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Israel began fighting the diplomatic battle yesterday to prevent the Goldstone Commission report on Israel's Cast Lead Operation in the Gaza Strip from being brought before the United Nations Security Council and from there to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where charges could be brought against Israeli officials involved in the military campaign. The report, compiled by a commission headed by former war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, accuses both Israel and the Palestinians of actions amounting to war crimes during the December 27 to January 18 battle in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Last night a team lead by Foreign Ministry legal advisor Ehud Keinan, and which included representatives from the Justice Ministry and the military prosecutor's office, delivered a preliminary analysis of the Goldstone Commission report to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman. Netanyahu also held consultations last night on the commission's findings. "The goal is to avoid a slippery slope which would lead Israel to the International Criminal Court in The Hague," a senior Israeli staffer said.

On the day after Yom Kippur, the UN Human Rights Council, which appointed Goldstone, will be convening in Geneva for a special session on the report. Foreign Ministry sources said yesterday that they expect Arab states will begin to prepare a draft resolution which will call for the report to be transferred to the UN Security Council. In a worst-case scenario, the Security Council could decide to transfer the matter to the International Criminal Court. Under such circumstances, the ICC could issue international arrest warrants for senior Israeli officials who were involved in Cast Lead.

On the diplomatic front, following the report's release, Netanyahu, Lieberman, President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will telephone many of their counterparts around the world. They will stress that the Goldstone report is one-sided, that it rewards terrorism and that it sets a precedent which will make it difficult for any country in the world to defend itself against terror. Israel's diplomatic efforts will focus on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France - but will also give priority to members of the European Union, because of their influence in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The senior Israeli leaders will ask their counterparts to express disagreement with the report and to oppose any use of it as the basis for anti-Israel resolutions at other international institutions. "It will be a long diplomatic and legal campaign," said a senior Israeli staffer handling the Goldstone report. "We will involve our friends around the world, especially the United States, to prevent Israel's isolation," he said.

The report, which is 574 pages long, and which was released yesterday at a news conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York at which Goldstone participated, contains harsh criticism of Israel of a nature and scope that surprised senior diplomats, including Israelis, who had anticipated condemnation of Israel but were astounded by the sweeping and unrestrained character of the criticism.

"Exactly what we feared occurred," Israel's ambassador to the UN, Gabriela Shalev told Haaretz yesterday. "The mandate of the Goldstone Commission," she said, "was one-sided from the beginning and the initiative to establish the commission came from the UN Human Rights Council, which is known for regularly and routinely condemning Israel."

"We anticipated that the contents of the report would be slanted and one-sided, but we didn't imagine that it would be so harsh and blunt," she added.

The Foreign Ministry will respond

The Israel Defense Forces refused to respond yesterday to the Goldstone Commission report. The army has decided that the Foreign Ministry will respond to international criticism of the IDF's conduct during Operation Cast Lead. Nonetheless, representatives from the IDF prosecutor's office are participating in the ministry's examination of the report, which details 36 specific incidents in which the army allegedly violated international law. Most of the incidents have already been examined by the IDF - within particular units which took part in the fighting, by the army prosecutor's office, and through the five commissions set up on the instructions of the IDF Chief of Staff.

Most of the investigations concluded that IDF forces followed orders and acted in accordance with international law, but it has not yet been determined if the IDF material gathered over the course of these investigations would be used to attempt to refute the Goldstone report. If the UN decides to transfer the Goldstone Commission finding to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, IDF officers could be summoned by the international court and even charged. Such a prospect would also affect their ability to travel abroad.

Balad party chairman, Jamal Zahalka, sharply condemned Barak in light of the Goldstone Commission findings. "Ehud Barak [should be sent] to The Hague immediately," he said. "The conclusion from the report," he added, "is that [there should be] an international trial for those responsible for war crimes in Gaza starting with the defense minister, the IDF chief of staff, down to operational commanders, and those who gave them orders and instructions to hit civilian populations and essential infrastructure to make political gains, as the report said."

"It is not possible that someone who causes the death of more than 1,000 civilians will not pay the price," Zahalka added. "The report proves the barbarity of the Israeli death machine, which is headed by a classical music aficionado who gives orders to kill civilians in cold blood. Behind war crimes are criminals who must be punished."

Hamas yesterday rejected the Goldstone report, which accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes during Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. Hamas spokesmen said the report was not fair. A representative of the extremist organization, Ismail Radwan, told Haaretz last night that the report was unbalanced and completely misrepresented reality.

Radwan said the report should have called unequivocally for an international war crimes trial for senior Israeli officials. He added that Hamas does not accept attempts to downplay the responsibility of the "Zionist entity," as he called Israel, or attempts to accuse Hamas. He claimed that Hamas had no intention of hurting civilians, but said the organization had the right to defend Palestinian civilians and oppose occupation. The group has denied using civilians to fire Qassam rockets or to provide cover from IDF forces. Hamas also adamantly denied allegations by human rights organizations that it had improperly used ambulances as a cover during the operation, or that it deliberately targeted civilians.