be chaired by Prof. William Schabas, a Canadian expert on international law whose academic focus has been on genocide. He is known to be highly critical of Israel and harshly attacked Operation Cast Lead at the time (2008-09). He praised the report issued by the Goldstone Committee following that operation, and said the commission’s chairman, Richard Goldstone, should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Schabas has called in the past for the International Criminal Court in The Hague to put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former President Shimon Peres on trial. Last year, at a conference in New York, Schabas said: “My favorite would be Netanyahu within the dock of the International Criminal Court.” A few years earlier, he said that if there was an indictment in the ICC against the president of Sudan for genocide, why should a similar indictment not be issued against the Israeli president for events in Gaza.

The second member of the committee is Doudou Diène, an expert on human rights from Senegal who was the UN special envoy on racism and racial discrimination from 2011-14.

The committee also enlisted the participation of Lebanese-born British lawyer Amal Alamuddin, who was the legal adviser to the prosecutor during the special international tribunal convened by the UN following the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. 

Alamuddin issued a statement late Monday night "given existing commitments" —including eight ongoing cases. "I wish my colleagues who will serve on the commission courage and strength in their endeavors," she said. Alamuddin may have faced accusations of bias should she have agreed to participate, due to her background: In 1982, when she was 4, her family fled Beirut in a U.S. ship while Israel was bombarding the city. She is engaged to actor George Clooney.

Senior officials in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said that for the two weeks following UNHRC’s decision to establish the commission, Israel has attempted to influence its composition. Israel asked the United States, Australia, Germany, Britain and other allies to help make the commission more balanced. According to senior ministry officials, Israel made clear that if the commission is balanced, Israel would not completely boycott it, and would be prepared to hold a dialogue with it and convey information relevant to the probe.

However, the Israeli efforts failed and the composition of the commission leans significantly toward the Palestinians.

Senior officials in the Foreign Ministry said that Israel could use the commission’s lack of balance to delegitimize it internationally, as was previously tried with the Goldstone Commission in 2009.

Israel started its delegitimization attempts less than an hour after the current appointments were announced. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that with the decision to establish the international commission, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the UN Human Rights Council long ago became a terrorists’ rights council. “If more evidence was needed to show this, the appointment of the commission’s chairman, whose opinions and positions against Israel are known to all, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Israel cannot expect justice from such a body, and that the report has already been written and remains only to be signed,” Palmor said.

The commission is to submit its report to the UNHRC in Geneva in March 2015. The statement released by Ambassador Baudelaire Ndong Ella from Gabon, the current president of the council, outlines its mandate: “To investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military operations conducted since 13 June, 2014.”  

The commission is also “to establish the facts and circumstances of such violations and of the crimes perpetrated and to identify those responsible, to make recommendations, in particular on accountability measures, all with a view to avoiding and ending impunity and ensuring that those responsible are held accountable, and on ways and means to protect civilians against any further assaults.”

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