GENEVA The United Nations named French judge Christine Chanet on Friday as the leader of a team of three experts who will investigate whether Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories violate human rights law.
The other team members are Pakistani lawyer Asma Jahangir and Botswana judge Unity Dow. Jahangir has been the subject of human rights cases in the past, having been put under house arrest in 1983 and warned of a plot to assassinate her last month.
The U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) launched the probe in March under an initiative brought to the 47-member forum by the Palestinian Authority. Israel's ally the United States was the only member to vote against it.
The council said Israel's planned construction of new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem undermined the peace process and posed a threat to the two-state solution and the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Israel on Friday condemned the investigation. "The establishment of this mission is another blatant expression of the singling out of Israel in the UNHRC," a Foreign Ministry statement said.
"This fact-finding mission will find no co-operation in Israel, and its members will not be allowed to enter Israel and the Territories."
The council's president, Uruguay's ambassador Laura Dupuy Lasserre, announced the names of the investigators after holding consultations among member states, diplomats said.
As the team will not be allowed access to Israeli settlements, they are likely to have to gather information from second-hand sources, including media.
Even if the investigators conclude settlements violate human rights law, U.S. opposition is likely to stymie any attempt to impose any punishment on Israel.
About 500,000 Israelis and 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in a 1967 war. Palestinians seek the territory for an independent state along with the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians say settlements, considered illegal by the International Court of Justice, the highest U.N. legal body for disputes, would deny them a viable state.
Israel cites historical and biblical links to the West Bank and says the status of settlements should be decided in peace negotiations.
On Monday Richard Falk, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian Territories, told a news conference that the acceleration of settlement building had "closed the book" on the feasibility of a two-state solution.
"The Palestinian position gets weaker and weaker through time and the Israelis get more and more of a fait accompli through their unlawful activities," he said.
"Is it just a delaying tactic that allows the Israelis to expand the settlements, expand the settled population, demolish more and more Palestinian homes and structures and engage in a program that has assumed such proportions that the language of ethnic cleansing is the only way to describe the demographic changes in East Jerusalem?"
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles; Editing by Pravin Char)