GENEVA -- Israel has pursued a creeping annexation of the Palestinian territories through the creation of Jewish settlements and committed multiple violations of international law, possibly including war crimes, a United Nations panel said on Thursday, calling for an immediate halt to all settlement activity and the withdrawal of all settlers.
Presenting their findings in Geneva after a nearly six-month inquiry for the United Nations Human Rights Council, a panel of three judges, led by Christine Chanet of France, said Israel's settlements had clearly violated the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit a state from transferring its own civilian population into territory it has occupied.
Asked if Israel's actions constituted war crimes, Ms. Chanet replied that its offenses fell under Article 8 of the International Criminal Court statute. "Article 8 of the I.C.C. statute is in the chapter of war crimes," she said at a news conference. "That is the answer."
Israel's Foreign Ministry quickly dismissed the report as "counterproductive and unfortunate" and said it provided a reminder of the Human Rights Council's "systematically one-sided and biased approach towards Israel."
Israel "must cease all settlement activities without preconditions" and start withdrawing all settlers from the occupied territories, the judges state in their report, which is due to be debated in the Human Rights Council in March.
The panel drew on 67 submissions from a cross section of academics, diplomats, Israeli civilian organizations and Palestinians, Ms. Chanet said. Israel refused to cooperate with the investigators, who as a result were unable to visit the West Bank and went instead to the Jordanian capital, Amman, to take testimony.
The council's decision last March to investigate the effect of Jewish settlements on Palestinian rights prompted Israel to break off cooperation with the council, castigating it as a political platform used "to bash and demonize Israel." The panel's report came two days after Israel boycotted a council review of its human rights, becoming the first country to withhold cooperation from a process in which all 193 United Nations member states have previously engaged.
The United States has condemned Israel's settlement policy as unhelpful and an obstacle to achieving a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue, but it also opposed the creation of the fact-finding mission, saying at the time that it was an example of the council's bias against Israel, that it did not "advance the cause of peace" and that it would "distract the parties from efforts to resolve the issues that divide them."
The panel noted that Israel had established about 250 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967, with a combined population now estimated at 520,000. It said the settler population was growing much faster than the population of Israel outside the settlements.
The report quotes the Israeli finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, as saying in November that the government had doubled the budget for West Bank settlements "in a low-key way because we didn't want parties in Israel or abroad to thwart the move."
The result is "a mesh of construction and infrastructure leading to a creeping annexation that prevents the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state and undermines the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination," the report concludes.
These actions fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, the panel noted, and if a future Palestine state ratified the Rome Statute, which created the court, Israel could be called to account for "gross violations of human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law."
The report was welcomed by Palestinian officials and some settlement opponents in Israel. Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in a statement that it documented "illegal Israeli practices without any ambiguity."
Israeli officials, on the other hand, dismissed the report, saying that the only way to resolve the settlement issue was through direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without preconditions.
Yigal Palmor, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said that the council "systematically gives Israel a raw deal" and that the conclusions of the report were predictable. Defending Israel's decision not to cooperate with the fact-finding mission, he said, "If the cards are marked, are we expected to play anyway?"
He criticized the report for mentioning Israel's unilateral evacuation of 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank in 2005 "in passing in a few lines, as an insignificant detail, although it was a very major event for Israel. It adds insult to injury."
The report did not explicitly call for an economic boycott of the settlements or sanctions against Israel, but Israel said its authors deliberately used language that could serve groups calling for such measures.
The report says, for example, that private companies that have enabled or and profited from the settlements "must assess the human rights impact of their activities and take all necessary steps -- including by terminating their business interests in the settlements -- to ensure they are not adversely impacting the human rights of the Palestinian people in conformity with international law."
Frances Raday, an Israeli professor of law and a human rights advocate, told Israeli television that the report "gives unusual encouragement to attempts that already exist to boycott settlements and Israeli institutions and Israel as a state because of the settlements."
According to the report, Palestinians' rights to freedom of movement and expression, as well as their access to places of worship, education, water, housing and natural resources, "are being violated consistently."
The settlements are maintained through "a system of total segregation" between the settlers, who enjoy a preferential legal status, and the rest of the population, the report concludes. The settlements have resulted in the creation of legal zones in which settlers are subject to Israeli laws but Palestinians come under a patchwork of military orders and laws dating back to Ottoman and British rule, the report says.
The panel also expressed its grave concern at the high number of Palestinian children who were detained, some for minor offenses. They were "invariably mistreated, denied due process and fair trial," the report said, and many were transferred to detention centers in Israel, also a violation of international law.
The report took note of an increase in reports of settler harassment of Palestinian children since 2010 and criticized acts of violence and intimidation by settlers, including burning crops, vandalizing olive trees, preventing Palestinian farmers from accessing land close to settlements and taking over the farmers' land.
Six months ago, an Israeli government-appointed commission of legal experts published a report saying Israel's presence in the West Bank was not occupation and recommending that the state grant approval for scores of unauthorized Jewish settlement outposts there.
The three-member committee, led by Edmund Levy, a retired Israeli Supreme Court justice, confirmed a position long held by Israel: that the territories are not occupied, since Jordan's previous hold over them was never internationally recognized, and that their fate must be determined in negotiations. Still, fearing international censure, among other things, the Israeli government has not formally adopted the Levy commission's conclusions.
Nick Cumming-Bruce reported from Geneva, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.