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Former War Crimes Prosecutor to Lead UN Gaza Probe

A widely respected South African judge and former International War Crimes Prosecutor will lead a UN investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the Gaza Strip. Richard Goldstone and three other human rights experts will examine all aspects of the violence that occurred during Israel's military incursion into Gaza at the end of last year.

In mid-January, the 47-member UN Human Rights Council voted overwhelmingly for a fact-finding mission to investigate grave human rights violations by Israeli forces against the Palestinians.

What will be mission's scope?

Judge Richard Goldstone indicates the mission will be wider in scope.

"There are substantial allegations of war crimes and serious violations of human rights law having been committed before, during and after the military operations in Gaza between 27 December, 2008 and 18 January, 2009," Goldstone said. "It is in the interest of all Israelis and Palestinians that the facts relevant to those allegations should be impartially investigated by an independent international mission."

More than 1,400 Palestinians, including 960 civilians, reportedly were killed during the Israeli military offensive in Gaza. Israel, which lost 13 people during the war, disputes these figures and says it was forced to take action to stop Hamas fighters from launching rockets into its territory.

Who is Goldstone?

Goldstone was chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He also served as a judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa.

Goldstone, who is Jewish, says it came as a shock to him when he was invited by the president of the UN Human Rights Council to head this mission.

"I have taken a deep interest in Israel and what happens in Israel and I have been associated with organizations that have worked in Israel," he said. "But, having said that, I believe that I can approach the daunting task that I have accepted in an even-handed and impartial manner and give it the same attention that I have to situations in my own country where perhaps similar considerations may have been taken into account."

UN backs nominee

The president of the UN Council stood by his nominee, calling his pedigree very distinguished. For his part, Goldstone says the mission will examine the context and consequences of the military action in Gaza.

He urges all relevant parties to assist and cooperate in the mission. He says he hopes the report, which will emerge will make a contribution to the peace process in the Middle East.

Israel has refused to cooperate with previous UN investigative missions. So far, it has not said whether or not it would cooperate with this delegation.