Archbishop Desmond Tutu said Monday that Israel may have committed a war crime by shelling the Gaza Strip city of Beit Hanun in 2006, but that Palestinians also were at fault for firing rockets at Israeli civilians.
"Israeli and Palestinian authorities should prosecute people on both sides who attacked civilians in the town in Gaza and in neighboring Israel," Tutu said in a report to the 47-nation United Nations Human Rights Council.
"In the absence of a well-founded explanation from the Israeli military - the mission must conclude that there is a possibility that the shelling of Beit Hanun constituted a war crime," Tutu said in the report.
Israel's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, refused to discuss the war crimes allegation because Israel rejects the validity of Tutu's report.
"Tutu's mission to Beit Hanun was another regrettable product of the Human Rights Council," Leshno-Yaar said.
Israel maintains that the body, which is dominated by Muslim and African nations, has focused excessively on criticizing Israel.
"It is regrettable that this mission took place at all," Leshno-Yaar told The Associated Press.
The report was Tutu's final assessment of an investigation requested by the council into the November 2006 Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
Israel declined three times to grant visas to the Nobel peace laureate and his UN-appointed fact-finding team to investigate the killings of 19civilians in an Israeli artillery barrage, the report said. The team finally traveled to Beit Hanun via Egypt in May - 18 months behind schedule.
"Israel's firing of artillery toward Beit Hanun showed a disproportionate and reckless disregard for Palestinian civilian life," Tutu said.
He also said the firing of Palestinian Qassam rockets in neighboring Israel must stop and should be investigated.
Leshno-Yaar said he was furious that Tutu's report de facto legitimizes Hamas control of Gaza.
"This does not serve the interests of Israel or the Palestinians or the cause of peace between Israelis and Palestinians," he said.
He was referring to the Islamic militant group whose violent takeover of Gaza 15 months ago created a split among Palestinians, with Hamas ruling Gaza and their moderate Fatah rivals controlling the West Bank.
In addition to meeting with representatives of the Palestinian authority, Tutu met with senior members of Hamas.
The rights council asked Tutu, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, to assess the living conditions and basic rights of victims, address the needs of survivors and make recommendations on ways to protect Palestinian civilians against further Israeli attacks.
The Beit Hanun shelling, which Israel said was unintended, came after its troops wound up a weeklong incursion meant to curb Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel from the town.
Palestinian militants frequently use Beit Hanun as a staging ground for their rocket attacks on Israel.
"Those firing rockets on Israeli civilians are no less accountable than the Israeli military for their actions," Tutu said.
He said an independent investigation should be undertaken into the violence on both sides and that Israel should pay reparations for the victims.
"It is not too late for an independent, impartial and transparent investigation of the shelling to be held," he said.
But Leshno-Yaar said Israel's own investigation into the incident that found that hitting civilians was accidental was sufficient. He noted that the results had been shared with the United Nations.
"There is no need for such a mission by the Human Rights Council and by Archbishop Tutu," he said.
Tutu also called on Israel to stop preventing Palestinians from accessing medical services by restricting the movement of medical goods and people in and out of Gaza.