Diplomats in Geneva have voted to immediately send UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson to the reoccupied Palestinian territories.
The draft resolution, proposed by Islamic states, was debated at a special meeting of the current UN Human Rights Commission session, called in response to the deteriorating situation in the West Bank.
Virtually all the autonomous Palestinian towns in the region have been reoccupied as a result of an Israeli military offensive, launched in response to a series of suicide bombings.
The session in Geneva came a day after Israel's staunchest ally, US President George W. Bush, called on Israel to pull back its troops from reoccupied land. That prompted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to agree to allow the US envoy, Anthony Zinni, to meet Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who is still a virtual prisoner in his compound in Ramallah.
Bush, who has consistently said Israel's military actions are an understandable response to Palestinian suicide bombings, also stated that peace could only come to the region when the Palestinians had a politically and economically viable state.
It's not clear whether the Geneva mission will affect efforts to pull the region back from the brink of total war. But the decision to send Robinson immediately to the region - and to report back to the current Human Rights Commission session - has huge symbolism.
A similar proposal was rejected at last year's session, but Western diplomats in Geneva said it was likely that the special session would vote to dispatch Robinson to the region, despite objections from Canada, Australia and the United States.
However, whether Sharon's government would allow the former Irish president unrestricted access to West Bank towns, let alone meet Arafat, remains to be seen.
The draft resolution supports a report Robinson made to the session last Tuesday, in which she called on the Commission to send a delegation to the region immediately. It asks her "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".
The draft document expressed concern "at reports of gross, widespread and flagrant violations of human rights in the occupied Palestinians territory".
It accuses the Israelis of violating the right to life, detaining civilians and human rights defenders, restricting freedom of movement and the freedom of the media, disrupting the delivery of humanitarian and medical assistance, destroying infrastructure, and of disproportionate and indiscriminate use of military force.
Elsewhere in Geneva on Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the situation in the reoccupied territories gave "cause for alarm". It said its workers had only been able to give a partial response to requests for assistance, given the "near-total restriction of movement imposed de facto by the Israeli authorities on ICRC and PRCS (Palestinian Red Crescent Society) vehicles".
"There is little doubt that this has resulted in unnecessary deaths," the ICRC added in a statement.
Switzerland has also expressed its concern about the Israel offensive. On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry summoned the Israeli Ambassador to Bern to demand an immediate withdrawal from the reoccupied Palestinian territories, and to appeal to Israel to grant Arafat the freedom of movement he needed to help stop the violence.
As depository country of the Geneva Conventions, Switzerland has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure that international humanitarian law is respected in the region.
Last December, it organised a conference in Geneva that called on Israel to apply the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Occupied Territories. The convention covers the treatment of civilians in wartime or during military occupation.
Israel argues that the Fourth Geneva Convention does not apply, since it regards the land as "disputed", not occupied.
by Roy Probert