An independent commission of inquiry has released a report examining Israel’s system of oppression against Palestinians as a whole – the first such probe undertaken by the UN.
The commission was formed by the UN Human Rights Council after Israel’s offensive in Gaza during May 2021. More than 260 Palestinians in Gaza were killed in the 11-day assault while around a dozen people were fatally injured in Israel.
As noted in the commission of inquiry’s report, that escalation “was triggered by protests against the impending eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah [in East Jerusalem] for the benefit of settlers” – protests that would spread throughout the West Bank and Israel.
The investigators’ 18-page report, published on Tuesday, largely reviews the findings and recommendations of myriad previous UN fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry and human rights bodies – most of which have gone ignored.
The commission states that dismantling the Israeli occupation imposed on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 “remains essential in ending the persistent cycle of violence.”
“The culture of impunity begets further human rights violations,” according to the report.
The investigators point to “the lack of accountability for those firing Qassam rockets indiscriminately on civilian areas in Israel, as well as a lack of accountability for civilian deaths caused by Israeli military activities in Gaza.”
The commission’s three investigators, led by Navi Pillay, a South African jurist and former UN human rights chief, were not able to access any of the lands of historic Palestine.
Egypt did not respond to requests to access Gaza via the Rafah crossing and the commission received no response from the Hamas authorities in the Strip.
The Palestinian Authority has cooperated with the commission but Tel Aviv denied the investigators access to Israel and the West Bank.
Israel stated its refusal to engage with the investigation as soon as it was mandated by the Human Rights Council in late May 2021.
Not a single EU state voted in favor of the resolution establishing the permanent commission and Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic voted against it. The UK also opposed the resolution.
The US didn’t vote as it quit the Human Rights Council when Donald Trump was president. That move was reversed by Joe Biden’s administration last year.
On Tuesday, the State Department expressed its opposition to the “open-ended and vaguely defined nature” of the commission of inquiry, saying it “represents a one-sided, biased approach that does nothing to advance the prospects for peace.”
It is not unusual for Washington to accuse the Human Rights Council of bias against Israel.
In reality, however, Israel enjoys an exception from accountability in the UN system, thanks to the US and other powerful allies.
Human Rights Watch told the Human Rights Council last year that Western states have “supported every accountability mechanism created by this council in recent years – on Syria, Yemen, Burundi, Myanmar, Belarus, Venezuela.”
Only regarding Israel and its abuses against Palestinians have these states “failed consistently to advance accountability.”
The false claim of anti-Israel bias at the UN, frequently wielded by Israel and its lobby groups, was recently parroted in a New York Times editorial calling for accountability over the killing of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh.
Abu Akleh, a US citizen, was fatally injured while covering an Israeli raid in Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank last month. Eyewitnesses and survivors say that Abu Akleh and her colleagues came under Israeli fire and there were no clashes with armed Palestinians at the time.
Investigations by the Palestinian Authority and Israeli human rights groups, as well as the research group Bellingcat and media outlets CNN and AP all point to Israeli responsibility for Abu Akleh’s death.The Biden administration has deferred to the Israeli military’s self-investigation of Abu Akleh’s killing, stating that “the Israelis have the wherewithal and the capabilities to conduct a thorough, comprehensive investigation.”
The UN commission of inquiry, however, notes that a fact-finding mission into Israel’s 2008-2009 offensive in Gaza “concluded that there were serious doubts about the willingness of Israel to carry out genuine investigations in an impartial, independent, prompt and effective way as required by international law.”
That fact-finding mission also “took the view that the system presented inherently discriminatory features that made the pursuit of justice for Palestinian victims extremely difficult.”
Little has changed in the intervening years, as observed in subsequent UN studies cited by the commission.
The experts state in their report published Tuesday that they will “carefully assess the responsibilities of third states” along with those of “private actors” – potentially corporations profiting from and charities funding settlement activities – “in the continued policies of occupation.”
The investigators note “the recent demonstration of the ability of third states to take prompt and unified action to ensure respect for international law in the face of violations … by a member state of the United Nations” – an oblique reference to sanctions and other measures imposed on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.
The “promotion of accountability” is a primary focus of the UN commission.
Last year, New York-based Human Rights Watch called for a shift from the long moribund Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” towards an approach centered on human rights and accountability.
In its landmark report from April 2021, Human Rights Watch stated that Israel has “pursued an intent to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians throughout the territory it controls.”
In the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, “the intent has been coupled with systematic oppression of Palestinians and inhumane acts committed against them.”
The combination of these three elements “amount to the crime of apartheid,” according to the group.
The new report by the UN commission of inquiry doesn’t explicitly mention Zionism – Israel’s state ideology – or use the terms “apartheid” or “colonialism.”
It does, however, state that the evidence available “indicates Israel has no intention of ending the occupation, has clear policies for ensuring complete control over the occupied Palestinian territory.”
The commission adds that Israel “is acting to alter the demography through the maintenance of a repressive environment for Palestinians and a favorable environment for Israeli settlers.”
In other words, Israel’s permanent occupation is in service of the state’s single organizing principle: removing Palestinians from their land so they may be replaced with foreign settlers.
Noting that half of all Palestinians live outside the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, the commission states that it will “seek to engage with the wider Palestinian diaspora located in neighboring countries and further afield.”
A renewed international focus on Palestinian refugees and their right of return may be among the most significant outcomes of the commission of inquiry, as UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, struggles to raise funds needed to provide essential services and Palestinian refugees remain stateless and disenfranchised.
The commission of inquiry is mandated to “report on its main activities on an annual basis to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly, commencing in June and September 2022 respectively.”