Britain and Germany snub UN-led criticism of Israel

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The Independent Online

Britain and Germany refused to back a UN-sponsored declaration yesterday that condemned Israel's military offensive in Palestinian cities and accused it of "mass killings" in West Bank refugee camps including Jenin.

The UK and Germany broke with the majority ­ five countries signed up to the text criticising Israel ­ at the annual session of the Geneva-based UN Commission on Human Rights.

The resolution, framed by Arab and Muslim states, attacked Israel for "gross violations" of humanitarian law and affirmed the "legitimate right of Palestinian people to resist".

At a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said he rejected the resolution because it did not reflect worries about terrorism against Israel.

"We judge resolutions by their wording," said Mr Straw. "I judged the wording of that particular resolution to be unacceptable because it was unbalanced and it did not give a firm statement on terrorism."

Mr Straw rejected the idea that Britain's refusal to back the resolution would appear callous, coinciding as it does with evidence of the death and destruction at Jenin. It was more important to be "consistent", Mr Straw said.

German officials echoed Mr Straw's words. "Germany remains deeply concerned at the extremely serious human rights and humanitarian situation in the occupied territories," the German ambassador, Walter Lewalter, said, adding that it backed calls for an immediate Israeli military pullout. But he said Germany could not back the resolution because "the text contains formulations that might be interpreted as an endorsement of violence."

France, Spain, Sweden, Portugal and Belgium backed the resolution and Italy abstained. In all, the commission, which has representatives from 53 states, passed the motion by 40 votes to five, with seven states abstaining and one member not present. In addition to the UK and Germany, Canada, Guatemala and the Czech Republic voted against the resolution.

In order to maximise support, Arab states had softened the text of their resolution, removing references to Israel committing acts of "state terrorism" and to the Palestinians' right to use "any means" to fight military occupation.

Meanwhile the European foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg gave only limited backing to a German-inspired plan for the Middle East, and rejected European economic sanctions against Israel.

The German plan envisages a peace conference to conclude negotiations on all unresolved issues within two years and calls for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and the clearing of settlements. The Israelis and Palestinian would recognise each other's right to exist and "any country which continues to support terrorism or its organisations or members will be completely isolated, politically and economically".

The foreign ministers welcomed the proposal but did not formally endorse it, deciding instead to bolster the mission of Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State. "We all recognise the key importance of Colin Powell's mission and have expressed our backing," Mr Straw said. "The situation is dire but what hope there is rests on his efforts."

There was little appetite to follow last week's call from the European Parliament, which asked the EU to suspend its six-year-old association agreement giving Israel preferential trade terms with the EU.