Israelis drive past a Palestinian protester holding a banner during a protest against the Israeli occupation on the main road 60 between the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Hebron near the Israeli settlement of Daniel on January 25, 2013. (AP)
GENEVA (AP) -- The United Nations' first report on Israel's overall settlement policy describes it as a "creeping annexation" of territory that clearly violates the human rights of Palestinians, and calls for Israel to immediately stop further such construction.
The report's conclusions, revealed Thursday, are not legally binding, but they further inflame tensions between the U.N. Human Rights Council and Israel, and between Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli officials immediately denounced the report, while Palestinians pointed to it as "proof of Israel's policy of ethnic cleansing" and its desire to undermine the possibility of a Palestinian state.
The Palestinians also hinted that they could use the report as a basis for legal action toward a war crimes prosecution.
In its report to the 47-nation council, a panel of investigators said Israel is violating international humanitarian law under the Fourth Geneva Convention, one of the treaties that establish the ground rules for what is considered humane during wartime.
This was the first thematic report on Israel's settlements with an historical look at the government's policy since 1967, U.N. officials said. Previous U.N. reports have taken a look at Israeli settlement policy only through the lens of a specific event, such as the 2009 war in the Gaza Strip, when Israel launched an offensive in response to months of rocket fire by the ruling Hamas militant group.
The Israeli government persists in building settlements in occupied territories claimed by Palestinians for a future state, including east Jerusalem and the West Bank, "despite all the pertinent United Nations resolutions declaring that the existence of the settlements is illegal and calling for their cessation," the report said.
The settlements are "a mesh of construction and infrastructure leading to a creeping annexation that prevents the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian State and undermines the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination," the report concludes.
More than 500,000 Israelis already live in settlements that dot the West Bank and ring east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' hoped-for capital. Israel annexed east Jerusalem, with its Palestinian population, immediately after capturing the territory from Jordan in 1967 and has built housing developments for Jews there, but the annexation has not been recognized internationally.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office released a statement saying that he "has repeatedly made his views on Israeli settlements clear. All settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, is illegal under international law. It also runs contrary to Israel's obligations under the Road Map" for a Middle East peace settlement.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry accused the council of taking a systematically one-sided and biased approach towards Israel, with the report being merely "another unfortunate reminder" of that bias.
"The only way to resolve all pending issues between Israel and the Palestinians, including the settlements issue, is through direct negotiations without pre-conditions," the ministry said. "Counterproductive measures - such as the report before us - will only hamper efforts to find a sustainable solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict."
French judge Christine Chanet, who led the panel, said Israel never cooperated with the probe, which the council ordered last March.
Because it was not authorized to investigate within Israel, Chanet said, the panel had to travel to Jordan to interview more than 50 people who spoke of the impact of the settlements, such as violence by Jewish settlers, confiscation of land and damage to olive trees that help support Palestinian families. The report also references legal opinions, other reports and a number of articles in the Israeli press.
Another panel member, Pakistani lawyer Asma Jahangir, said the settlements "seriously impinge on the self-determination of the Palestinian people," an offense under international humanitarian law.
At a news conference, Chanet called the report "a kind of weapon for the Palestinians" if they want to take their grievances before The Hague-based International Criminal Court.
The Palestine Liberation Organization appeared to suggest it might seek such action, in a statement that called the report's legal framework a clear indictment of Israeli policy and practice.
"All the Israeli settlement activities are illegal and considered to be war crimes according to the International Criminal Court's Rome Statute as well as the Fourth Geneva Convention. This means that Israel is liable to prosecution," said PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi. The settlements, she added, are "clearly a form of forced transfer and a proof of Israel's policy of ethnic cleansing."
In November, the U.N. General Assembly recognized a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in a vote that was largely symbolic but infuriated Israel. In December, the Palestinians accused Israel of planning more "war crimes" by expanding settlements.
The Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council was set up in 2006 to replace a 60-year-old commission that was widely discredited as a forum dominated by nations with poor rights records. The United States finally joined the council in 2009, and U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said earlier this month that while all countries should appear for their review "we also consistently registered our opposition to the council's consistent anti-Israel bias."
Earlier this week, Israel became the first nation to skip a review of its human rights record by the council without giving a reason. Diplomats agreed to postpone their review until later this year based on Israel's request for a deferral.
The council, which could have proceeded with the review or canceled it, said its agreement to defer would set precedent for how to deal with any future cases of "non-cooperation."
All 193 U.N.-member nations are required to submit to such a review every four years, and council diplomats said they worried that if a nation were let off the hook that could undermine the process.