GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations launched an international investigation on Thursday into Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, with the United States isolated in voting against the initiative brought by the Palestinian Authority.
The U.N. Human Rights Council condemned Israel's planned construction of new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, saying they undermined the peace process and posed a threat to the two-state solution and the creation of a contiguous and independent Palestinian state.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swiftly dismissed the Geneva forum on Thursday evening as "hypocritical" and having an "automatic majority against Israel".
The 47-member forum adopted the resolution to launch a probe by a vote of 36 states in favour, including China and Russia, with one against (the United States). Ten abstained, including European Union members Italy and Spain.
The text was introduced by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and co-sponsored by states including Cuba and Venezuela.
"In violation of international humanitarian and human rights law, Israel is continuing construction of illegal settlements in the occupied territories including East Jerusalem," Pakistan's ambassador Zamir Akram told the talks.
The Council's resolution called on Israel to take serious measures to prevent settler violence "including confiscation of arms and enforcement of criminal sanctions", and protection of Palestinian civilians and property in the territories.
The three investigators are to be named at a later date.
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 seeks the territory for an independent state along with the Hamas-controlled 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.
"This is a council that should be ashamed of itself. The U.N. Human Rights Council has no connection to human rights," Netanyahu said.
"It was enough to hear the Syrian delegate today talking about human rights to understand how far the Council is detached from reality."
In Geneva, Israel's Ambassador Aharon Leshno-Yaar denounced "the level of hypocrisy and double standards" in the Council which adopted other resolutions on Thursday on Syria's Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and the right of Palestinians to self-determination.
"The resolutions are unjustified and counterproductive. They will add tension and bitterness to an already explosive situation. This Council, by its own doing, is adding fuel to a fire which is our duty to try and extinguish," Leshno-Yaar said.
Israel was strongly committed to a two-state solution and wanted to see the resumption of direct bilateral talks without preconditions with the Palestinians, he told the talks.
The United States said it continued to be "deeply troubled by this Council's biased and disproportionate focus on Israel, as exemplified by the creation of another one-sided United Nations mechanism related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict".
It was inappropriate to prejudge final status issues that could only be resolved through bilateral negotiations between Israel and Palestine, U.S. political counselor Charles O. Blaha told the Council.
"The U.S. position on settlements is clear and has not changed: we do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. The status quo is not sustainable for either the Israelis or the Palestinians," Blaha said.
But Washington could not back a "one-sided resolution that launches an international investigation of Israel," he said.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; editing by Andrew Roche