A "culture of impunity" is protecting both Israel and Hamas from prosecution over war crimes committed in the Gaza Strip, the head of a UN investigation panel said yesterday. Richard Goldstone, who led a four-member panel that reported on human rights violations during last winter's invasion, said the lack of accountability over crimes committed in Gaza had reached a crisis point and was undermining any hopes of a peace deal in the region. He suggested that the UN Security Council and, if necessary, the International Criminal Court, be allowed to take up the matter, including possible prosecutions for crimes against humanity. Speaking during an often-bitter debate at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Mr Goldstone, an international jurist and former UN war crimes prosecutor, told the council: "Now is the time for action.
"The lack of accountability for war crimes and possible crimes against humanity has reached a crisis point; the ongoing lack of justice is undermining any hope for a successful peace process and reinforcing an environment that fosters violence. "Time and again, experience has taught us that overlooking justice only leads to increased conflict and violence." Mr Goldstone was speaking in favour of a motion, backed by Arab and Muslim states and to be voted on either tomorrow or Friday, calling on Israel and Hamas to conduct "open and credible investigations" into atrocities during the December-January conflict in Gaza. The motion calls for UN Security Council oversight of the investigations. If these inquiries were deemed neither open nor credible, it could lead to Security Council action including possible referral to the International Criminal Court. However, the United States, which only recently joined the three-year-old UNHRC as "an experiment", is opposed to any Security Council involvement and looks certain to vote against the motion. Michael Posner, the US assistant secretary of state, told the Geneva meeting: "If this standard were applied in every conflict situation around the world where there are alleged violations, then the role of the Human Rights Council would be dramatically different. "We disagree sharply with many of the report's assessments and its recommendations, and believe it to be deeply flawed." However, he did urge Israel to mount a meaningful investigation of its own into the war crimes allegations. "We encourage Israel to utilise appropriate domestic [judicial] review and meaningful accountability mechanisms to investigate and follow-up on credible allegations," Mr Posner said. He called on Hamas to do the same. "If undertaken properly and fairly, these reviews can serve as important confidence-building measures that will support the larger essential objective which is a shared quest for justice and lasting peace." The Goldstone report said Israel's Operation Cast Lead, launched in December, used disproportionate firepower in the densely populated Gaza Strip and disregarded the likelihood of civilian deaths. It also accused Hamas of war crimes for firing rockets at Israel without distinguishing between military targets and the civilian population. The report added that the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, imposed after the Hamas takeover two years ago, amounted to "collective punishment and a systematic policy of progressive isolation and deprivation". Mr Goldstone said that although Israel "has a duty to protect its citizens", this "in no way justifies a policy of collective punishment of a people under effective occupation". When it was published this month, the report was widely criticised in the West, with Mr Goldstone and his team being accused of embarking on the inquiry with an anti-Israeli bias. Mr Goldstone, a South African Jew who describes himself as a supporter of Israel, conceded that his report had been met with "a barrage of criticism", but he insisted that the investigation had not been politically motivated. He also described Israel's own investigations so far into Gaza war crimes allegations as "pusillanimous" and dismissed Hamas's effort as "a complete failure". Almost 1,400 Palestinians died during the invasion, although the official Israeli figure is less than 1,000. According to B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, 773 of the victims were civilians; Israel claims that 709 of the dead were combatants and only 295 civilians were killed. By comparison, 10 Israeli soldiers and three civilians died. In London, lawyers have asked a British court to issue an arrest warrant for Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister. Tayab Ali, one of several lawyers representing a coalition of Palestinian groups, said papers his group filed accuse the Israeli defence minister of committing war crimes while directing the Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip. Ibrahim Khraisha, the Palestinian ambassador to the UN in Geneva, described the Goldstone report yesterday as an objective account of what had happened in Gaza. He urged the council to adopt the report's recommendations on further action. "My people will not forgive the international community if the criminals are left without punishment," he said. However, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, the Israeli ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told the panel the report was a "shameful" document that cherry-picked incidents to prop up an anti-Israeli position. He also accused the report of ignoring Israel's right to self-defence and said it provided "support and vindication for terrorist tactics". Mr Leshno-Yaar added: "Israel is committed to fully examining every allegation of wrongdoing, not because of this report, but despite it." firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Associated Press