Israel rejected UN calls to open an independent inquiry into its conduct in last winter’s Gaza Strip war and said it would launch a diplomatic offensive to block any attempt to bring its soldiers before an international war crimes tribunal.
An independent investigation into the war was a key recommendation of an explosive UN report that accused the Jewish state of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.
The report, released on Tuesday by UN-appointed investigators, said Israel used disproportionate firepower and disregarded the likelihood of civilian deaths in the offensive, which killed hundreds of non-combatants and caused widespread damage to Gaza.
It said that if Israel doesn’t allow an independent investigation, the case should be referred to international war crimes prosecutors.
The report provoked a furore in Israel, whose Foreign Ministry said it was “appalled and disappointed”. Radio stations devoted heavy chunks of air time to interviews with outraged officials and critical legal experts. “Classic Anti-Semitism,” blared the headline of an opinion piece in the Israel Hayom daily.
Israeli officials refused to co-operate with the five-month investigation, 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 and noted 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,” 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 also called for an independent inquiry.
The UN team, headed by veteran war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, concluded 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.
Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the conflict, including hundreds of civilians, and thousands more were wounded. Thirteen Israelis also died, including four civilians.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace prize laureate, said the Goldstone report “makes a mockery of history.”
“It draws no distinction between the attacker and the attacked,” Peres said. “The report essentially grants legitimacy to acts of terrorism, shooting and killing, and ignores the right and duty of any country to self defence, as outlined in the UN charter.”
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. In Gaza, Hamas officials welcomed its harsh condemnation of Israel and brushed off criticism of the Palestinian militants.
The UN investigators recommended the Security Council require both sides to launch credible probes into the conflict within three months and to follow that with action in their courts.
If either side refuses, it said the UN should refer the evidence for prosecution by the International Criminal Court, a permanent war crimes tribunal, within six months.
Foreign Ministry spokes-man Yigal Palmor said Israel would 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. The United States has veto power over council decisions and is unlikely to back a UN resolution ordering a probe against its close ally.
But even without legal action, the UN report could damage Israel’s public image, with people linking the state of Israel and war crimes.
Pro-Palestinian activists have sought before to try Israeli military officials outside of their homeland on war crimes charges connected to operations in Gaza.
Retired general Doron Almog dodged a British arrest warrant in 2005 by staying on his plane at London’s Heathrow airport after a tip-off that police were waiting to detain him over an Israeli air strike that killed a Palestinian militant leader and his bodyguard and 13 civilians.
Israel says the UN Human Rights Council that ordered the probe is biased by its 47-nation membership, dominated by Arab and developing nations.
Goldstone is a former South African judge who prosecuted war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.. He agreed to head up the probe only after he won agreement to look at Palestinian actions as well. His daughter, Nicole Goldstone, told Israel Army Radio in a telephone interview from Toronto that her father’s presence softened the report’s observations on Israel.
“He thought that... he did the best thing possible for everyone, including Israel,” she said. “I have no doubt whatever emerged would have been much worse if he had not been there.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved