United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced Monday that an "internal and independent" board of inquiry would be established to probe the damage caused to various UN installations in the Gaza Strip over the course of the war this summer, despite Israel's intense efforts to prevent this line of investigation.
The UN Headquarters Board of Inquiry will also investigate instances in which weapons were found in UN facilities in Gaza, Ban said.
The board “will review and investigate a number of specific incidents in which death or injuries occurred at, and/or damage was done to United Nations premises,” the announcement said. “The Board will also review and investigate incidents in which weapons were found to be present on United Nations premises. The Secretary-General expects that the Board will enjoy the full cooperation of all parties concerned.”
The inquiry committee will be headed by retired general Patrick Cammaert, a former senior officer in the Dutch military who later served as the commander of UN forces in the Congo and as Ban’s military adviser. The other four other members are: Maria Vicien-Milburn of Argentina, who serves as legal adviser to UNESCO; Lee O’Brien of the United States, a diplomat who is a senior official in the diplomatic department of the UN Secretariat in New York; Pierre Lemelin, a Canadian professor and expert in international law; and K.C. Reddy of India, a former UN security officer.
Over the past several weeks, Israel has been lobbying Ban and his associates in an effort to delay the establishment of the investigative committee on grounds that Israel’s military prosecutors and Military Police are in the midst of their own inquiries into Operation Protective Edge.
The issue of the investigating board was the subject of a vehement argument between Ban and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the latter’s visit to New York for the UN General Assembly in late September.
A senior Israeli official said after that meeting that Ban had spoken with great emotion about the harm done to civilians in Gaza during the operation. He quoted Ban as saying that Israel could not launch military operations every few years that strew such massive destruction, and that Israel had acted disproportionately in Gaza.
Netanyahu responded with a monologue of his own, saying that Israel had done all it could to avoid civilian casualties.
“Israel is being discriminated against,” Netanyahu reportedly said. “What would you do if North Korea was firing on South Korea?” (Ban is a former South Korean foreign minister). Netanyahu called on Ban to investigate Hamas, saying it was the body committing war crimes.
According to the Israeli official, the atmosphere at the meeting grew increasingly tense, as Netanyahu reminded Ban that Hamas had fired rockets from UN schools and other facilities. “You know this very well,” Netanyahu stressed.
But Ban was not convinced, and the argument continued. “UN facilities in combat zones are protected from attack in any case,” he reportedly told Netanyahu. “The civilians there were hostages of those firing rockets and it was therefore forbidden to fire back and endanger their lives. This contravenes international law.”
A similar UN headquarters board of inquiry investigated Operation Cast Lead in 2009. Although Israel cooperated with that investigation, the board delivered harsh criticism of the way the Israel and the military had conducted themselves during that operation.
An investigative board established by the UN secretary-general is viewed as much more reliable and serious than investigative committees established by such bodies as the UN Human Rights Council, which has also set up a committee to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes during Operation Protective Edge. Israel refused to cooperate with the UNHCR’s probe into Cast Lead, which was led by Richard Goldstone.
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