A U.N. fact-finding mission accuses both Israel and Hamas militants of committing war crimes during the three-week war in Gaza that began in late 2008. The report, which has just been submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council, calls for both parties to conduct a credible investigation into alleged violations within the next six months or risk having the situation turned over to the International Criminal Court.
Head of the fact finding mission, South African Justice Richard Goldstone, criticized Israel for not cooperating with the mission and strongly rejected accusations that the investigation was politically motivated.
He described a number of incidents in which Israeli forces launched direct attacks against civilians with lethal consequences. With one exception, he said there was no military objective or advantage that could justify the attacks.
"The mission found that the attack on the only remaining flour-producing factory, the destruction of a large part of the Gaza egg production, the bulldozing of huge tracts of agricultural land, and the bombing of some 200 industrial facilities, could not on any basis be justified on military grounds. Those attacks had nothing whatever to do with the firing of rockets and mortars at Israel," Goldstone said. "These attack amounted to reprisals and collective punishment and constitute war crimes."
The mission found the repeated firing of rockets and mortars into southern Israel by Palestinian armed groups from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip constituted war crimes that may amount to crimes against humanity.
Goldstone said the mission is recommending the Security Council require Israel and the Palestinian authorities to undertake investigations into the crimes committed during the war and to report back in six-months.
"In both cases, if within the six month period there are no good faith investigations conforming to international standards, the Security Council should refer the situation or situations to the International Criminal Court prosecutor," Goldstone said.
Goldstone said the lack of accountability for war crimes and possible crimes against humanity has reached a crisis point. He said the ongoing lack of justice is undermining any hope for a successful peace process and reinforcing an environment that fosters violence.
The report did not sit well with Israeli Ambassador Aharon Leshno Yaar. He called the 575-page report shameful.
"The authors of this "fact-finding report" had little concern with finding facts … Regrettably, this one-sided report, claiming to represent international law but in fact perverting it to serve a political agenda, can only weaken the standing of international law in future conflicts," Yaar said.
Israel found welcome support for its position from the United States. In his first appearance before the UN Human Rights Council representing the United States, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner called the report deeply flawed.
"The report also fails to deal adequately with the asymmetrical nature of the conflict or to assign appropriate responsibility to Hamas for its decision to base itself and its military operations in heavily populated areas," Posner said. "We are also seriously concerned with the recommendations that these allegations be taken up by the Security Council and then possibly referred to the International Criminal Court."
Instead, Posner urged the Council to pass a resolution encouraging Israel to investigate allegations through credible domestic processes and to call on the Palestinians to launch similar investigations to address allegations of Hamas abuses.