UNITED NATIONS, Nov 18: The UN General Assembly on Friday voted overwhelmingly to condemn Israel for "indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force" in its military offensive in Gaza which, according to the Palestinian ambassador, threatens to "destroy the entire people."

The resolution was passed by a vote of 156 to 7, with six abstentions. The US, Israel and Australia voted against the document while all the European Union members supported it.

The resolution "deeply deplores" the Israeli offensive, launched after the June capture of an Israel soldier, and calls on Israel to immediately halt its operation and pull its troops out of the Gaza Strip.

The vote came less than a week after the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution criticizing Israel for launching a Nov 8 missile strike that killed 18 civilians in the town of Beit Hanoun.

Opening the debate on Friday, Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour called for "an end to this rampant Israeli campaign, which intends to destroy an entire people."

The Arab League had asked for the session after the US vetoed a similar, but watered-down UN Security Council draft resolution against Israel's actions last weekend, its second veto on the issue this year.

In a bitter attack on the member states for holding such a debate, Israel's UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman accused Palestinians of turning the Gaza Strip into a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Israel, allowing the firing of more than 1,000 rockets in the last year.

US Ambassador John Bolton said it was ironic the assembly held a special session on the Palestinian question a day after one of its committees passed a resolution stressing the need to avoid politically-motivated and biased human rights resolutions.Reuters adds: Palestinian ambassador Mansour told the assembly that last Saturday's veto by Washington, Israel's closest ally, sent a message to the Jewish state “that it can continue to commit crimes and acts of outright aggression with impunity,”

US Ambassador Bolton said the assembly resolution, like the one before the Security Council, was a “one-sided, unbalanced” text that raised questions about the world body's ability to confront global problems.

Arab diplomats said they took particular umbrage at Israeli UN Ambassador Gillerman for cautioning delegates a “yes” vote would make them “accomplices to terror.”“The blood of poor innocents will be on your hands,” Gillerman said, even as he acknowledged the attack had been “a tragic accident ... which Israel deeply regrets.”

While the vote was largely symbolic, simply expressing the will of world governments, Arab states took the matter to the 192-nation assembly because Washington has no veto there.

FACT-FINDING MISSION: Gillerman said Palestinian rocket fire and the Palestinians' elected Hamas government were to blame for the continuing Israeli military action in Gaza.

He accused Qatar, the sole Arab member of the Security Council, of pressing for a quick vote last Saturday because it had learned of a major guerrilla attack in the works and feared it might embarrass Arab states if it occurred before a vote.

Qatari Ambassador Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser denied Gillerman's accusation, telling Reuters: “That is not correct. We don't know anything about that.”

The resolution called for the immediate cessation of all acts of violence and terror by both the Palestinian and Israeli sides and asked Secretary-General Kofi Annan to set up a fact-finding mission to look into the Beit Hanoun attack.

The call for a UN inquiry into the attack delayed assembly action for hours as the UN body's budget committee debated whether the effort would duplicate a similar mission ordered by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. In the end, the budget committee approved the new panel's estimated $130,000 budget by a vote of 143-5 with two abstentions.

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