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New report fuels UN-Israel debate

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East Editor

Olive farmers wait at an Israeli checkpoint in Nablus
The report criticised the restrictions on the movement of Palestinians
Palestinian human rights have been abused throughout 40 years of Israeli occupation, according to the UN General Assembly's special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

In a report to the UN General Assembly in New York, Richard Falk said Israel's occupation possessed characteristics of colonialism and apartheid.

Israel has rejected the report as a highly politicised, one-sided polemic.

Mr Falk has in the recent past compared Israel's behaviour as an occupier to Nazi Germany's activities in occupied Europe during World War II.

That remark alone has made him a very controversial figure for Israel, which will not give him a visa.

Mr Falk said he compiled his report from reliable information provided by the UN and aid agencies.

Lacking impartiality?

The report said the condition of Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip had continued to deteriorate, reaching "dangerous and non-sustainable levels of mental and physical suffering and trauma".

Israel says Mr Falk lacks impartiality, objectivity and personal integrity

Mr Falk examined specific case studies, and also highlighted Israel's continuing expansion of settlements that are illegal under international law.

He also criticised the Israeli blockade of Gaza, restrictions on the movement of Palestinians, and what he said were legal moves to expel Palestinians from occupied East Jerusalem.

Israel has rejected the report as misleading.

In a statement to the UN in New York, Israel also said Mr Falk lacked impartiality, objectivity and personal integrity.

It said his mandate was inherently biased against Israel and should be changed.

Ignoring violations

The special rapporteur is appointed by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). The council spends a lot of time concentrating on Israel's actions.

The US, which protects Israel in the UN Security Council, does not have the same veto rights in the Human Rights Council and has been dismissive of it.

Settlers kick Palestinian photographer near Hebron (18.10.08)
The report said the occupation had characteristics of apartheid

Erica Barks-Ruggles, a senior US state department official, said earlier this month that the HRC had failed to adequately address threats to fundamental freedoms and human rights in such places as Cuba and Belarus.

"Human rights violations by the regimes in North Korea, Iran, and Zimbabwe have been ignored," she said.

"The permanent agenda of the council was fixed in June 2007 with only one specific country item - Israel, a country that has been singled out for some 21 unbalanced actions, including resolutions, special sessions, and reports in the HRC's short life.

Ms Barks-Ruggles added: "This negative record has led us to seriously question the HRC membership's collective commitment to live up to the ideals for which it was founded."

Political lever?

While the HRC is discredited in the eyes of the US and some of its allies, there are also plenty of countries around the world that consider the US and those same allies to be serious, long-term abusers of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Map

What all this shows, once again, is that the promotion and protection of human rights around the world is not, unfortunately, a matter of simply agreeing a set of standards and seeing who measures up and who does not.

Instead it is, at times, a useful lever to use against political opponents.

When it comes to the occupied Palestinian territories there is no question that over many years Israel has abused Palestinian human rights and broken international laws concerning military occupation.

Israel and its friends defend themselves by saying that the need to protect their people forces them into actions that may sometimes be undesirable, but which are subject to the checks and balances of a parliamentary democracy.

But that is not the whole story. Some Palestinians have abused the rights of Israeli civilians by attacking them.

Palestinians often respond to this by saying they have a right to defend themselves against an occupier.

Continuing row

It is also true that Palestinian security forces, working for both the main Fatah and Hamas factions, have on occasion arrested fellow Palestinians and treated them very badly.

Human rights continue to be a major casualty of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Until there is a peace settlement that will continue

That, too, is sometimes explained with an argument that the pressure of the occupation has made it impossible to for them to develop fair and just systems of law and enforcement.

Mr Falk's report deals with serious issues of human rights abuse which have been well documented elsewhere, in some cases by Israel's own very active campaigners.

But it does not deal with what Palestinians sometimes do to Israelis - and to each other.

The continuing row over the way that these matters are discussed - or not - at the UN obscures the fact that human rights continue to be a major casualty of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Until there is a peace settlement that will continue.

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