UN General Assembly calls for Israel to halt Gaza operations

Passed 156-7, resolution 'deeply deplores' the Israeli offensive; Gillerman: emergency special session a 'farce.'

The UN General Assembly called for an end to Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip, overwhelmingly passing a resolution in an emergency special session the Israeli ambassador blasted as a "farce" and a "circus." The Arab League had asked for the session after the United States vetoed a similar, but watered-down UN Security Council draft resolution against Israel's actions last weekend - its second veto on the matter this year. The resolution passed Friday by a vote of 156 to 7, with six abstentions. The US, Israel and Australia voted against the document, along with four Pacific island nations. All the European Union members supported the resolution after last-minute changes were made to soften the tone of the text. There are no vetoes in the 192-member General Assembly, and the chamber's resolutions are nonbinding, considered more a reflection of international opinion. The Palestinian UN observer, Riyad Mansour, said earlier that Israel had committed war crimes against Palestinian civilians in its nearly five-month offensive, which Israel says is aimed at stopping militants from firing rockets from Gaza into its territory. Mansour said 82 Palestinians were killed during a six-day Israeli assault on the town of Beit Hanoun this month, including 19 members of an extended family who died in an early-morning artillery attack on Nov. 8. "What is required is serious and firm action in response to these crimes, especially the massacre in Beit Hanoun, as well as putting an end to this rampant Israeli campaign, which intends to destroy an entire people," Mansour told the General Assembly. Israel has expressed regret for the loss of civilian life in Beit Hanoun, and blamed the deaths on a technical failure in the fire control system of an artillery battery. On Friday, Israel's UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman lashed back at the Palestinians, accusing them of turning the Gaza Strip into a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Israel, allowing the firing of more than 1,000 rockets in the last year. He said Israel has been forced to defend itself because the Hamas-led government has not acceded to international demands to renounce violence, recognize Israel and honor past peace agreements with the Jewish state. "The debate this morning ... offers the Hamas government no incentive to renounce their ways of terror," he said. "They have a monopoly on this assembly's attention and sympathy. Without forcing the Palestinians to shoulder their responsibilities, there will be no change." Later at a news conference, he called the General Assembly session a "circus" and a "farce," and dismissed the resolution for omitting any reference to Hamas. US Ambassador John Bolton said it was ironic the assembly held a special session on the Palestinian question a day after one of its committees passed a resolution stressing the need to avoid politically motivated and biased human rights resolutions. "We believe that the United Nations is ill-served when its members seek to transform the organization into a forum that is little more than a self-serving and polemical attack against Israel or the United States," he said in the session. Gillerman also targeted Syria and Iran for criticism in his remarks, saying the two countries were fueling terrorism and extremism in the Middle East. He said Tehran had just given US$120 million to the cash-strapped Hamas government, without providing any details. "Who knows what they will use that money for? The international community must put a stop to their genocidal regimes," he said. Iran's UN Ambassador Javad Zarif accused Israel and the United States of repeating "baseless and tired allegations." He also told the General Assembly immediately after Bolton spoke that the US was "protecting the Israeli regime and providing it with cover" to continue its "dangerous criminal behavior with total impunity." Israel has been conducting an offensive in the Gaza Strip since an Israeli soldier was kidnapped in a cross-border raid on June 25. Its latest operation in Beit Hanoun ended last week without major achievements, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has signaled there are no immediate plans to launch more assaults. The resolution "deeply deplores" the Israeli offensive, in particular the Beit Hanoun killings, and calls on Israel to immediately halt its operation and pull its troops out of the Gaza Strip. It also requests the secretary-general establish a fact-finding mission on the Beit Hanoun incident and seeks international efforts to restart the peace process. A last-minute addition calls on the Palestinian Authority to take action to bring an end to violence, including the firing of rockets on Israeli territory. Qatar's UN Ambassador Nassir Al-Nasser said many of the same changes had been made to the Security Council draft resolution last weekend in an attempt to get all countries on the powerful body to support it.