Head of UN Inquiry Into Gaza War Resigns Over Israeli Allegations of Bias

Israeli allegations over consultancy work he did for the PLO behind decision to step down, William Schabas says.

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William Schabas, in The Hague,  Netherlands, March 3, 2014.
William Schabas, in The Hague, Netherlands, March 3, 2014. Credit: AP

The head of a UN inquiry into last summer's conflict between Israel and Gaza said on Monday he would resign after Israeli allegations of bias due to consultancy work he did for the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Canadian academic William Schabas was appointed last August by the head of the United Nations Human Rights Council to lead a three-member group looking into alleged war crimes during Israel's military offensive in Gaza.

In a letter to the commission, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, Schabas said he would step down immediately to prevent the issue from overshadowing the preparation of the report and its findings, which are due to be published in March.

Schabas' departure highlights the sensitivity of the UN investigation just weeks after prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in The Hague said they had started a preliminary inquiry into alleged atrocities in the Palestinian territories.

In the letter, Schabas said a legal opinion he wrote for the Palestine Liberation Organization in 2012, for which he was paid $1,300, was not different from advice he had given to many other governments and organizations.

"My views on Israel and Palestine as well as on many other issues were well known and very public," he wrote. "This work in defense of human rights appears to have made me a huge target for malicious attacks (...)."

Israel had long criticized Schabas' appointment, citing his record as a strong critic of the Jewish state and its current political leadership. Schabas said his work for the PLO had prompted the Human Rights Council's executive on Monday to seek legal advice about his position from UN headquarters.

"I believe that it is difficult for the work to continue while a procedure is underway to consider whether the chair of the commission should be removed," he wrote.

The commission had largely finished gathering evidence and had begun writing the report, he added.

The commission is looking into the behavior of both the Israelis and of Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza and calls for the destruction of Israel.

The appointment of Schabas, who lives in Britain and teaches international law at Middlesex University, was welcomed at the time by Hamas but was harshly criticized by Jewish groups in the United States.

Schabas had said at the time he was determined to put aside any views about "things that have gone on in the past".

'I am not anti-Israel'

The Schabas committee started investigating the events of Operation Protective Edge already in August. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in response at the time that the UN Human Rights committee has long become the “Terrorists’ rights committee” and the results of its “investigations” are known in advance.

“If any other evidence of this was needed, appointing the committee’s chairman, whose biased opinions and positions against Israel are well known, proves beyond all doubt that Israel cannot expect justice and that the committee’s report has already been written,” the Foreign Ministry said at the time.

Israel denied the inquiry panel’s members entry in November, when they asked to travel through Israel to the Gaza Strip. But despite the decision not to cooperate officially with the committee, Israel will maintain indirect contact with it, Haaretz has learned.

Israel is expected to pass on to the committee documents outlining its position regarding the war in Gaza and testimonies indicating that Hamas had committed war crimes, such as using civilians as human shields and terror organizations’ firing near UN facilities.

In an interview with the Israeli Channel 2, Schabas declined to categorize Hamas as a terrorist organization, saying "it would not be fair for me to answer that question. We need to start with a blank page and investigate the issue in the most neutral and objective way possible."

Questioned about statements he had made in the past that could be construed as being anti-Israel, Schabas said: "I can promise you that I am not anti-Israel, but that doesn't mean that I don't have my own opinions about some of the people in Israeli governments over the years.

"The statements were made in a specific context and that's how they should be seen. I have been to Israel several times. I have lectured at universities and I'm on the editorial board of an Israeli journal. I wouldn't have done those things if I was anti-Israel."

The commission established to inquire into the Gaza war is to submit its report to the UNHRC in Geneva in March 2015. According to a statement released by the UNHRC council, its mandate is: "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.”