Head of UN panel probing Israel claims ‘Jewish lobby’ comments taken out of context

The head of a UN commission of inquiry looking into alleged Israeli crimes against Palestinians pushed back Thursday against criticism of a member of the panel who was quoted speaking out against the “Jewish lobby” and questioning Israel’s inclusion in the world body.

Navi Pillay, a former UN human rights chief, said the comments by Miloon Kothari to Mondoweiss, a website highly critical of Israel, had been deliberately decontextualized, in a letter to the rights council’s president that was made public Thursday.

Kothari, a member of the three-person UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel, told Mondoweiss in comments published Monday that a lot of money was being spent on efforts to “discredit” the UN Human Rights Council, which set up the commission to look into the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas last year, and that social media was “controlled largely by the Jewish lobby.”

The commission’s role, Kothari noted, was to look into humanitarian law, human rights law, and criminal law. “On all three counts, Israel is in systematic violation of all the legislation,” he said.

“I would go as far as to raise the question as why they are even a member of the United Nations, because they don’t respect — the Israeli government does not respect — its own obligations as a UN member state,” he added.

In a letter to UNHRC President Federico Villegas, Pillay said Kothari’s comments “seem to have been taken out of context” and that the commission “feels it necessary to clarify certain issues given the seriousness of the accusations.”

Miloon Kothari, member of the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel, briefs reporters on the first report of the Commission, June 14, 2022. (UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré)

“The commission does not question the status or United Nations membership of either of the concerned states of its mandate,” Pillay wrote.

She maintained Kothari’s comments on efforts to discredit the commission members were “deliberately misquoted to imply that ‘social media’ was controlled by the Jewish lobby.”

Reached by email, Kothari referred to Pillay’s letter and declined to comment.

Kothari’s comments have helped fuel criticism from the council, which has long been accused of singling out Israel.

“The international community should be outraged by Miloon Kothari’s antisemitic comments,” said Keren Hajioff, Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s international spokeswoman. “His racist remarks by him about ‘the Jewish Lobby’ that controls the media and his questioning Israel’s right to exist as a member of the family of nations – echo the darkest days of antisemitism.”

A general view of the room hosting a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on Ukraine, in Geneva, on May 12, 2022. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

Diplomats and officials from the US, Canada and Britain have also spoken out against Kothari’s remarks.

The commission is the first to have an open-ended mandate from the UN rights body, and critics say such permanent scrutiny shows anti-Israel bias in the 47-member-state council. Proponents support the commission as a way to keep tabs on injustices faced by Palestinians under decades of Israeli rule.

Council spokesman Rolando Gomez cited the Human Rights Council’s “long track record speaking out against all forms of discrimination and racism and vehemently condemns such abhorrent acts.”

Navanethem Pillay (center right), chair of the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel, briefs reporters on the first report of the Commission. On the right is Miloon Kothari, and in the center left is Chris Sidoti. (UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré)

The UN probe was launched following the 2021 war to investigate “all alleged violations of international humanitarian law and all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law” in Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel has previously said it will not cooperate with the commission, saying its members “have repeatedly taken public and hostile positions against Israel on the very subject matter that they are called upon to ‘independently and impartially’ investigate.”

Kothari said in a statement released by the UNHRC in June that “ending Israel’s occupation, in full conformity with Security Council resolutions, remains essential in stopping the persistent cycle of violence. It is only with the ending of occupation that the world can begin to reverse historical injustices and move towards self-determination of the Palestinian peoples.”

In his interview with Mondoweiss, Kothari said the term “apartheid” was a “useful paradigm/framework to understand the situation but not sufficient.”

A Palestinian demonstrator blocks the road in front of Israeli soldiers in the Masafer Yatta area in the West Bank, which has been at the center of a protracted legal battle, July 1, 2022. (Mosab Shawer/AFP)

“We need to figure in settler-colonialism, general issues of discrimination, occupation and other dynamics to get a fuller picture of the root causes of the current crisis… ending ‘apartheid’ will not end the crisis of occupation for the Palestinian peoples… the issue of self-determination requires many other changes,” he said.

A report released last month by the panel blamed Israel’s “persistent discrimination against Palestinians” for violence between the two sides.

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