Israel said today it would not conduct an independent inquiry into its conduct in the Gaza Strip war, rejecting a key recommendation from an explosive UN report that accused the Jewish state of war crimes.
The report by UN-appointed investigators said Israel used disproportionate firepower and disregarded the likelihood of civilian deaths in last winter’s offensive, which killed hundreds of non-combatants and caused widespread damage to Gaza.
The report, released yesterday, also urged Israel to conduct an independent investigation into its war conduct or face the prospect of referring the case to international war crimes prosecutors.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Israel would launch a diplomatic offensive to block any referral of the case to the International Criminal Court, or ICC.
Israeli officials refused to cooperate with the investigation and vehemently rejected its findings, saying it was ordered by a UN body with a clear anti-Israeli bias.
Israel’s military has conducted its own inquiry and others remain pending, but so far has cleared itself of any systematic wrongdoing.
Government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel would not heed the call for an independent investigation, noting that army probes can be appealed in court.
“This report was conceived in sin and is the product of a union between propaganda and bias,” Mr Regev said. “Israel is a country with a fiercely independent judiciary ... Everything done by the military in Israel is open to judicial review by the independent judiciary.”
Human rights groups in Israel and abroad have tarred the military probes as a “whitewash” and have also called for an independent inquiry.
The UN team, headed by veteran war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, concluded that both Israel and Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.
Israel launched the three-week war in late December to quash Palestinian militants in Gaza who had bombarded southern Israel for years with rocket and mortar fire.
While harshly critical of Israel, the report also faulted Hamas for firing rockets into southern Israel without distinguishing between military targets and the civilian population.
Hamas officials welcomed its harsh condemnation of Israel and brushed off criticism of the Palestinian militants.
“The Palestinian people and the Palestinian resistance were in a position of self-defence and not of attack. One cannot compare the simple capabilities of the resistance with the great strength of the occupation,” said Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh.
Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the conflict, including hundreds of civilians. Thirteen Israelis also died, including four civilians.
The UN investigators recommended the Security Council require both sides to launch their own, credible probes into the conflict within three months, and to follow that up with action in their courts.
If either side refuses, the UN should refer the evidence for prosecution by the ICC, a permanent war crimes tribunal, within six months.
Mr Palmor, the foreign ministry spokesman, said Israel will take action to protect its soldiers and commanders from prosecution abroad and denounced the suggestion of an ICC jurisdiction.
“Every time a democracy will want to take measures to defend itself from terror, it will have to take into consideration a wide international legal campaign against its leaders and officials, based on the propaganda of the terrorists,” he said.
Israel is not a member of the ICC, so a case cannot be brought against it unless the Security Council orders it to launch an investigation. The United States has veto power on the Council and likely would not back a UN resolution ordering a probe.
But the UN report itself could damage Israel’s public image, with people linking the state of Israel and war crimes, no matter what happens in the legal arena.
Israel says the Human Rights Council that ordered the probe is biased by its 47-nation membership, dominated by Arab and developing nations.
Israel took specific exception to the presence of Christine Chinkin, a professor of international law at the London School of Economics, on the commission.
Before her appointment, Ms Chinkin stated in an open letter in the Sunday Times that Israel committed war crimes.
Mr Goldstone is a former South African judge who prosecuted war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Mr Goldstone, who is Jewish and has close ties to Israel, told Israel’s Channel 1 TV earlier this year that Ms Chinkin has “a completely open mind and will not exhibit any bias.”
Mr Goldstone agreed to head up the probe only after he won agreement to look at Palestinian actions as well.
Mr Regev said Israel did not make a mistake in not co-operating with the commission.
“The mandate was biased from the beginning and it would have been a mistake to give credibility to a mission that has more in common with a kangaroo court than it does with a serious investigation,” Mr Regev said.