/ 18 September 2008

Tutu urges UN body to show concern for Israelis

Archbishop Desmond Tutu appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Thursday to show the same concern for protecting Israelis from Palestinian attacks as it does for Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation.

The Muslim-dominated council has been widely cited for its frequent and heavy criticism of Israel while virtually ignoring rights problems elsewhere in the world.

”Addressing human rights violations suffered by individuals in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories must be the prime motivating force for members of the council,” the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said.

But Tutu also said that in compiling a report on Israeli-Palestinian violence for the council he was struck by the lack of international concern for Palestinians.

”The international community is failing to fulfil its role in respect of the suffering of the people of Gaza,” he said.

Israel’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, dismissed the report as one more volume ”in the vast library of UN reports on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” that only result in one-sided condemnation of Israel.

Tutu regretted that Israeli officials refused to cooperate with his investigation into the 2006 shelling of the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun and the simultaneous firing by Palestinian militants of Qassam rockets at Israeli civilians.

”Israel decided to withhold any cooperation with the mission, a decision that we deeply regretted,” he said, noting this hampered efforts to be as balanced as possible.

”Paradoxically, the effective ban on our visiting Israel and meeting with Israeli actors, including victims of Qassam rocket attacks in southern Israel, has itself been an obstacle to the balance that Israel seeks,” Tutu said.

The Israeli ambassador said Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians continue and Israel has a right to defend its people.

”There have been five major attacks in Jerusalem this year alone,” Leshno-Yaar said. ”A Qassam rocket fired from Gaza hit the outskirts of Sderot just four days ago.”

He said it was difficult to ”explain to Israeli citizens that the international community doesn’t believe such attacks should provoke Israel into action, that we are expected to sit on our hands and sacrifice our citizens for the greater good”.

Tutu said the Hamas authorities controlling Gaza also have an obligation under international law to stop firing rockets at Israelis.

Still, he renewed his criticism of Israel for the 5.30am shelling attack on a residential area of Beit Hanoun on November 8 2006. ”After 30 minutes, 19 civilians were dead or mortally wounded. All but one of the victims were from one single family,” Tutu said. ”Over 50 others were wounded during the attack.”

Tutu said the Israeli military had admitted responsibility but claimed a technological error. He added that the lack of a credible explanation from Israel left open the possibility the attack was a war crime.

Leshno-Yaar said Israel conducted ”a thorough investigation” and shared those results with the UN, but Tutu said that was not enough.

”No verifiable explanation has been offered, no independent, impartial and transparent investigation has been held, no one has been held to account,” Tutu said. ”The response of a largely secret internal military investigation is absolutely unacceptable from both legal and moral points of view.”

Leshno-Yaar said Israel was concerned that Tutu’s mission legitimised Hamas’s control over Gaza. Tutu defended his willingness to speak with Hamas leaders in Gaza even though Israel, the United States and the European Union regard it as a terrorist group.

”Meeting with Hamas allowed us to hear their views, hear their concerns. It also allowed us to challenge their positions and to demand an end to the launching of rockets against civilians in Israel,” Tutu said.

He added that rights advocates must be able to speak with anyone who can stop human rights violations.

”True security and peace will not come from the barrel of a gun. It will come through dialogue and negotiation,” Tutu said. — Sapa-AP