Text size

The UN's top human rights official backed a report Thursday accusing Israeli forces and Palestinian militants of war crimes during their conflict in Gaza last winter.

Navi Pillay's endorsement of the report by an expert group led by Judge Richard Goldstone came as Israel warned the UN Human Rights Council that approving the document risked undermining Middle East peace.

Pillay told the 47-member council that she supported the report's recommendations, including its call for urgent action to counter impunity - meaning that Israel and Hamas must investigate and prosecute those who committed war crimes.

The 575-page report concluded that Israel used disproportionate force, deliberately targeted civilians, used Palestinians as human shields, and destroyed civilian infrastructure during its Dec. 27-Jan. 18 incursion into the Gaza Strip to root out Palestinian rocket squads.

President Shimon Peres on Thursday met Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and discussed the Goldstone report, the Iranian nuclear issue and advancing the Middle East peace process.

Referring to the Goldstone report, Peres said, "Israel has investigated every war and action which it was compelled to undertake. We do not need outside judges. We will not allow a majority that is hostile to Israel to judge us."

Peres continued, "If the Human Rights Council wants to be fair, I suggest that it consider Iran's call for Israel's destruction.... There is a limit to hypocrisy. Why isn't Iran being investigated? Why does everyone remain silent?"

Peres added that "Hamas fired missiles at homes, operated in the heart of the population and used children as human shields. No investigative committee, including Goldstone's, has provided an answer as to how to prevent Hamas's despicable terrorist acts against Israeli citizens."

The report accused Palestinian armed groups including Hamas of deliberately targeting civilians and trying to spread terror through rocket attacks on southern Israel.

Almost 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed during the three-week conflict.

Pillay said it was necessary for both sides to carry out impartial, independent, prompt, and effective investigations into reported violations of human rights and humanitarian law as recommended by the report.

Israeli Ambassador Aharon Leshno-Yaar rejected the Goldstone report as biased and flawed, warning that a vote endorsing the document will set back hopes for peace. He accused the council, which has a history of passing resolutions critical of Israel, of using the report for more Israel bashing.

The United States has taken a similar view that excessive attention to the report and alleged crimes in the Gaza war could hamper efforts to rejuvenate struggling peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians.

"We stand at an important moment, and must all be mindful of the larger context of ongoing efforts to restart permanent status negotiations that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state," said U.S. diplomat Douglas M. Griffiths.

But Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said "holding war criminals accountable and respect for human rights are not obstacles to peace, but rather the preconditions on which trust and, ultimately, a durable peace can be built."

The council is debating a resolution that would endorse the Goldstone report's recommendation for the Security Council in New York to determine within six months whether both sides are carrying out credible investigations into alleged abuses. If they aren't, the matter should then be referred to prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.

The draft resolution suggests UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should also monitor Israeli and Palestinian compliance with the report. A vote is expected Friday.

U.S. and European diplomats are opposed to sending the report to the more powerful Security Council for action.

"Washington supports calls for those responsible for violations to be held accountable, but wants this to be done by Israeli and Palestinian authorities themselves," said Griffiths, the U.S. diplomat.

"Countries need and deserve the space to work through what processes will be most effective, and this cannot be dictated from outside," he said.

Palestinian and Israeli rights groups warned Thursday against burying the report.

"I don't think you can build a peace process on injustices that you try to sweep under the rug," said Jessica Montell, head of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

"We hope the Goldstone report doesn't end as piles of paper," added Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.

Allies press Israel to investigate Goldstone report findings

Western allies on Wednesday pressured Israel to launch credible investigations into UN allegations of possible war crimes.

The United States, Britain and France all said Israel should look into findings published last month by the UN mission led by Goldstone.

Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Alejandro Wolff said Washington had serious concerns about the report, including what he said was its "unbalanced focus on Israel." But he repeated the U.S. view that Israel should look into it.

"We take the allegations in the report seriously," he told the council. "Israel has the institutions and the ability to carry out serious investigations of these allegations and we encourage it to do so."

Wolff said Hamas was a "terrorist organization" that was neither willing nor able to investigate its own behavior. Hamas - the de facto ruler of Gaza - does not recognize Israel's right to exist.

British Ambassador John Sawers called on Israel to launch proper investigations into the charges outlined in the report.

"We note that the Israeli Defense Forces has already conducted and is continuing to conduct a number of investigations," Sawers said. "However, concerns remain."

French Ambassador Gerard Araud urged both sides to initiate "independent inquiries in line with international standards."

UN Undersecretary-General Lynn Pascoe told the council that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also wanted "credible domestic investigations" based on the Goldstone report.

Israel:Goldstone report diverting focus from real issues

Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations Gabriela Shalev on Wednesday criticized the Security Council for its focus on the Goldstone Gaza report, saying that it diverts attention away from other, more pressing Middle East issues.

"Instead of discussing the real and worrying questions facing the Middle East, the UN is focusing on the Goldstone report, which Israel believes legitimizes terror organizations," Shalev said.

"For those of us who seek to resume the peace process in the Middle East, debating the Goldstone Report in the Security Council is but a tale 'full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'," she added, using the famous quote from Shakespeare's Macbeth.

"An ordinary person would think that an emergency UN session would be called when Gazan and Lebanese terrorists fire missiles into Israeli territory, or because of the Iranian nuclear threat," Shalev continued.

"The pretense of urgency in this session is an attempt to 'hijack' the council's agenda to promote the report, a move supported by none other than Libya - a country that has only recently celebrated the return of the Lockerbie bomber," the ambassador said.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Al-Malki on Wednesday rejected assessments by the United States and the UN that progress had been made to advance a settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"No real progress has been made in the peace process," he said. "The Goldstone report constitutes a wake-up call that cannot be ignored."