Israel drags heels on Tutu visit

A United Nations fact-finding mission to the Gaza Strip that was to be led by Desmond Tutu is in doubt because Israel has yet to give the Nobel laureate permission to enter the territory, officials said on Friday.

Tutu was to begin leading a six-member team this weekend in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun to investigate the killings of 19 civilians in an Israeli artillery barrage last month.

But Israel has yet to grant the South African anti-apartheid campaigner and former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town the necessary travel clearance, said three different officials close to the talks between the global body and the Jewish state.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions were continuing, said they had yet to receive any indication from Israel that the mission will take place at all.

Israeli officials in Geneva said they were unable to comment immediately.

Tutu’s team was supposed to report its findings to the UN Human Rights Council by mid-December.

The 47-nation council authorised the mission last month, asking Tutu to assess the situation of victims, address the needs of survivors and make recommendations on ways to protect Palestinian civilians against further Israeli attacks.

The shelling, which Israel said was unintended, came after its troops wound up a weeklong incursion meant to curb Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel from the town.

The Israeli army claimed Beit Hanoun was a rocket-launching stronghold.

Tutu chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of white rule. Tutu, who was in Geneva, could not be reached for comment.

Earlier on Friday, the Geneva-based council passed a seventh resolution criticising Israel, this time for failing to act on recommendations the body made in July, urging the Jewish state to end military operations in the Palestinian territories and allow a separate fact-finding mission to the region.

The rights body, which has only condemned the Israeli government in its seven-month existence, noted with regret that Israel has failed to release a group of Palestinian Cabinet ministers it arrested earlier this year.

“Violations of the fundamental rights of the Palestinians continue unabated,” said Pakistani diplomat Tehmina Janjua on behalf of the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which proposed the resolution. “The Palestinian ministers,

officials and civilians have not been set free.”

Janjua demanded that UN human rights expert John Dugard be allowed to conduct an “urgent” fact-finding mission in the region, which the council ordered at an emergency session only one month after it was called into existence to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission.

Criticism by the council brings no penalties beyond international attention.
Countries, however, lobby hard to avoid having their rights records scrutinised.

Dugard, a former anti-apartheid civil rights lawyer from South Africa, has frequently clashed with Israel, which notes that he has been mandated only with investigating violations by the Israeli side. The United States—which along with Israel is only an observer at the rights body—also has dismissed Dugard’s reports

as one-sided.

Only Canada voted against Friday’s resolution. Cameroon and Japan joined the 10 European members of the council in abstaining. The rest of Africa and Asia, along with all of Latin America, voted in favour.

Israel’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva criticised the council for ignoring a November 26 ceasefire agreement that ended five months of fierce fighting in Gaza.

“Why does this resolution fail to make any mention of the ceasefire between Israelis and Palestinians, that persists despite the continuation of Qassam rockets fired on Israel?” Itzhak Levanon asked the council.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged the watchdog last month to deal with the Mideast conflict in an impartial manner, and said it was time to focus attention on “graver” crises such as Darfur.

Despite his plea, the council has passed only a watered-down resolution on the western Sudanese region proposed by African countries, which urged all parties to the conflict to end human rights violations. - Sapa-AP

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