Israel could face calls by the United Nations Security Council to refer alleged war crimes to the International Criminal Court in The Hague after a UN council backed a controversial report.
The UN Human Rights Council voted yesterday to endorse a Gaza war crimes report that calls on Israel and Hamas to carry out credible investigations into alleged abuses, or face possible referral to international war crimes prosecutors in The Hague in the Netherlands.
Britain and France were among 11 countries which abstained from the vote in Geneva, Switzerland. Six nations, including the US, opposed the move.
A demand from the security council to refer cases to The Hague would almost certainly be blocked by Washington, but experts say yesterday's vote could have far-reaching implications for the way the world body deals with war crimes claims.
It also keeps attention on the report, compiled by an expert panel chaired by respected South African judge Richard Goldstone, just as US president Barack Obama tries to restart the Middle East peace process.
Nearly 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed during the December 27-January 18 Gaza conflict.
The 575-page document concluded that Israel used disproportionate force, deliberately targeted civilians, used Palestinians as human shields and destroyed civilian infrastructure during its incursion into the Gaza Strip to root out Palestinian rocket squads.
It also accused Palestinian armed groups including Hamas, which controls Gaza, of deliberately targeting civilians and trying to spread terror through years of rocket attacks on southern Israel.
The report recommends that the 15-member security council require both sides in the conflict to show within six months that they are carrying out independent and impartial investigations into alleged abuses.
If not, the matter should be referred to prosecutors at the International Criminal Court, the report says.
In order to be adopted, a security council resolution must get nine Yes votes, and not be vetoed by a permanent member.
The US is likely to use its veto to block any call to get the International Criminal Court involved in the dispute over Gaza or to take action against Israel.
"Politically, this will die in the security council," said David Crane, an international law professor at Syracuse University and former prosecutor of the Sierra Leone tribunal, which indicted former Liberian president Charles Taylor.
"Ultimately what is going to be done about the report is going to be a political decision and not a legal and procedural one."
But he added: "In fact I think that we will see more of these, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing."
Cherif Bassiouni, a professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago and one of the driving forces behind the creation of the International Criminal Court, said whatever happened to the report, the decision by the Human Rights Council has already set a precedent.
"If it sends the report to the security council, to the secretary general and to the general assembly, it is sending it not for general informational purposes but for action," he said.
Arab and African countries will probably point to any US efforts to block referral to the international court as an example of double standards, since it was Western countries that referred Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court in March for alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes, said Mr Bassiouni.
Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, warned before the vote that it could have far-reaching consequences.
"Whoever votes in favour of endorsing the report must understand that next time it will be the soldiers and officers of Nato in Afghanistan, and then Russian soldiers and officers in Chechnya (who face prosecution)," he said.
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the resolution "provides encouragement for terrorist organisations worldwide and undermines global peace".
US diplomat Douglas Griffiths told the council that Washington was disappointed with the outcome, in which the report was endorsed by a vote of 25-6.
The US and five European countries - Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Slovakia and Ukraine - opposed the resolution, while 11 mostly European and African countries abstained.
Israel has said continuing focus on its actions in Gaza could derail what should be seen as more important efforts to restart talks toward a peace deal and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Hamas and the rival Fatah faction that controls the West Bank welcomed the Yes vote.
"What is important now is to translate words into deeds in order to protect our people in the future from any new aggression," Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, said in Ramallah.