In a decision that elicited widespread condemnation from Palestine and Arab states, the United Nations General Assembly on Monday elected Israel to chair its Legal Committee, also known as the Sixth Committee. This is the first time Israel, a country that has been routinely denounced by the U.N. for its settlement expansion activities in the West Bank, has been chosen to head one of its six permanent committees.
The Sixth Committee overseas U.N. activities related to international laws. Although its chair is normally elected by consensus without a vote, countries opposed to Israel’s candidacy had called for a ballot. Out of all the valid votes cast in the 193-member General Assembly, Israel, which was put forward as a candidate by the 28-nation Western European and Others Group, won 109 votes, while Sweden, with 10 votes, was the runner-up.
Twenty-three countries abstained from voting, and no votes were cast against Israel.
“This is a historic achievement for Israel. I am very proud to be the first Israeli to serve as the chairman of a committee,” Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., said. “Israel is a world leader in international law and in fighting terrorism. We are pleased to have the opportunity to share our knowledge with the countries of the world.”
In a statement released after the vote, the U.S. — Israel’s staunchest ally — congratulated Danon and urged the U.N. to end the “pattern of bias” against Israel.
“For any other country in these United Nations, today’s election would have been an unremarkable affair. But Israel is rarely treated like any other country here,” David Pressman, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. for special political affairs, said in the statement. “We need a United Nations that is a model of equal treatment and non-discrimination. We need a United Nations that includes Israel, that brings Israel closer, not one that systematically pushes Israel away.”
Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour, however, slammed the decision, stating that Danon “represents occupation” and is not qualified to chair the committee.
“This is negative. This is destructive. This is showing lack of sensitivity to our concerns,” Mansour said, adding that the chairperson of the committee should be “a very responsible qualified candidate, not a big violator of international law.”
Israel has been in control of the occupied territories in the West Bank — regions that Palestine says should be part of its future state — since the Six-Day War in 1967, in direct contravention of the United Nations resolutions 242 and 446, which call for the withdrawal of the Israeli military from the region and an end to expansion of Jewish settlements.
In a recent report, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that Israeli occupation of the West Bank was “the main trigger of humanitarian needs among Palestinians in the occupied territory.”
“In 2015, the major drivers of humanitarian vulnerability in the oPt [occupied Palestinian Territories] remained unchanged and were directly linked to Israel’s protracted occupation, now approaching its 50th year. The situation continued to be characterized by violations of international humanitarian law by all parties, the systematic denial of Palestinian rights and continuing conflict, punctuated by frequent outbreaks of violence,” the agency said.