x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Delay over Gaza war crimes vote sparks protests

Support of Palestinian Authority for UN deferral causes anger among politicians, human rights groups and general population.

RAMALLAH // Cancelled summits, condemnation from political parties, civil society and human rights groups and demonstrations in the streets: the fallout from the Palestinian Authority's (PA) decision to support a deferral of a vote in the UN on a report accusing Israel of war crimes in its offensive on Gaza this year yesterday gathered momentum as a growing number of voices called for accountability.

Yesterday, about 500 demonstrators gathered in the centre of Ramallah to protest against the PA's role in deferring the vote and demand those responsible for the decision be held accountable. "The decision to agree to a delay in the vote at the UN Human Rights Council is not acceptable," said Khalida Jarrar, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the PFLP, the largest leftist political faction in the Palestinian parliament. She was speaking on the edge of the demonstration that she said showed ordinary Palestinians were angry. "People are angry, I am angry. Those responsible for this decision must be held accountable and should resign."

The UN's Human Rights Council had been due on Friday to vote on whether to endorse the recommendations of an international commission of inquiry, headed by a South African judge, Richard Goldstone, which accused both Israel's military and Hamas militants of committing war crimes and of possible crimes against humanity during Israel's offensive. Almost 1,400 Palestinians, the majority civilians, and 13 Israelis, 10 of whom were soldiers, were killed in the offensive.

But after the PA apparently acceded to US pressure, the vote was delayed to March. Many see that decision as a missed opportunity to have Israel held internationally responsible for its military actions vis-à-vis Palestinians. "We've been waiting 60 years for a credible commission of inquiry to tell Israel that it is committing war crimes and that these war crimes cannot go unpunished," said Eyad Sarraj, a Gaza-based human rights activist and analyst. "This is the first time that such a commission has been established."

Mr Sarraj said he held Mahmoud Abbas, president of the PA and head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, personally responsible for the decision to support a delay of the vote, a decision he described as a "major error of judgment that should lead to his suspension as president". Mr Abbas, who was in Yemen when the UN council decided to delay the vote, announced on Sunday that the PLO would establish a committee to investigate who was responsible for the decision to support the delay. On the same day, Mohammed Dahlan, the erstwhile Gaza strongman and newly elected member of the central committee of Mr Abbas's Fatah party, told the Maan news agency that people should not "rush to judgment" and said it was not clear with whom responsibility for making the decision to accept a delay lay.

Most observers, however, find it hard to believe that the decision could have emanated from anywhere but the president's office, and both Mr Sarraj and Mrs Jarrar called for any such investigation to be composed of independents rather than members of the PLO's executive committee. To those demonstrating yesterday in Ramallah, Mr Abbas's investigation was derided. "It's a joke, isn't it," said Tahreer Araj, 35, who is finishing her PhD in human and community development at University of Illinois. "This is just a way to deflect blame. The responsibility for the decision lies with Abbas and his people. Not only should they resign, they should face criminal prosecution."

An elderly man, standing a little apart from the demonstration, agreed with that assessment. "It's an old tactic: if you want to bury something, send it to committee," said the 62-year-old consultant, who only gave his name as Mustafa. He said he had been particularly angered by the decision since he himself was a member of Fatah. He also wanted to see Mr Abbas resign to take "moral responsibility".

From Gaza, Hamas also rejected the PLO investigation. The group said it was impossible for it to be impartial. Mahmoud Zahhar, a senior Hamas leader, yesterday went so far as to say that Mr Abbas could no longer "be considered a Palestinian". Further afield, there were apparently further repercussions. Yesterday, Syria cancelled a planned summit with Mr Abbas, only a day after government officials criticised the PA for supporting the delay of the UN vote. Officially, Damascus said the cancellation was made because of a visit of Saudi King Abdullah.

With his credibility at rock bottom, Mr Abbas will now depend heavily on US mediation to secure some much-needed diplomatic traction. George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, is due here tomorrow for talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Mr Abbas will be hoping that Mr Mitchell can persuade the Israelis to implement a complete settlement construction freeze before pushing the Palestinian side to agree to restart negotiations over a final peace settlement.

Without such a settlement freeze, it would now seem almost impossible for Mr Abbas to credibly agree to restart negotiations with Israel.