TEL AVIV // Israel yesterday slammed as "one-sided and biased" a scathing United Nations report that called on the country to "immediately" withdraw all half a million Jewish settlers from the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The report, by a three-member panel of investigators appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, went further than past international condemnations of settlements by urging other countries and private companies outside Israel to curtail all ties with Israel's settlement enterprise.
The panel suggested that the Palestinians may try to take legal action against Israel's settlements. Christine Chanet, the French judge who headed the panel, said the document could be used "as a kind of weapon for the Palestinians" should they turn to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The Palestinians' UN status upgrade to a non-member observer state in November allows them to join the court and potentially take legal action against Israel.
The UN panel's report could shift more international attention to Israeli settlements at a time when Barack Obama, the US president, is expected to apply more pressure on Washington's closest Middle East ally to freeze settlement construction in a bid to restart peace talks.
Palestinians have refused to return to the negotiating table until Israel stops building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which they want as part of their future state along with the Gaza Strip.
Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry, blasted the UN human rights body, saying that "it sadly distinguished itself by its systematically one-sided and biased approach towards Israel".
Israel rejected any cooperation with the UN fact-finding mission.
Palestinian leaders welcomed the report and said it was the UN council's "most extensive ever" on the effect of Jewish settlements on Palestinians. Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator, told The National that the Palestinian leadership planned to "take steps" in the international arena after studying the document.
The panel called on Israel to "cease all settlement activities without preconditions" and said the country "must immediately initiate a process of withdrawal of all settlers". It reiterated the UN's view that the settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibit the transfer of civilian populations into occupied territory by the occupying power.
Israel is a signatory to the convention but says it does not apply to the occupied Palestinian territories because Jordan and Egypt - from which Israel conquered the areas in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war - are not claiming them back.
The document condemned Israeli settlements as a "mesh of construction and infrastructure leading to a creeping annexation that prevents the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state".
It also said the settlements were established "for the exclusive benefit of Israeli Jews" and were being maintained through a system of total segregation between the settlers and the Palestinian civilians living in the occupied territory. The support of the Israeli army and law enforcement agencies for the settlements is carried out "to the detriment of the rights of the Palestinian population", it added.
The UN panel, which began its work in August, focused on the implications of the settlements for the political, civil, social, economic and cultural rights of the Palestinians.
The panel's members sent five requests for Israel's cooperation and permission to visit the West Bank and East Jerusalem but failed to get a response, according to the report. The panel's members instead travelled to Jordan to get first-hand accounts from Palestinians, both civilians and officials from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, Jordanian officials and staff from non-governmental organisations working with Palestinians.
Mr Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, said the report should spur the international community to apply more pressure on Israel to curb its settlements. "The outcome of this report is that settlements are destroying the peace process," he said.
* With reporting by the Associated Press