TEL AVIV // Israeli leaders yesterday called on the United Nations to rescind a two-year-old report that had accused the country of committing war crimes during its deadly invasion of the Gaza Strip after the document's author suggested he may have erred in his findings.
Richard Goldstone, a South African judge who had chaired a UN panel investigating possible war crimes by Israel and Hamas during the onslaught, stirred an uproar in Israel last week after unexpectedly conceding in a US newspaper column that some of the report's key conclusions may have been wrong.
Writing in The Washington Post on Friday, Mr Goldstone appeared to retract the most explosive conclusion of his 2009 report, which had accused Israel of deliberately targeting Palestinian civilians in the attacks that had killed 1,400 Gazans.
Mr Goldstone, whose report had drawn Israel much international condemnation over its Gaza policies, wrote that investigations carried out and publicised by the Israeli military since the attacks "indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy".
"If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document," Mr Goldstone concluded in his commentary.
Israel had rejected co-operating with Mr Goldstone's team during its investigation, charging that its work was biased and distorted.
The Israeli leadership, which had enjoyed wide public support for the onslaught that had partly aimed to curtail militant rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli towns, pounced on Mr Goldstone's assertions with relish yesterday and demanded his report be withdrawn.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister who came to office after the war, said he will launch a diplomatic campaign to have the document annulled. "We will act on the public diplomacy front, and on other fronts, with the international community and the UN in order to demand the justice that is due Israel," he said in public remarks at yesterday's weekly cabinet meeting. He added that he had ordered a team of legal and diplomatic experts to be convened to advance the campaign.
Ehud Barak, the defence minister who had served in the same post during the assault, told an Israeli radio station that he planned to dedicate "personal" attention to have the UN cancel the document. He added: "This is an extremely important development and right now we are multiplying our efforts to get this report rescinded."
Mainstream Israeli media, in which many members had backed the Gaza attacks and had publicly condemned Mr Goldstone in the past, suggested they viewed his newspaper column as an exoneration of his accusations against Israel. "Now he's sorry," proclaimed the right-leaning Maariv newspaper in a front-page headline, while the mass-selling Yediot Ahronot's headline read: "I was wrong."
But Palestinians yesterday charged Mr Goldstone with giving in to pressure from Israel and Jewish groups in the US to retract his claims, and insisted Israel had carried out war violations. "The report was as clear as the crimes that Israel had committed during the war," said Riyad al Malki, the foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, which holds sway in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Hamas, the Islamic group that rules the Gaza Strip, said it was "surprised" by Mr Goldstone's comments and added that he did not have the right to alter the findings, according to Agence France-Presse. "It is not Goldstone's private property, as a team of international judges as well as Goldstone participated in developing it," the news agency cited the group's spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, as saying.
According to Mr Goldstone, some of the cases that had been addressed in his report and investigated by the Israeli military "established the validity" of the allegations against several individual Israeli soldiers, but they also indicated that the intentionality of targeting civilians was not a general policy.
As an example, Mr Goldstone mentioned the killing of 29 members of the al Simouni family in their home. He said that the Israeli military had concluded that the house's shelling was apparently the result of an Israeli commander's "erroneous interpretation" of a drone image and an Israeli officer is being investigated for ordering the attack. Mr Goldstone did not address in his column the deep scepticism that human rights groups and left-leaning commentators had expressed regarding the credibility of Israel's internal investigations.
While Mr Goldstone did not go as far as to admit that he was wrong in claiming Israel intentionally targeted civilians, he indicated that his findings may have been less harsh had Israel co-operated with the investigation.
"I regret that our fact-finding mission did not have such evidence explaining the circumstances in which we said civilians were targeted, because it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes," he wrote.
Nevertheless, Mr Goldstone also criticised Israel for concluding only a few of its investigations involving the Gaza onslaught and for not making public the proceedings of the investigations.