UN investigators begin a weeklong meeting in Geneva Monday in preparation for a fact-finding mission to the Gaza Strip and Israel.  The experts are going to the region to look into allegations of war crimes and other human rights abuses during Israel's military offensive in Gaza at the end of last year.

The UN Human Rights Council established the fact-finding mission in mid-January.  This followed Israel's three-week military offensive in Gaza, which claimed many lives and destroyed much property.

The four member team of experts is led by Richard Goldstone, a widely respected South African judge and former International War Crimes Prosecutor.  U.N. Spokesman, Rolando Gomez says the team has received assurances the mission can go ahead.

"The idea is for them to springboard from here off to the region.  Again, I cannot specify what they intend to do, what day, in other words, they plan to leave.  But, the idea is for them to meet here, at least through Friday," Gomez said.  "And, then, well, the intention of the meeting next week is obviously to make an itinerary, make a plan, set up appointments and then, of course to get tickets, visas, etc.  These are all the things that they will be doing next week."

This is the first UN fact-finding mission that Israel has reportedly approved and marks a significant departure from past practice.  Israeli authorities have previously refused entry to two other missions into the Palestinian territories.

Late last year, Israel refused to grant permission to an investigation led by the UN's expert on human rights in the Palestinian territories, Richard Falk.  And, prior to that, a UN investigation in Beit Hanoun in Gaza, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was rejected.

Observers believe Israel is looking more favorably upon the Goldstone-led mission because the South African judge says the investigation will be fair, balanced and impartial.  Goldstone says the team will look at alleged abuses committed in both Gaza and Israel.

Gomez says the Goldstone team has received positive signals of cooperation from both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

"The President [of the Human Rights Council] and Justice Goldstone when they met with concerned parties have received positive assurances that they would be able to conduct their work freely.  And, the meeting is rather significant," said Gomez.

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.

Other members of the fact-finding team include a Pakistani jurist, Hina Jilani, a British Professor of International Law, Christine Chinkin and a military specialist, Desmond Travers.