Former UN rights boss to head probe into Israel, Hamas alleged crimes

GENEVA (Reuters) – Former United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay will head an international commission of inquiry into alleged crimes committed during the latest conflict between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council said in a statement on Thursday.

The council agreed in late May to launch the investigation with a broad mandate to probe all alleged violations, not just in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but also in Israel during hostilities that were halted by a May 21 ceasefire.

At least 250 Palestinians and 13 people in Israel were killed in the fierce fighting, which saw Gaza militants fire rockets towards Israeli cities and Israel carry out air strikes across the coastal enclave.

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the council at the time that deadly Israeli strikes on Gaza might constitute war crimes and that Hamas had violated international humanitarian law by firing rockets into Israel.

Israel rejected the resolution adopted by the Geneva forum at an emergency special session and said it would not cooperate.

Pillay, a former South African judge who served as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008-2014, will lead the three-person panel also composed of Indian expert Miloon Kothari and Australian expert Chris Sidoti, said the statement issued by the Human Rights Council. The investigators, who have been tasked with trying to identify those responsible for violations with a view to ensure they are held accountable, are due to present their first report in June 2022.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Turkey and Israel want to improve ties after presidents’ call – Turkish ruling party

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey and Israel have agreed to work towards improving their strained relations after a rare phone call between their presidents, a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling AK Party said on Wednesday.

The two countries expelled ambassadors in 2018 after a bitter falling-out. Ankara has condemned Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its treatment of Palestinians, while Israel has called on Turkey to drop support for the militant Palestinian group Hamas which rules Gaza.

Both sides say the other must move first for any rapprochement.

President Tayyip Erdogan called Israel’s new president, Isaac Herzog, on Monday to congratulate him on taking office. Israel’s presidency is a largely ceremonial office.

“A framework emerged after this call under which advances should be made on several issues where improvements can be made, and where steps towards solving problematic areas should be taken,” spokesman Omer Celik said after an AK Party meeting.

Celik singled out the Palestinians as one of many issues Turkey wants to discuss with Israel, adding that areas such as tourism and trade should be a “win-win” for both nations. Bilateral trade has remained strong amid the political disputes.

During the call, which came a day after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Ankara, Erdogan told Herzog he valued maintaining dialogue and said Turkish-Israeli relations were key for regional stability.

Erdogan also reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adding “positive steps” would also help Turkey’s ties with Israel, his office said.

In May, Erdogan called Israel a “terror state” after Israeli police shot rubber bullets and stun grenades towards Palestinian youths at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque.

Israel accuses Turkey of aiding members of Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and its Western allies.

Turkey has also recently been trying to repair its frayed ties with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Monday’s call came a month after Naftali Bennett became Israeli prime minister, replacing Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Erdogan had frequently traded barbs.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Daren Butler; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Israel to ease more Gaza restrictions as truce holds

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israel said on Thursday it would ease restrictions on trade and fisheries in the Gaza Strip that had been tightened during 11 days of fighting with the Palestinian enclave’s Hamas rulers last month.

Israel keeps tight controls over Gaza’s borders, with support from neighboring Egypt, citing threats from Hamas. The Israeli restrictions were intensified during the May fighting – halting Gaza exports, restricting imports of raw materials and limiting the area that Palestinians are permitted to fish.

With an Egyptian-mediated truce largely holding, Israel on Monday allowed a limited resumption of commercial exports from Gaza. But Hamas demanded a wider easing of curbs and held out the possibility of resuming hostilities.

Starting from Friday, Israel will “expand the fishing zone in the Gaza Strip from six to nine nautical miles, and (approve) the import of raw materials for essential civilian factories,” COGAT, a branch of Israel’s defense ministry, said.

The new measures are “conditional upon the preservation of security stability,” COGAT said in a statement.

At least one factory in the Strip, Pepsi Gaza, had shut down due to Israeli restrictions on raw materials imports, including carbon dioxide gas. COGAT did not say which raw materials would be allowed in.

Egypt and the United Nations stepped up mediation last week after incendiary balloons launched from Gaza drew retaliatory Israeli air strikes on Hamas sites, challenging the fragile ceasefire.

At least 250 Palestinians and 13 in Israel were killed in the May fighting, which saw Gaza militants fire rockets towards Israeli cities and Israel carry out air strikes across the coastal enclave.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Israeli nationalists march in East Jerusalem, prompt Palestinian ‘Day of Rage’

By Rami Ayyub

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Far-right Israeli groups will march in and around East Jerusalem’s Old City on Tuesday in a flag-waving procession that risks igniting tensions with Palestinians in the contested city and rekindling violence between Israel and Gaza militants.

Assailing the march as a “provocation,” Palestinian factions have called for a “Day of Rage” in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas have warned of renewed hostilities if it goes ahead.

“We warn of the dangerous repercussions that may result from the occupying power’s intention to allow extremist Israeli settlers to carry out the Flag March in occupied Jerusalem tomorrow,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Twitter.

An original march was re-routed to avoid the Old City’s Muslim Quarter on May 10 when tensions in Jerusalem led Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas to fire rockets towards the holy city, helping set off 11 days of deadly fighting.

Israeli rightists accused their government of caving into Hamas by changing its route. They rescheduled the procession after a Gaza truce took hold.

Tuesday’s march, due to begin at 6:30 p.m. (1530 GMT), poses an immediate challenge for new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who took office on Sunday and brought veteran leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s record-long rule to an end.

Bennett’s internal security minister approved the march on Monday.

A route change or cancellation of the procession could expose Bennett’s patchwork coalition to accusations from Netanyahu, now in the opposition, and his right-wing allies of giving Hamas veto power over events in Jerusalem.

“The time has come for Israel to threaten Hamas and not for Hamas to threaten Israel,” prominent far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir said on Twitter.

An official route for the march has yet to be announced. Israeli media reported that police will allow participants to congregate outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate but will not let them cross through it to the Muslim Quarter, which has an overwhelmingly Palestinian population.

Tensions are sure to be high whether or not the route is changed. Palestinian protests were planned for 6 p.m. (1500 GMT) across the Gaza Strip, and Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction have called on Palestinians to flock to the Old City to counter the march.

The Israeli military has made preparations for a possible escalation in Gaza over the march, Israeli media reported, and the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem prohibited its employees and their families from entering the Old City on Tuesday.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, to be the capital of a state they seek to establish in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem in a move that has not won international recognition after capturing the area in a 1967 war, regards the entire city as its capital.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Howard Goller)

Israel says Gaza tower that housed AP doubled as Hamas electronic warfare site

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s military said on Tuesday that a tower block in Gaza housing the U.S.-based Associated Press which was destroyed in an Israeli air strike was also used by the enclave’s Islamist rulers Hamas as an electronic warfare site.

Israel’s destruction of the 12-storey tower, which also housed Qatar-based media group Al Jazeera, during last month’s fighting with Hamas and other militants drew international condemnation and calls by Israel’s main ally the United States to protect journalists.

The al-Jalaa building in Gaza City had been evacuated after its owner received advanced warning of the May 15 strike. But the AP says it has received no evidence of a Hamas presence that posed a threat, and has called for an independent investigation.

AP executives met Israel’s ambassador to Washington and the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, on Monday to discuss the building’s destruction.

“Israeli authorities maintain that the building housing our bureau was destroyed because of a Hamas presence that posed an urgent threat. We have yet to receive evidence to support these claims,” the AP said in a statement.

“AP continues to call for the full release of any evidence the Israelis have so that the facts are public.”

In a statement, Erdan reiterated an Israeli claim that the building housed Hamas military intelligence, saying its personnel there were “developing an electronic jamming system to be used against the Iron Dome defense system”.

Israel’s Iron Dome interceptors shot down most of the more than 4,300 rockets fire from Gaza during the 11-day conflict, during which Israeli air strikes and Gaza rocket fire left more than 250 Palestinians and 13 in Israel dead.

The Israeli military said the purpose of the strike “was to curtail these enemy capabilities, including destroying special equipment, and preventing their use during the operation…The strike was designed to collapse the building in order to ensure the destruction of the special means.”

Erdan said Israel did all it could to avoid civilian harm.

“AP is one of the most important news agencies in the world and Israel doesn’t think that AP employees were aware it was being cynically used in this way by Hamas for a secret unit,” he said.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub, Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israeli police bar right-wing march through Jerusalem’s Old City

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israeli far right groups scrapped a planned march through Jerusalem’s Old City after police refused to authorize it amid fears it would rekindle strife that led to 11 days of intense fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants last month.

Several groups had planned a flag-waving procession through the walled Old City’s Damascus Gate and into its Muslim quarter this coming Thursday, drawing warnings from Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement of fresh hostilities should it go ahead.

The original march on May 10 was re-routed at the last minute as tensions around Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, where Palestinian families face eviction, led Hamas to fire rockets towards the holy city.

Israel responded with air strikes, and the most serious cross-border fighting with Hamas in years raged for 11 days before a fragile ceasefire was achieved. Arab-Jewish violence also erupted in several Israeli cities.

Police said on Monday the permit was denied for Thursday’s march to proceed on the date and along the route planned by the organizers, and that an alternative procession would be considered if submitted.

Far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir said he would nonetheless march along the full route, accusing police of “capitulating to terrorism.”

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza said the police decision stemmed from Israel’s recognition of “the danger of crossing … red lines” set by the group over Israeli activity at sensitive sites in Jerusalem, and “consequences it may bring on the ground”.

It was not immediately clear if police made the move in consultation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, some of whose right-wing members have voiced support for the march as a show of Israel’s claim to sovereignty over East Jerusalem, disputed by Palestinians.

Israel’s Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, said on Twitter that the police ban should be reviewed by the government, floating the possibility that it could still be overturned.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem, in a move that has not won international recognition, after capturing the area in the 1967 Middle East war. It considers all of Jerusalem its capital.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a state they seek to establish in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Tensions are likely to remain high in Jerusalem even if the march does not go ahead. Protests have flared in Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinian families face possible eviction after an Israeli court accepted Jewish settler land claims.

Israeli Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit informed the Supreme Court that he would not intervene in the legal proceedings, paving the way for the court to issue a ruling widely expected to be in favor of the settlers.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and Nidal al-Mughrabi in GazaEditing by Jeffrey Heller, Mark Heinrich, Peter Graff)

U.S. senator expects U.S. to send more funds for Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A senior U.S. senator said on Tuesday he expected Washington would quickly authorize as much as $1 billion for Israel to replenish its Iron Dome missile defense system after clashes in May with Hamas.

“There will be a $1 billion request coming to the Pentagon this week from the (Israeli) defense minister to replenish the Iron Dome and a few other things, to upgrade the system,” Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters in Jerusalem.

A senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Graham met with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz during a trip to Israel. The committee oversees spending including foreign military aid.

Graham said Iron Dome had saved thousands of lives during last month’s rocket attacks, and predicted Israel’s request would find favor with both President Joe Biden and Congress, which is narrowly controlled by Biden’s Democrats.

“There’s been a big dustup over the last engagement between Hamas and the State of Israel in the United States, but I’m here to tell you that there’s a wide and deep support for Israel among the Democratic Party,” Graham said.

Biden has said he would replenish Iron Dome, which helped Israel fend off most of the more than 4300 rockets fired from Gaza during the conflict.

Israel and Hamas began a ceasefire on May 21 after 11 days of the fiercest Israeli-Palestinian hostilities in years, with nearly 250 people dead, all but 13 of them Palestinians.

Israel’s fierce response drew criticism from some Democrats, but Israel generally enjoys strong support in Washington from both parties. Congress routinely approves large sums on military funding for a country seen as a solid U.S. partner in an unstable region.

Israel’s Defense Ministry said Gantz would meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Thursday in Washington for a discussion on issues including Iran and military aid.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller)

U.N. launches investigation into whether Israel, Hamas committed crimes

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) -The United Nations Human Rights Council agreed on Thursday to launch an international investigation into alleged crimes committed during the 11-day conflict between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.

The independent investigation will have a broad mandate to look into all alleged violations, not just in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, but also in Israel during hostilities that were halted by a ceasefire on May 21.

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, earlier told the council that deadly Israeli strikes on Gaza might constitute war crimes and that Hamas had violated international humanitarian law by firing rockets into Israel.

Israel rejected the resolution adopted by the Geneva forum and said it would not cooperate.

“Today’s shameful decision is yet another example of the UN Human Rights Council’s blatant anti-Israel obsession,” Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement accusing the forum of whitewashing “a genocidal terrorist organization”.

Israel’s foreign ministry said its forces acted “in accordance with international law, in defending our citizens from Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket fire”.

A spokesman for Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, called the group’s actions “legitimate resistance” and called for “immediate steps to punish” Israel.

Israel’s main ally, the United States, said it deeply regretted the decision in the forum, where it has observer status and no vote.

“The action today instead threatens to imperil the progress that has been made,” said a statement released by the U.S. mission to the U.N. in Geneva.

By a vote of 24 states in favor, and nine against, with 14 abstentions, the 47-member council adopted a resolution brought by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Palestinian delegation to the United Nations.

European countries were split, with Austria, Britain and Germany voting against. France and the Netherlands abstained.

BACHELET ADDRESSES COUNCIL

Bachelet told the council her office had verified the deaths of 270 Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including 68 children, during this month’s violence. Most were killed in Gaza.

Hamas rockets killed 10 Israelis and residents, she said. Israeli authorities put the number of those killed by Palestinian attacks in Israel at 13.

“Regrettably, the self-professed global champions of human rights continue to shield the occupier from global accountability, and literally provide arms and ammunitions for its widely reported war crimes and crimes of apartheid against the Palestinian people,” said Pakistan’s ambassador to the OIC, Khalil Hashmi, who was speaking on behalf of the OIC.

The conflict flared after Hamas demanded Israeli security forces leave the al-Aqsa mosque compound in East Jerusalem following confrontations there with Palestinians, and later launched rockets towards Israel.

The compound sits atop the Old City plateau known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, or The Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as Temple Mount. It is the most sensitive site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Bachelet said “indiscriminate” strikes from rockets launched by Hamas constituted “a clear violation of international humanitarian law”.

She said Israel’s strikes in Gaza caused widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure and fatalities.

“Despite Israel’s claims that many of these buildings were hosting armed groups or being used for military purposes, we have not seen evidence in this regard,” Bachelet said.

“If found to be indiscriminate and disproportionate, such attacks might constitute war crimes,” she added.

(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Dan Williams and Jonathan Saul in Jerusalem and Nidal Al-Mughrabi in Ramallah; Editing by Peter Graff, Edmund Blair and Timothy Heritage)

U.S., Egypt working closely to reinforce Gaza ceasefire, Blinken says

By Aidan Lewis and Nidal al-Mughrabi

CAIRO/GAZA (Reuters) -Egypt and the United States said they would work together to reinforce a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Cairo and Amman on Wednesday on a regional tour.

Egypt has longstanding relations with both sides in the conflict and played a key role in brokering the ceasefire after 11 days of violence, in coordination with the United States.

“We’ve had in Egypt a real and effective partner in dealing with the violence, bringing it to a close, relatively quickly,” Blinken said in Cairo after meeting with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

The United States and Egypt were now “working closely together build something positive,” he said. Egypt, Blinken said, is vital to shared aspirations for Palestinians and Israelis to “live in safety and security to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity and dignity.”

Egyptian mediation in the conflict has raised questions whether Cairo might now feel under less U.S. pressure over its crackdown on political dissent that has steadily intensified in recent years.

Asked about the matter at a press conference later in the Jordanian capital Amman, Blinken said he had a “lengthy discussion” with Sisi on Cairo’s human rights record and the issue of detained American citizens.

“I think the fact that we had a lengthy exchange on that with President Sisi is a reflection of the fact that it remains very much on the agenda with Egypt,” Blinken said.

Sisi, who ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013, has said there are no political prisoners in Egypt and that stability and security are paramount.

Blinken said he also discussed with Sisi Egypt’s water needs and the importance of finding a diplomatic solution to the giant Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Egypt regards the dam as a potentially existential threat as the largely arid country relies on the Nile for as much as 90% of its fresh water.

GAZA AID

Blinken arrived in Egypt after stops in Jerusalem and Ramallah on Tuesday, when he pledged that the United States would provide new aid to help rebuild the Gaza Strip, including $5.5 million in disaster relief and nearly $33 million for the U.N. Palestinian aid agency there, after hundreds of devastating Israeli air strikes.

Speaking in Amman, he said Washington intended to ensure that the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules Gaza and is listed by Washington as a terrorist organization, did not benefit from humanitarian aid.

“In the coming days I’ll be consulting broadly with Gulf countries and other partners to ensure we all contribute to recovery, stability and the reduction of tensions,” he said.

Yehya Al-Sinwar, the Hamas chief in Gaza, said the group welcomed Arab and international efforts to rebuild the enclave.

“We will ease and facilitate the task for everyone and we will make sure that the process will be transparent and fair and we will make sure that no penny goes to Hamas or Qassam (the Hamas armed wing),” Sinwar told a news conference.

“We have satisfactory sources of money for Hamas and Qassam. A major part of it from Iran and part in donations from Arabs, Muslims and liberals of the world who are sympathetic to our people and their rights,” he added.

Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza and has security contacts with Hamas, is likely to have a role in channeling aid, a senior U.S. State Department official said earlier.

During the fighting, Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and its Sinai Peninsula in order to provide medical aid and evacuate the wounded.

It also sent a security delegation to Israel and Gaza to help bolster the ceasefire after it took effect on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Humeyra Pamuk, Daphne Psaledakis and Matt Spetalnick in Washington Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Ireland urges Israel to end ‘de facto annexation’ of Palestinian land

DUBLIN (Reuters) – Ireland’s government on Tuesday supported a parliamentary motion condemning the “de facto annexation” of Palestinian land by Israeli authorities in what it said was the first use of the phrase by a European Union government in relation to Israel.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who has represented Ireland on the United Nations Security Council in debates on Israel in recent weeks, supported the motion, and condemned what he described as Israel’s “manifestly unequal” treatment of the Palestinian people.

But he also insisted on adding a condemnation of recent rocket attacks on Israel by Palestinian militant group Hamas before he agreed to government support for the motion, which had been tabled by the opposition Sinn Fein party.

“The scale, pace and strategic nature of Israel’s actions on settlement expansion and the intent behind it have brought us to a point where we need to be honest about what is actually happening on the ground. … It is de facto annexation,” Coveney told parliament.

“This is not something that I, or in my view this house, says lightly. We are the first EU state to do so. But it reflects the huge concern we have about the intent of the actions and of course, their impact,” he said.

Most countries view settlements Israel has built in territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war as illegal and as an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. The United States and Israel dispute this.

Israel cites historical and biblical links to the West Bank and around 450,000 of its settlers live there, among 3 million Palestinians. It also denies any systematic violation of the human rights of Palestinians.

The motion came days after a ceasefire ended 11 days of the worst fighting between Palestinian militants and Israel in years. The violence sparked large pro-Palestinian protests in Dublin.

Sinn Fein refused to support the government amendment condemning Hamas attacks.

“The acts of terror by Hamas and other militant groups in firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel… cannot and should not ever be justified,” Coveney said.

(Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by David Gregorio)