Desmond Tutu: Israel refused fact-finding mission to Gaza

By The Associated Press


Kislev 20, 5767

Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu said Monday that the Israeli government's failure to permit a fact-finding mission to investigate Israeli-Palestinian violence was "very distressing."

"We find the lack of cooperation by the Israeli government very distressing, as well as its failure to allow the missing timely passage to Israel," Tutu told reporters after UN officials said Israel had blocked his UN fact-finding mission to the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Monday that no final
decision has been made.

"Israel heard that they decided not to come. We had not given them a negative response, our final decision was pending," Regev said.

"At times not making a decision is making a decision," said Tutu. "We couldn't obviously wait in limbo indefinitely."

The former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town said he had accepted the mission on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council "at short notice."

"We cancelled important commitments to make ourselves available for this task and to submit a report by mid-December to the council," Tutu said, adding that to take up the mission he had left the bedside of his wife, who was in a hospital following a knee operation.

Christine Chinkin, a law professor at the London School of Economics, said she and other members of the a team had hoped to meet with Israeli authorities and had therefore decided against entering Gaza through Egypt.

"That would be one-sided. It would not give us the full picture. It would also look as though we were going in the back door," she said. "It was in no way at all a one-sided mission."

Because of the failure of Israel to approve the mission in time, the mission team had had to cancel its appointments in Israel and the Gaza Strip with people involved in the conflict.

Tutu was to begin leading a six-member team over the past weekend in the
northern Gaza town of Beit Hanun to investigate the killings of 19civilians in an Israeli artillery barrage last month.

But Israel refused to grant the South African anti-apartheid campaigner the necessary travel clearance, said officials in two separate UN departments who spoke on condition of anonymity before Tutu spoke.

Tutu's team was supposed to report its findings to the UN Human Rights
Council by Friday. It is unclear if Israel will allow the fact-finding mission to take place at a later date.

Israeli officials have expressed concern that Tutu's mission was only
entrusted with investigating alleged human rights violations committed by
Israel, and not also by Palestinian militants.

The 47-nation council authorized the mission last month, asking Tutu to assess the situation of victims, address the needs of survivors and make
recommendations on ways to protect Palestinian civilians against further
Israeli attacks.

The shelling, which Israel said was unintended, came after its troops wound up a weeklong incursion meant to curb Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel from the town.

Palestinian militants frequently use Beit Hanun as a staging ground for their rocket attacks on Israel.

"We had a problem not with the personalities, we had a problem with the
institution," Regev said. "We saw a situation whereby the human rights
mechanism of the UN was being cynically exploited to advance an anti-Israel agenda. This would do the Israelis, the Palestinians and peace in the Middle East no good at all. This would also have done nothing to serve the interest of human rights."

The council, which replaced the widely discredited Human Rights Commission in June, has been criticized for passing eight resolutions criticizing Israel in its six-month existence, but none censuring any other government's policies.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the watchdog last month to deal with the Mideast conflict in an impartial manner, and said it was time to focus attention on "graver" crises such as Darfur. After that, European countries rallied enough support to require the council to hold a special session on Darfur, which has been scheduled for Tuesday.

"I'm glad the council will be discussing it, because it does underscore what makes for the credibility of an institution or of a person," Tutu said. "Human rights violations are human rights violations wherever they would occur."