The head of the UN’s Gaza probe, Canadian legal expert William Schabas, said he would investigate possible Israeli human rights violations in Operation Protective Edge, but balked on Tuesday at clarifying whether his mandate included Hamas.
He was asked about Hamas’s inclusion during an interview with Channel 2. “I cannot tell you what the commission is going to do in terms of interpreting its mandate. I am only one member and I have not had a meeting with the other commissioners,” Schabas said.
He spoke after his appointment Monday to head a three-member UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry into events in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem since the Hamas kidnapping of three Israeli teens on July 12.
“Do you consider Hamas a terrorist organization?” Channel 2 asked him.
“It would be inappropriate for me to answer a question like that,” Schabas said, adding that it was important to “study this question in as neutral and objective a manner as possible.”
Israel blasted Schabas’s appointment, saying he participated in the Russell Tribunal, a citizens’ group of legal experts and activists that charge Israel of having violated international law – it works to hold Israel accountable for those violations.
When talking about Western leaders that should be placed before the International Criminal Court, Schabas had said at the Russell Tribunal: “My favorite would be [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu in the dock.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman told The Jerusalem Post he was surprised the UNHRC did not appoint Hamas head Khaled Mashaal to lead the inquiry, since their ideas about Israel are “more or less the same.”
An official in the Prime Minister’s Office said that considering Schabas’s previous comments, “any objective person would ask him to recluse himself. How can he even claim to have any objectivity?” In the Channel 2 interview Schabas defended that statement.
He said that he was just “echoing” the conclusions of the UNHRC Goldstone Report that investigated Israel’s military incursion into Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead, which occurred in the winter of 2008.
In that report, he said “that the International Criminal Court should deal with the conclusions of the Goldstone Report, [which spoke of] the possibility that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed during Operation Cast Lead.”
As Schabas spoke to Channel 2 he seemed to be unaware that Israel’s prime minister at the time was Ehud Olmert and not Netanyahu.
He said that his statement in favor of the ICC indicting Netanyahu and former president Shimon Peres had been exaggerated.
“Is there a human being in Israel who has never expressed political opinions about leaders in Israel?” he asked, adding that as a commission or as a judge the point was to put the past behind them.
He said that his commission’s mandate was to investigate Israeli actions in the last two months, particularly in Gaza, and that it was important for Israel to work with his commission.
Liberman said it was unclear if Israel would cooperate with the probe.
“The specific allegations have a great deal to do with the use of force, the targeting and the proportionality of the targeting [and] the identification of military objections,” Schabas said.
“It is in Israel’s interest to be there in that discussion and to give its version of events, if it does not, that leaves an unfortunate one-sided picture,” Schabas said.
He acknowledged that there were double standards in the UN. The imbalance of power in the UN means that “there have not been inquiries into some atrocities,” he said.
But, Schabas said, many people believe “there is a double standard in the UN Security council, because Israel gets off rather light in the UN Security Council.”
Similarly, he said, the power and influence that Russia and the United States wield means that there is a lack of inquiry into their actions in the UN.
Earlier in the day, Schabas told Israel Radio, that he was not “anti-Israeli.”
“I have frequently lectured in Israel. I am a member of the [International Advisory Board] of the Israel Law Review. I would not do those things if I were anti-Israel,” Schabas said.
Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird slammed the panel in two separate tweets that he sent out Monday night.
“The UN Human Rights Council continues to be a sham for advancing human rights; today’s ann’t [appointment] for members of its Gaza inquiry reveals its agenda,” Baird wrote.
“It’s an utter shame, and will do nothing to promote peace and dignity in Gaza for the Palestinian people,” he said.
Upon hearing of Schabas’s appointment, the Foreign Ministry reiterated Israel’s charge that the panel constituted a kangaroo court.
“His opinions against Israel are known to all, and prove without a doubt that Israel cannot expect justice from this body,” the Foreign Ministry said. “The report has already been written and the only question is who signs it.”
According to the UNHRC, the panel is expected to deliver its report in March 2015.
The panel is mandated to “investigate all violations of international humanitarian laws and international human rights laws in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military operations conducted since June 13, 2014.”
It has been asked to establish the facts and circumstances, identify those responsible, and to recommend accountability measures “with a view to avoiding and ending impunity, and ensuring that those responsible are held accountable.”
On Monday the UNHRC announced that the other two experts on the Gaza commission of inquiry would be Doudou Diène of Senegal and Amal Alamuddin of the United Kingdom.
Alamuddin, who was born in Lebanon and is engaged to American Hollywood actor George Clooney, has since recused herself from the panel for work related reasons.
“Given existing commitments – including eight ongoing cases – unfortunately [I] could not accept this role,” Alamuddin said.
In rejecting her UNHRC appointment, Alamuddin said: “I am horrified by the situation in the occupied Gaza Strip, particularly the civilian casualties that have been caused, and strongly believe that there should be an independent investigation and accountability for crimes that have been committed.”
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri in Gaza said: “Hamas welcomes the decision to form an investigation committee into the war crimes committed by the occupation against Gaza and it urges that it begin work as soon as possible.”
Herb Keinon and Reuters contributed to this report.