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Charities criticise UK for failing to condemn Israel's use of force in Gaza

Britain defends abstention at Human Rights Council saying UN report is 'unbalanced' for failing to investigate Hamas
Thousands of Palestinians have been injured by Israeli fire during the Great March of return protests in Gaza (AFP)

A group of charities has condemned the UK government for its refusal to endorse a UN inquiry that says the Israeli security forces may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in killing 189 Palestinians during protests in Gaza last year.

'We cannot support a resolution that fails to address all actors, including state-actors'

- Alistair Burt, UK Middle East Minister 

Earlier this week, UN war crimes investigators, presenting their findings at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, called on Israel to stop snipers from using lethal force against demonstrators which they found had been "authorised unlawfully" in most cases.

On Friday, the council adopted a resolution, brought by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), calling for cooperation with a preliminary examination opened by the International Criminal Court in 2015 into alleged Israeli human rights violations.

The vote was 23 states in favour, eight against, with 15 abstentions and one delegation absent. The United States did not participate, having quit the body last year over perceived anti-Israel bias. 

The UK abstained from the vote because the inquiry was not "even-handed and balanced", Alistair Burt, Britain's Middle East minister, told disgruntled MPs in parliament on Friday.

"We did not and cannot support an international investigation that refuses to call explicitly for an investigation into the actions of non-state actors such as Hamas, and we cannot support a resolution that fails to address all actors, including state actors," Burt told MPs. 

"We have publicly and privately expressed our longstanding concerns about the use of live ammunition and excessive force by the Israeli Defence Forces.

"Our decision to abstain reflects our concerns and balanced position. That is the reason for it, and it does not stop us from calling out [what] we consider to be wrong." 

'Dereliction of responsibility' 

A coalition of UK charities - including Christian Aid, Medical Aid for Palestine, Interpal and War on Want - criticised the abstention, describing the move as a "dereliction of responsibility".

"The UK failed to clearly affirm that victims, survivors and their families of serious violations perpetrated by Israel's forces at the civilian protests in Gaza require legal accountability and justice," the statement read. 

"We now urge the UK to consider whether it is doing all it can to ensure that impunity no longer persists for recurrent and serious alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law across the occupied Palestinian territories."

Gaza: The Palestinians who died during the Great March of Return
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The coalition said the UK government should urgently outline meaningful steps it is taking to protect civilians and uphold international law within the occupied territories.

Protests at the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip began last March, with Palestinians demanding Israel ease a blockade of Gaza and recognise their right to return to lands their families fled or were forced from when Israel was founded in 1948.

After the resolution was adopted on Friday, Palestine's ambassador, Ibrahim Khraisi, said the targeting of civilians was "a serious matter that should not be condoned".

“There have not been any injuries inflicted on any Israelis, be they military or civilians,” he said.

Israeli ambassador Aviva Raz Shechter denounced what she called “clear evidence of political bias against Israel” in the report, but said that authorities were “examining individual incidents”.

She accused the independent panel of ignoring “the very real threat” posed to 70,000 Israeli citizens living along the border by 1,300 rockets fired by Hamas militants during the period of inquiry from March to December.