Fresh Crisis Brewing / UN to Probe Impact of Settlements on Palestinian Human Rights

The United Nations Human Rights Council yesterday passed a resolution to probe the effect Israeli settlement construction is having on Palestinians' human rights in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, triggering a new crisis between Israel and the PA.

The Palestinian Authority is behind the initiative, that was proposed at the UN by Muslim and Arab states. The decision is similar to the one that led to the creation of the Goldstone Commission following Israel's "Operation Cast Lead" in Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009. According to the text of the decision, the UN will "dispatch an independent international fact-finding mission, to be appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council, to investigate the implications of the Israeli settlements on the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of the Palestinian people throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem."

The committee's mandate will be to submit a report on the topic to the council. The decision also called on Israel "not to obstruct the process of investigation, and to cooperate fully with the mission."

Thirty-six states voted in favor of the decision, while 10 states abstained, including the Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Costa Rica, Italy and Spain. The United States was the only country to vote against.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisers have recently boasted that they managed to remove the Palestinian issue from the international agenda and replace it with Iran's nuclear ambitions.

An official in the Foreign Ministry said yesterday: "We won't feel the effects of the mission tomorrow morning, but a move has begun, and one can't tell where it will stop."

Officials in Jerusalem estimated that Israel's reaction will be as belligerent as its reaction to Palestine being accepted last October by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ), when Israel decided to freeze $100 million of Palestinian taxes for two months.

Netanyahu reacted harshly to the decision yesterday, calling the UN body a "hypocritical council with an automatic majority against Israel." He added that the council "should be ashamed of itself, and has nothing to do with human rights."

Israel's Foreign Ministry also said, "The Palestinians must understand that they can't have it both ways. They can't enjoy cooperation with Israel and, at the same time, initiate political clashes in international forums."

The ministry added an implied threat: "Turning to international bodies is a breach of concluded Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Had the Palestinians wanted to solve the settlements issue, they would resume without delay direct and unconditional negotiations on all core issues within the framework of a comprehensive agreement. Their deliberate choice to foster confrontation and provocation, rather than compromise and reconciliation, is nothing but a destructive strategy that the international community should firmly reject."

A senior official in the Foreign Ministry said Israel would not cooperate with the mission. "We will not legitimize a ridiculous body carrying out an illegitimate action," the official said. "Just as we stood strong in face of the Goldstone Commission, we will stand strong again."

If Israel doesn't allow the mission members to enter Israel, they will probably be forced to work from Amman or call witnesses to Geneva.

The decision was one of five approved by the council yesterday which were critical of Israel. Others dealt with Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights; the Palestinians' right to self-determination; the state of human rights in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and the implementation of the Goldstone report's recommendations following Operation Cast Lead.

Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh welcomed the resolution, saying it was the first time such a mission had been created. "This is a new international position that supports Palestinian rights and sends a message to Israel from the international community that settlements are illegal and should be stopped in total," said Abu Rudeineh.

Israel's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Aharon Leshno Yaar, criticized the decision. "Despite the fact that this is my fourth year in Geneva, I am still stunned by the hypocrisy of the Human Rights Council," he said in a speech. "This council itself is adding fuel to the fire, and fanning the flames which it should be trying to put out. Today will not be remembered as a great day for this council," he added.

The Palestinian ambassador to the UN, Ibrahim Khraishi, said Israel's occupation should be condemned as a violation of human rights. "We don't want to isolate Israel, but when we see that Israel hasn't stopped taking over our lands, we must act. If this situation continues, how will we be able to apply a two-state solution? The occupying power is violating international law ... one day there will even be limits on the air that we breathe," he added.

During the debate, a surreal scene occurred when Syria's ambassador, who was on the receiving end of fierce rebuttal only minutes earlier, accused Israel of violating the Geneva Convention and carrying out "acts of piracy in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights."

U.S. ambassador to the UN in Geneva Betty E. King said the decision harmed efforts to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and would not help protect the human rights of Israelis and Palestinians. "We don't accept the legitimacy of construction in the settlements, but we are disturbed by this one-sided and biased decision," she said.