Page last updated at 22:37 GMT, Thursday, 15 October 2009 23:37 UK

UN body debates Gaza war report

Navi Pillay in Geneva, 15 Oct
The UN rights chief says punishing war criminals is vital for peace

The UN Human Rights Council has ended a first day of debate on whether to endorse a report into the Israeli offensive in Gaza last winter.

The report by veteran South African judge Richard Goldstone accuses both Israel and Hamas of war crimes.

Human rights groups have welcomed his report as serious and well-balanced, but Israel and the US say it is biased.

A vote is expected on Friday on a draft resolution about the report and Israel's policies.

Pressure from allies

"A culture of impunity continues to prevail in the occupied territories and in Israel," Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at Thursday's opening of the special meeting of the UN Human Rights Council.

She called for "impartial, independent, prompt and effective investigations into reported violations of human rights and humanitarian law".

Aharon Leshno Yaar, Israelís UN ambassador, at UN in Geneva on 15 October 2009
Israel's envoy said the resolution threatened to "set back peace"

Israel has already come under pressure from its allies - including the US, UK and France - to investigate the UN allegations.

But Israel's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Aharon Leshno Yaar, said the resolution threatened to "set back hopes for peace".

The text of the draft resolution says UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon should monitor Israeli and Palestinian compliance with the Goldstone report.

It also contains a condemnation of Israel's policies in East Jerusalem, another issue likely to divide the Council.

At its first debate two weeks ago, the Council decided to delay its response for six months.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at first agreed to this under pressure from the US aimed at getting the Middle East peace process back on track.

But after much public criticism at home, he demanded that the debate be reopened.

Old divisions

The BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Geneva says the problem is that while the Goldstone report is widely regarded by rights groups as fair, the human rights council itself has a history of focusing on Israel's alleged violations.

She says once again the old divisions are appearing, between the US, Israel and Europe on one side, and African and Arab nations on the other.

Israeli bombardment of Gaza

Our correspondent says rights groups fear that calls for the civilian victims of the Gaza conflict to have their grievances addressed could evaporate amid all the diplomatic wrangling.

The Goldstone report accuses Israel of using disproportionate force and deliberately harming civilians during the 22-day conflict, which began on 27 December 2008.

Palestinian Hamas militants are accused of indiscriminate rocket fire at Israeli civilians.

The report urges the Security Council to refer allegations to the International Criminal Court if either side fails to investigate suspects within six months.

Israel has rejected the evidence, saying it has already investigated its troops' conduct, clearing most of the subjects of wrongdoing. Hamas has also denied committing war crimes.

Israeli military action destroyed thousands of homes, hundreds of factories and 80 official buildings in Gaza.

Palestinians and human rights groups say more than 1,400 people were killed in the violence between 27 December 2008 and 16 January 2009, more than half of them civilians.

Israel puts the number of deaths at 1,166 - fewer than 300 of them civilians. Three Israeli civilians and 10 Israeli soldiers were also killed.

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