GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - Israel has pursued a creeping annexation of Palestinian territories through the creation of Jewish settlements and committed multiple violations of international law, possibly including war crimes, a U.N. panel said on Thursday, calling for an immediate halt to all settlement activity and the withdrawal of all settlers.

Presenting their findings after a nearly six-month inquiry for the U.N. Human Rights Council, a panel of three judges, led by Christine Chanet of France, said Israel's settlements had violated the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit a state from transferring its civilians into territory it has occupied.

Asked if Israel's actions constituted war crimes, Chanet replied that its offenses fell under Article 8 of the International Criminal Court statute. "Article 8 ... is in the chapter of war crimes," she said at a news conference. "That is the answer."

Israel's Foreign Ministry dismissed the report as "counterproductive and unfortunate," saying that it provided a reminder of the Human Rights Council's "systematically one-sided and biased approach toward Israel."

Israel "must cease all settlement activities without preconditions" and start withdrawing all settlers from the occupied territories, the judges state in their report, which is due to be debated in the Human Rights Council in March.

The panel drew on 67 submissions from of academics, diplomats, Israeli civilian organizations and Palestinians, Chanet said. Israel refused to cooperate with the investigators, who as a result were unable to visit the West Bank and went instead to the Jordanian capital, Amman, to take testimony.

The council's decision in March to investigate the effect of Jewish settlements on Palestinian rights prompted Israel to break off cooperation with the council, castigating it as a political platform used "to bash and demonize Israel."

The panel's report came two days after Israel boycotted a council review of its human rights, becoming the first country to withhold cooperation from a process in which all 193 U.N. member states have previously engaged.

The United States has called Israel's settlement policy unhelpful and an obstacle to achieving a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue, but it also opposed the creation of the fact-finding mission, saying at the time that it was an example of the council's bias against Israel, that it did not "advance the cause of peace" and that it would "distract the parties from efforts to resolve the issues that divide them."

The panel noted that Israel had established about 250 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967, with a combined population estimated at 520,000.

The report was welcomed by Palestinian officials and some settlement opponents in Israel. Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in a statement that it documented "illegal Israeli practices without any ambiguity."