United Nations human rights chief Mary Robinson is to lead an urgent mission to the occupied Palestinian territories to investigate possible rights violations by Israel.
A decision by the UN Human Rights Commission session in Geneva to dispatch its boss to the West Bank came as aid agencies accused Israel of deliberately hindering their work.
At the special meeting, called by Muslim countries in response to the deteriorating human rights situation in the West Bank, diplomats voted overwhelmingly in favour of asking Robinson "to head a visiting mission that would travel immediately to the area and return expeditiously to submit its findings and recommendations to the current session of the Commission on Human Rights."
Opening the session, Robinson said she was ready to lead such a mission "on the understanding that there is broad support in the commission, as well as full cooperation on the part of Israel and the Palestinian Authority." She said the visit would also depend on whether the security conditions would permit it.
It was not clear whether the Israelis would cooperate with the mission, nor whether they would allow her to meet the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.
The Swiss delegation said it backed the mission, though it would have liked to see some condemnation of Palestinian suicide bombings in the resolution.
Establish the facts
The Swiss ambassador to the UN in Geneva, François Nordmann, told the session that Robinson's mission was "all the more necessary in the current context of manipulation of information" so that the facts could be established. A member of the Swiss delegation told swissinfo, however, that Robinson's trip in itself was unlikely to change matters on the ground.
Nordmann called on Israel to respect the rules of international law and punish any serious breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which governs the treatment of civilians in wartime and during military occupation. Switzerland is the depositary country of the Geneva Conventions.
Addressing the session, the Israeli ambassador, Yaakov Levy, complained that his country was being singled out for criticism. He said Palestinians were not the only victims in the conflict.
Aid agencies targeted
As the special session got under way, a number of major humanitarian agencies accused Israel of deliberately attacking ambulances and destroying medical facilities. They said people had died because Israeli soldiers were preventing them from doing their jobs.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had been forced to freeze the movement of its delegates in many areas of the West Bank in view of the security situation. ICRC spokesman Kim Gordon-Bates said Israeli troops "evidently have no idea who we are and what we are doing".
"They are behaving towards us in a completely unacceptable way, treating us as suspects, holding our delegates at gunpoint," he told swissinfo.
The ICRC's operations are an accurate barometer of the situation on the ground, and Swiss officials said its decision to scale back activities was a worrying development.
The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Peter Hansen, urged the Israelis "to observe a minimum of normal decency, not to speak of the humanitarian treaties and international humanitarian law that they are obliged to obey".
He said Israel's response to the suicide bombings "can only deepen the spiral of mutual hatred".
by Roy Probert