Israel's military actions in the Gaza Strip could amount to war crimes, UN rights chief Navi Pillay said yesterday while also condemning indiscriminate rocket attacks by Palestinian militants Hamas.
"There seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes," Pillay told the council, citing attacks that have killed Palestinian civilians, including children.
She said Israelis also had a right to live without constant fear of rocket attacks.
The UN Human Rights Council later launched a probe into the Gaza offensive, backing calls by the Palestinians to hold Israel to account despite fierce opposition from the Jewish state.
The decision came after a marathon seven-hour emergency session of the top UN human rights body, where the Israelis and the Palestinians traded accusations over war crimes.
The 46-member council backed a Palestinian-drafted resolution by 29 votes, with Arab and fellow Muslim countries joined by China and Russia, plus Latin American and African nations.
The United States was the sole member to vote against. The 17 abstentions were by the council's European members, plus Japan and South Korea.
The probe team, yet to be appointed, is tasked with reporting back to the council by March.
Israel denied any wrongdoing. "Get lost," Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said on her Facebook page in response to the probe, reports Reuters.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu reacted furiously to news of the planned UN investigation, aware of the damning report into Israel's 2008/09 Gaza operation, which killed more than 1,000 Palestinians.
"The decision today by the HRC is a travesty," he said in a statement. "The HRC should be launching an investigation into Hamas's decision to turn hospitals into military command centers, use schools as weapons depots and place missile batteries next to playgrounds, private homes and mosques."
US ambassador Keith Harper warned the vote would undermine ceasefire efforts.
"This resolution is not constructive, it is destructive," Harper said, noting it lacked "any semblance of balance" because it made no mention of Hamas' attacks.
Speaking for the European Union, Italian ambassador Maurizio Serra also criticised the failure to mention Hamas or recognise Israel's right to self-defence, despite last-ditch efforts by his team to have such language included.
The session was called by Arab nations and fellow members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
The council's membership rotates, and Israel is not currently part of the UN body. Non-members cannot vote but are entitled to speak.
The resolution condemned "the widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms" since Israel launched its offensive last month and called for the urgent deployment of an "independent, international commission of inquiry".
The Gaza offensive marks the worst violence since two spikes in conflict in 2009 and 2012, and has already claimed the lives of more than 687 Palestinians, most of them civilians, and 34 Israelis, 32 of them soldiers.
The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said 81.5 percent of the dead were civilians, 24 percent of them children.
The war is extracting a heavy toll on impoverished Gaza, with Palestinian officials saying that at least 475 houses had been totally destroyed by Israeli fire and 2,644 partially damaged. Some 46 schools, 56 mosques and seven hospitals had also suffered varying degrees of destruction.