Page last updated at 17:07 GMT, Friday, 16 October 2009 18:07 UK

UN backs Gaza 'war crimes' report

Richard Goldstone visits Gaza in June 2009
Both Israel and Hamas have rejected the charges in Mr Goldstone's report

The UN Human Rights Council has backed a report into the Israeli offensive in Gaza that accuses both Israel and Palestinian militants of war crimes.

The report by Richard Goldstone calls for credible investigations by Israel and Hamas, and suggests international war crimes prosecutions if they do not.

Twenty-five countries voted for the resolution, while six were against.

Both Israel and the US opposed official endorsement of the report, saying it would set back Middle East peace hopes.

For: Argentina, Brazil, China, Russia and 21 others
Against: US, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Ukraine
Abstentions: Belgium, Bosnia, Burkina-Faso, Cameroon, Gabon, Japan, Mexico, Norway, South Korea, Slovenia and Uruguay
No vote: UK, France and 3 others

The Palestinian Authority initially backed deferring a vote, but changed its position after domestic criticism.

Palestinians and human rights groups say more than 1,400 Gazans were killed in the 22-day conflict that ended in January, but Israel puts the figure at 1,166.

Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, were killed.

'Culture of impunity'

Before the vote in Geneva - in which 11 countries abstained and five others, including the UK and France, chose not to vote - the Palestinian Authority's representative argued that the matter was simply about respect for the rule of law.

The UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, meanwhile insisted that now was the time to end the "culture of impunity" which continues to prevail in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Israeli air strike in Rafah, Gaza, on 13 January 2009
The report accuses Israel of using "disproportionate force" in Gaza

In contrast, the Israeli government had lobbied intensively against the resolution, saying the Goldstone report was biased against Israel and removed the right of nations to defend themselves against terrorists.

It also complained that the vote was not simply on the Goldstone report, but on a Palestinian-backed resolution that criticised Israel and ignored Hamas. The resolution also made references to recent Israeli actions East Jerusalem that were not in the document.

The US deputy representative in Geneva agreed, saying that the resolution's approach and "sweeping conclusions of law" made the prospect of a meaningful Middle East peace process more difficult.

Asked why it did not vote, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband told the BBC that the British and French governments had been "in the middle of detailed discussions with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel about three key issues - the establishment of an independent inquiry, humanitarian aid to Gaza and the restart of the peace process".

"The vote was called in the middle of those discussions and we thought it right to continue with our work on the three fundamental issues so that could really contribute to a reversal of what is a dangerous spiral of trust and mistrust in the Middle East," he said.

'One-sided resolution'

The BBC's Tim Franks in Jerusalem says momentum behind the Goldstone report will grow and the UN may take it up in New York.

Jeremy Bowen
Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor

The row about the report is an antidote to any over-optimistic hope for peace. In many ways, it is a more honest expression of reality, of the deep divisions that exist, than the uncomfortable handshake between Israel's prime minister and the Palestinian Authority president that US President Barack Obama manufactured in New York last month. Mr Obama, who came to office hoping to renew and reinvigorate a peace process, has had another reminder of how difficult a job he has taken on.

Israel says it will not take risks for peace, if it cannot defend itself. And the Israelis have once again been condemned in an international forum.

There was some confusion among Israel's European allies. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown had a "robust" discussion with his Israeli counterpart last night, apparently talking about a British abstention in Geneva. The UK did not vote in the end, although initially the Foreign Office said it had abstained. Then Downing Street said it was a non-vote rather than a formal abstention. Perhaps Israeli pressure worked, partly. Perhaps Mr Brown decided to send a signal to the Israelis, but on second thoughts, not too much of one.

The 575-page report by the South African judge concluded that Israel had "committed actions amounting to war crimes, possibly crimes against humanity" by using disproportionate force, deliberately targeting civilians, using Palestinians as human shields and destroying civilian infrastructure during its offensive in Gaza.

It also found there was also evidence that Palestinian militant groups including Hamas, which controls Gaza, had committed war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity, in their repeated rocket and mortars attacks on southern Israel.

The report demanded that unless the parties to the Gaza war investigated the allegations of war crimes within six months, the cases should be referred to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

In the short term, the Human Rights Council resolution will provide some political relief for the Palestinian Authority (PA) President, Mahmoud Abbas, our correspondent says.

Mr Abbas had been the butt of intense criticism among the Palestinian public and from his Islamist rivals in Hamas, for initially trying to delay a vote on the Goldstone report, he adds.

In Ramallah, a spokesman for Mr Abbas welcomed the endorsement of the report and said international action should not end there.

Israeli and Palestinian representatives addressed the council ahead of the 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 Rudainah said.

A Hamas spokesman told the BBC it also supported further UN action, but said nothing about the charges against the group.

"We thank whoever voted for it, and we hope that this vote will be the beginning of the process to bring the Israeli war criminals to justice," Taher al-Nono said.

The Israeli foreign ministry rejected the "one-sided resolution", which it said ignored "the murderous attacks perpetrated by Hamas and other terrorist organisations against Israeli civilians" and the "unprecedented precautions taken by Israeli forces in order to avoid harming civilians".

"This resolution provides encouragement for terrorist organisations worldwide and undermines global peace. Israel will continue to exercise its right to self-defence, and take action to protect the lives of its citizens," the statement added.

If the report comes before the UN Security Council, the US is expected to veto any call for ICC action against Israel.

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