Officials denounce the UN investigation that alleges war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed on both sides of offensive.
Israel on defensive after Gaza report
RAMALLAH // Israeli diplomacy is cranking into high gear as the government begins to mull over how to respond to a UN investigation into Israel's offensive on Gaza this year. The UN investigation, led by Richard Goldstone, a former South African judge, found both the Israeli army and Hamas guilty of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. Though no official Israeli response has been formulated yet, Israeli politicians and government officials have vehemently rejected the UN panel's findings. For its part, Hamas has broadly welcomed the report though officials also reject accusations that its militants broke international law. Israel's offensive on the Gaza Strip started in late December and lasted three weeks. The Israeli army, which puts the total number of Palestinian casualties at just over 1,100, says 300 of those were civilian casualties. Thirteen Israelis lost their lives during the offensive, four of them civilians. But according to Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organisations, 1,387 Palestinians died in the three-week offensive, of which the majority were civilians. Depending on whether one includes in the list of civilian casualties the 250 Palestinian policemen killed predominantly in the initial air offensive, as the UN report does, the number of civilian casualties rises to just more than 1,000. It is the huge number of civilian casualties as well as the great damage wrought on Gaza during the offensive that persuaded the United Nations Human Rights Council to commission the report. But Israel, which refused to co-operate with the investigation, has accused the four members of the committee of being biased and of having predetermined their conclusions. Mr Goldstone, who is Jewish and has deep ties to Israel, rejected the accusations as "ridiculous" and said "there should be no impunity for international crimes that are committed". That did not stop Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, from calling the report "a mockery of history" and rejecting its findings in a statement released yesterday. "The report legitimises terrorist activity, the pursuit of murder and death. The report disregards the duty and right of self-defence, held by every sovereign state as enshrined in the UN Charter." Israeli defence officials have been equally shrill in their reactions, one yesterday on Israel Radio characterising the report as a "prize for terrorism", while Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, described the report as being a "cynical attempt at role reversal". Such reactions, said Hillel Schenker, an Israeli journalist, represent "initial knee-jerk reactions". "These are grandstanding positions taken for the sake of the Israeli public," Schenker said. The Israeli government and army, he said, would take its time and deliberate carefully over the 500-page report before it decides further action. Nevertheless, he said he doubted any Israeli official or military leader would end up standing trial for war crimes. Marie Okabe, the spokeswoman for Ban Ki-moon, said the UN secretary general supported the report, but did not specify whether he would try and push it on to the agenda of the Security Council. "Since its establishment, the secretary general has encouraged and supported the mission [headed by Mr Goldstone] and called on all parties to co-operate fully in its work," Ms Okabe told reporters on Tuesday. "He believes that accountability for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law is essential both to the protection of human dignity, and to the quest for sustainable peace." Ahmad Yousef, a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, also doubted that the report would result in anyone's standing trial. He broadly welcomed the report, even if he rejected findings that Hamas militants had also broken international law. "There is a moral distinction that must be made between those who are defending themselves against aggression and the aggressors." Mr Yousef also rejected any comparison between what he called "the home-made projectiles" of Palestinian militants and Israel's modern armoury. He said militants had not deliberately targeted civilian Israeli areas and if rockets from Gaza had landed in such areas it was merely a function of their lack of sophistication. Nevertheless, he did not rule out that Hamas would conduct its own investigation into incidents mentioned in the report of Palestinian rocket fire aimed at Israeli civilians. The Israeli army did launch its own investigation into specific incidents during the offensive and has admitted to "rare mishaps". Few independent observers give much credibility to that investigation, and Schenker said the Israeli government should have launched an independent investigation. One of those "rare mishaps" resulted in the deaths of 27 members of the same family, 22 of whom were killed instantly when missiles struck the house they had been ordered to huddle together in by Israeli soldiers after the Israeli army had secured their area. The Israeli army, in its own investigation into the incident, blamed an "operational error". The UN investigation, which also looked in detail into the incident, concluded: "If indeed a mistake was made, there could not be said to be a case of wilful killing. State responsibility of Israel for an internationally wrongful act, however, would remain." Salah Samouni, 33, lost his two-year-old baby daughter, Azza, in that incident. Yesterday, he said he was "very happy" with the UN report. "I am glad the commission has condemned Israel. But what is more important is that those responsible be brought to justice." Mr Samouni said he realised it would not be easy to bring anyone to trial, but he said he hoped that "at least the Israelis will think hard about committing war crimes in the future". firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by James Reinl at the United Nations