Israel’s response to the two international commissions of inquiry established to investigate the circumstances that led to the al-Aqsa Intifada clearly reveals one of the underlying problems obstructing a durable solution to the Palestinian/Arab – Israeli conflict, namely, Israel’s continued non-compliance with international law and UN resolutions.
Negotiating from a position of strength - augmented by the support of the United States - Israel has managed to exempt itself and the Oslo process from the application of principles of international law, including the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. Unlike the peace agreements signed between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and Israel and Jordan in 1994, the Oslo Accords exclude all reference to international law and the UN Charter as the foundation of relations between Israel and the PLO. In reference to refugees and displaced persons, for example, Article 8 of the Peace Treaty between Jordan and Israel recognizes that the problem will be resolved “in accordance with international law.”
Israel’s refusal to abide by international law and UN resolutions led the UN Commission on Human Rights to warn in 1992 that ongoing international “military, economic and political support … encourages and supports Israel in its aggressive and expansionist policies.” (UN CHR Res. No. 1992/4, 14 Feb. 1992). The damage inflicted on the Palestinian people since the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada illustrates the impact of the lack of international will to pressure Israel to abide by international norms. The failure of the international community, in general, to uphold the rule of law has also meant that Israel’s refusal to fully cooperate with two international commissions set up to investigate the underlying causes of the recent intifada has led to a de facto situation where Israel is allowed to operate above the law and beyond investigation.
UN Commission on Human Rights Committee of Inquiry
This Commission was established under the terms of the UN Commission on Human Rights Resolution E/CN.4/S-5/1 (19 October 2000), which was later endorsed by the Economic and Social Council in its decision 2000/311 (22 November 2000). The terms of reference for the Committee are clearly spelled out in the Resolution:
“…to gather and compile information on violations of human rights and acts which constitute grave breaches of international humanitarian law by the Israeli occupying Power in the occupied Palestinian territories and to provide the Commission with its conclusions and recommendations, with the aim of preventing the repetition of the recent human rights violations;”
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, has appointed three international experts to the Committee: Professor Richard Falk (American expert in international law, Princeton University); Kamal Hussein (former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh), and; Professor John Dugard (South African international expert on human rights law, Leiden University).
Israel has decided not to cooperate with the Committee. According to Israel’s Foreign Ministry deputy director-general for UN and international organizations, Israel has the moral right not to cooperate, arguing that a majority of those on the Commission for Human Rights voted against or abstained from voting on the resolution. Secondly, Israel argues that many of those who voted for it – countries like Cuba, Sudan, Morocco, and Pakistan – Israel does not consider “beacons” of human rights. Third, the Ministry argues that Committee member Richard Falk had recently written an academic article that “demonstrated a strong bias against Israel.” Finally the Ministry argues that the Commission is unnecessary due to the creation of a second committee as agreed at the Sharm al-Sheikh summit in October 2000. (Jerusalem Post, 17-1-01)
Sharm al-Sheikh (“Mitchell”) Fact-Finding Committee
The “Mitchell Committee” was established by the United States during the Sharm al-Sheikh Summit between Israel and the PLO in mid-October 2000. Unlike the clear terms of reference accorded to the UN Committee, the mandate of the Mitchell Committee remains unclear. It appears, however, that the head of the Committee, former US Senator George Mitchell, is following a mediation strategy similar to that employed in Northern Ireland – namely, trying to work with Israel and the PLO, each on their own terms. For example, when Israeli officials demanded that the Committee not carry out its own investigations on the ground, the Committee assured Israel that its purpose was not to assign blame and that it would be preparing its report from its offices in the United States.
The Committee, headed by Mitchell, is composed of five members, who, unlike the UN Committee, have mostly a political or security background rather than experience in international law and human rights. The other members of the Committee include former US Senator Warren Rudman, former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, Javier Solana EU High Rep. for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjorn Jagland. The Committee has also appointed an 8 member technical team headed by former US Ambassador to Chad Larry Pope.
The ability of the Committee to carry out investigative work has been hampered by continuous Israeli obstruction. For the first several weeks after the creation of the Committee was announced, Israeli officials demanded that the Committee delay its visit to the region until the Palestinian uprising subsided. Israel further demanded that the Committee not undertake its own investigations on the ground, but rather content itself with receiving official reports from Israel and the PLO. When the Israeli and Palestinian delegations returned to Washington, DC in late December for another round of US-mediated talks Israel once again attempt to obstruct the work of the committee, claiming that as long as the parties were talking there was no need to carry out investigations. The work of the Committee hit another snag in mid-January 2001 when Israel refused to cooperate with the technical team following a visit by the head of the team, Larry Pope, to the Haram al-Sharif without an Israeli government escort. Pope has been subsequently recalled to Washington. The five members of the Committee meanwhile have delayed their return to the region until after the Israeli elections on 6 February.
In the case of both committees, Palestinian officials have underlined the importance of international law and UN resolutions as an objective framework for international inquiries into the immediate and root causes of the recent uprising. Israel’s continued claim that it is not responsible for the current situation raises several obvious questions: 1) why does the Israeli government continue to obstruct the work of these two committees? and; 2) why does Israel object to international law as a basic framework for investigation into the events of the last few months?
In the meantime, the continued obstruction of the Mitchell Committee and refusal to cooperate with the UN Commission on Human Rights Committee, means that four months after the beginning of the al-Aqsa intifada - and with over 350 Palestinians killed, thousands injured, and millions of dollars of damage to private and public Palestinian property - the rule of law remains to be applied; the Palestinian people continue to suffer from Israel’s ongoing occupation and brutal policies to repress Palestinian demands for their rights, including self-determination and the right of return; and, a just, comprehensive and durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains elusive.