The UN’s main human rights body will launch an investigation into “systematic discrimination and repression” in Israel and Palestine, with the aim of identifying what it said were the root causes of recent Gaza bloodshed.
The proposal for unprecedented levels of scrutiny of alleged abuses, called at the request of Muslim states, was passed by the 47-member UN human rights council on Thursday.
Opening the session in Geneva, the UN rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said Israel’s attacks on Gaza this month could constitute war crimes if they were found to be disproportionate, and accused Hamas of firing indiscriminate rockets on Israel.
“There is no doubt that Israel has the right to defend its citizens and residents. However, Palestinians have rights too – the same rights,” said Bachelet, a former president of Chile. “The death of and injury of children in this escalation is a source of shame for all.”
Eleven days of the worst fighting in years claimed more than 250 lives in Gaza, including those of 66 children, and killed 12 in Israel, including two children.
However, according to the resolution, the UN agency called to urgently establish a commission to investigate all “violations”, not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Israel.
The commission would investigate “all underlying root causes of recurrent tensions, instability and protraction of conflict, including systematic discrimination and repression based on national, ethnic, racial or religious identity”.
In her opening remarks, Bachelet said the Gaza violence was “directly linked” to protests in Jerusalem that began weeks beforehand, which she said were met with “a heavy response from Israeli security forces”.
She said two factors led to the escalation – the imminent eviction of Palestinians “under forced displacement” in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah; and Israel’s use of “excessive force” against Palestinian protesters, including at the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.
Bachelet said that while she welcomed Friday’s ceasefire, “there must be a genuine and inclusive peace process to address these root causes and bring the occupation to an end”.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, criticised what he said was a “shameful” example of the council’s “blatant anti-Israel obsession”.
“Once again, an immoral automatic majority at the council whitewashes a genocidal terrorist organisation that deliberately targets Israeli civilians while turning Gaza’s civilians into human shields,” he said.
“This travesty makes a mockery of international law,” he added.
The commission follows moves by some diplomats and international bodies to reframe the crisis amid an evolving global debate on racism, and to present violence within the context of Israel’s decades-long control over millions of Palestinians.
On Sunday, France’s foreign minister said the status quo would lead to a “risk of apartheid”, an accusation that has largely been levelled by activists and rights groups rather than governments.
On Wednesday, Ireland’s government supported a motion that condemned Israel’s “de facto annexation” of Palestinian land in what it said was the first use of the phrase by an EU government in relation to Israel.
Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, described what he said was Israel’s “manifestly unequal” treatment of the Palestinian people. He added that the “strategic nature of Israel’s actions on settlement expansion and the intent behind it have brought us to a point where we need to be honest about what is actually happening on the ground”.
Israel has strongly denied allegations of apartheid, and summoned the French ambassador on Thursday. Meanwhile, the country’s foreign ministry spokesman, Lior Haiat, tweeted that Ireland’s “outrageous and baseless position” reflected a “blatantly one-sided and simplistic policy”.
The French and Irish statements contrast starkly with that of the US and UK, which have kept in line with longstanding policy. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, toured the region this week and repeated their countries’ commitment to a two-state solution. The UK voted against Thursday’s resolution, which received 24 votes in favour, nine against and 14 abstentions. The US is not a member of the council.
Israel and its allies, including the US and UK, have accused the UN rights body of a disproportionate anti-Israel bias. The council, elected by the UN general assembly, has a permanent feature on its annual agenda related to Israel and Palestine. No other issue has a dedicated item.
Thursday’s resolution was also unique, as it created the council’s first-ever open-ended commission of inquiry.
Khalil Hashmi, Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told reporters the recent violence was only the latest in a long cycle and said an investigation should have a “standing status”.