Israel is again at the centre of moves to challenge key agencies at the United Nations, as it lobbies to prevent the Palestinian leadership from gaining more of a foothold in global forums.
Israel ended a 20-month boycott of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva last month, under pressure from Western allies that it should return to a review process designed to monitor the human rights situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
However, Israel did so only after securing promises of reforms that human rights groups fear will further weaken international efforts to hold Israel accountable for its illegal occupation.
The UNHRC has regularly and harshly criticised Israel’s human rights record in both the occupied territories and inside Israel. It has also set up several fact-finding missions, including the Goldstone inquiry into Israel’s attack on Gaza in winter 2008-09, that have accused Israel of war crimes.
The Israeli government is reported to be celebrating its success in dictating the terms of its return to the UNHRC. Its ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Eviatar Manor, stated last month at Israel’s hearing: “Israel’s unfair treatment must come to an end. I hope our appearance here today will go a long way to restore equality and fairness regarding Israel in Geneva.”
Palestinian human rights groups fear that, in practice, this will mean significantly diminished scrutiny of Israel’s occupation.
“The mechanisms for holding Israel to account were already weak but now these changes are weakening them even further,” said Gavan Kelly, a spokesman for Addameer, an organisation supporting Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
“All indications are that behind the scenes an agreement has been reached to ensure Israel is not heavily criticised at the next session of the UNHRC in March. From the point of view of defending Palestinian rights, things are not looking good.”
Meanwhile, the US and Israel last week ignored a final deadline to pay their membership dues to another UN organisation, thereby surrendering their voting rights in educational, scientific and cultural matters.
The pair suspended their contributions two years ago in protest at the decision by the Paris-based UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to allow the Palestinians to accede.
Washington’s $80 million annual contribution had covered nearly a quarter of UNESCO’s budget, and its retaliatory action has plunged the organisation into financial crisis, undermining many of its projects worldwide.
Kelly and other human rights workers argue that Israel is seeking to “intimidate” other international forums to deter them from giving the Palestinians a high-profile platform.
Brad Parker, a lawyer with the Palestine branch of Defence for Children International, said Israel was demanding a policy of “exceptionalism”.
“The international community is not treating Israel unfairly. Israel is simply being treated and recognised as the persistent human rights violator that it is,” he said.
The latest moves at the UN come in the wake of an agreement by Israel and the Palestinians to revive peace talks. Under US pressure, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promised he would not turn to international bodies for the duration of the negotiations, which are due to end in April next year.
Israel and the US have viewed with alarm the possibility that the Palestinians may seek to join other international bodies in addition to UNESCO. They are entitled to do so after Palestine was recognised a year ago as a non-member state by an overwhelming majority at the UN General Assembly.
Abbas was forced to pursue that route after the US made clear it would exercise its veto on any application to the Security Council for full UN membership.
According to various media reports, both Israel and the US are especially worried that the Palestinians might apply to become a party to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, an independent judicial body the UN helped to establish.
They could then refer Israel to the ICC for allegations of war crimes to be investigated. That could include Israel’s repeated attacks on Gaza, but the Palestinians are most likely to seek a ruling against Israel on the issue of its continuing settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israeli settlement-building has become a key point of contention during the peace talks, with announcements from Israel of plans to build thousands of new homes.
Last week the Palestinians’ chief negotiators, Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh, were reported to have submitted their resignations to Abbas, accusing Israel of “an unprecedented escalation of colonization and oppression against Palestine and the Palestinian people”.
Israel severed its ties with the UNHRC in March last year after the council decided to establish a fact-finding mission to investigate Israel’s settlement-building.
An earlier mission, under Judge Richard Goldstone, infuriated Israel by investigating Operation Cast Lead, its attack on Gaza in winter 2008-09 that led to the deaths of more than 1,400 Palestinians. The final report by Goldstone accused Israel of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.
Israel also refused to cooperate with another UNHRC fact-finding mission into Israel’s attack on an aid flotilla to Gaza in 2010, in which nine human rights activists were killed by Israeli commandos in international waters. The mission concluded that the Israeli military broke international law and that there was evidence to begin prosecutions for breaches of the Geneva Convention.
Similarly, Israel denied entry to the mission investigating settlements, forcing Palestinian human rights groups to travel to Amman in Jordan to meet the UN team.
The final report, released last January and adopted by the UNHRC in March, warned that Israel could be brought before the International Criminal Court for transferring its citizens into occupied Palestinian territory.
The Human Rights Council, which was established by the UN in 2006, has appointed Richard Falk, a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, as special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the occupied territories.
Falk, who has described Israel’s policies as “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing”, has been repeatedly blocked by Israel from gaining access to the territories.
Israel failed to attend the session of the UNHRC reviewing its human rights record last January, becoming the first state ever to refuse to appear.
Each of the 193 UN member states is obliged to submit to an examination by other states of its human rights record – known as the Universal Periodic Review – every four-and-a-half years.
After a series of delays, Israel agreed to appear at the end of last month. Western states, especially the US and Germany, strenuously lobbied Israel to persuade it to submit to the review, fearing that Israel’s non-cooperation would set a precedent other states might follow.
“The problem is that Israel was not sanctioned for its failure to appear in January, as it should have been,” said Fadi Quran, a lawyer with al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organisation in Ramallah. “Instead it made demands to the UNHRC for changes, and our fear is that it will get its way.”
Palestinian human rights groups note that Israel appears to have secured two concessions from Western member states in the UNHRC that threaten to further erode its accountability.
First, Israel has demanded that it be allowed to join the group representing Western states in Geneva, apparently in the belief that this will provide it with the collective protection of the US and European states. Among the group’s members, only Turkey is believed to be holding out against Israel’s inclusion.
“For Israel, it is a public relations tool to be with the liberal democratic countries,” said Quran. “It wants to be seen as ‘Western’, not to be viewed as an occupying state imposing apartheid and colonial rule on the Palestinians.”
More significantly still, Israel has also insisted that the US and Europe not participate in a standing agenda at UNHRC sessions known as “Item 7″, designed to maintain continuous scrutiny of Israel’s occupation.
“Item 7″ was the basis for establishing the three recent fact-finding missions, and Palestinian human rights organisations fear that if Western states withdraw their support, it will undermine what little international oversight currently exists of Israel’s occupation.
John Dugard, a South African professor of international law and Falk’s predecessor as special rapporteur, said Israel had been trying to have Item 7 removed for years because it “rightly gives Israel a status akin to that of apartheid. I hope the Western states will not give in to Israel’s blackmail as this will give Israel a legitimacy it so richly does not deserve.”
Kelly said Palestinian human rights organisations had also heard that Israel would be given “an easy ride” at the next session of the UNHRC in March, when it is due to be presented with recommendations to improve its human rights record.
“In 2008, when Israel faced its first review, it received lots of recommendations and basically it ignored them all. Israel is already doing whatever it wants and with impunity.”
At Israel’s UNHRC hearing on October 29, the Palestinian envoy, Ibrahim Khraishi, said Israel’s renewed participation had “no value” and that Israel wanted to be able to pick and choose when to accept scrutiny.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has also expressed concern at Israel’s continuing refusal to recognise its obligations to uphold international law in the occupied territories.
Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East director, called Israel’s appearance at the UNHRC a “positive step” but said Israel needed to do more.
“Israel should now … start working with the UN’s human rights team in the West Bank and stop blocking visits from UN rights experts,” she said.
The US, meanwhile, sought to downplay Israel’s human rights violations towards the Palestinians at the UNHRC hearing.
The deputy ambassador to the UN, Peter Mulrean, praised Israel for its “strong commitment and track record in upholding human rights, political freedom and civil liberties”. His chief criticism was levied at religious coercion inflicted on secular Jewish citizens by the Orthodox rabbinate.
Jafar Farah, the director of Mossawa, an advocacy group for the fifth of the Israeli population who are Palestinian, said Israel’s human rights record had deteriorated towards Palestinians in Israel, as well as the occupied territories since the last review in 2008.
“The general political drift rightwards and the dramatic increase in discriminatory legislation initiated by the Benjamin Netanyahu government have contributed to making things much worse.”
• This article first appeared in Al Jazeera