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Israel debates response to Gaza report

PM Netanyu with Cabinet members
Pressure is building for an Israeli commission of inquiry into the Gaza war

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Jerusalem

Support is growing within Israel for the launch of an independent inquiry into alleged war crimes committed during its offensive in Gaza last winter.

Last week the UN Human Rights Council voted to back the controversial Goldstone report, which calls on Israel and Hamas to mount credible investigations within six months.

Deputy Prime Minister and Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor added his voice on Wednesday to calls by the attorney general, and what officials say is pressure from the justice and foreign ministries, to establish a commission of inquiry.

This does not mean such figures depart from the widespread view in Israel that the report was a flawed, biased, politically motivated attempt to discredit it - a "kangaroo court", as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it.

Rather, it should be seen as some members of the Israeli government now considering their next defensive steps, after the failure of an intensive diplomatic campaign to stop the HRC even voting on the Goldstone report.

Gaza child stands in front of his family home that was destroyed during Israel's campaign

International jurist Richard Goldstone's report recommends that if Israel and Hamas do not conduct credible investigations of their own within six months, the issue should be referred to the UN Security Council, which has the power to open a war crimes prosecution at the International Criminal Court.

The Israeli military has opened about 100 investigations, of which about 20 are criminal, but Mr Goldstone and many human rights organisations have said it is insufficient for the military to investigate itself.

Even the US, Israel's staunch ally, which is expected to veto in the Security Council any prosecution attempt, has urged Israel to mount an independent inquiry.

Public relations

Those in Israel backing an inquiry think, in the words of one senior government official, "we have nothing to hide, and nothing to fear from an open investigation".

Another pressing concern, the official explained, is the principle of universal jurisdiction, under which courts around the world can arrest and try military and political leaders from other countries who are suspected of war crimes.

A key condition for such arrests is that there have been no credible independent proceedings in the suspect's home country.

However, officials say the military and Defence Ministry are strongly opposed an inquiry, arguing that it would discredit the military's own internal investigations.

It is an outrageous report that constitutes a crude blood libel - but it's a fact
Sever Plocker, journalist, Yediot Ahronot

A cabinet meeting on Tuesday on the issue agreed only to form a panel to head off possible prosecutions, and to continue to wage the diplomatic and public relations battle against the Goldstone report.

The possibility of setting up an independent inquiry was not even discussed, officials said.

Previous post-war inquiries have had serious ramifications.

The Winograd committee was established to look into failures during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war - albeit ones seen to have put Israeli troops, rather than Lebanese civilians, at risk.

It levelled heavy criticism at senior military and political figures and came close to forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The commission's work did lead to the the resignations of Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and the Defence Minister Amir Peretz .

And after the 1982 Lebanon war, the Kahan Commission into massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps recommended that Ariel Sharon be dismissed from the post of Defence Minister.

Mr Goldstone's report has been massively criticised in Israel - although Israel refused to co-operate with the investigation and refused to grant visas so the team could visit rocket-hit towns such as Sderot.

Commentators and government spokespeople alike point out that the UN Human Rights Council that commissioned it and backed it is a reformed version of a body known historically for being strongly anti-Israel, and includes renowned human rights violators such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and China.

Independent investigation

They complain that the report devotes detailed analysis to incidents in which Israel is accused of war crimes, but shows little evidence of in-depth investigation of Israel's claims that Palestinian militants used schools, mosques, hospitals and ambulances for cover, although it does accuse Hamas of war crimes in firing rockets at civilian areas.

Israelis are angered, for example, that the report states that the UN team did not investigate Israeli claims that Hamas took over a wing of Gaza City's largest hospital, and only looked into one case of allegations that weapons were stored in mosques.

Even the Director of the human rights group B'Tselem, which gathered many testimonies of alleged abuses in Gaza, has described it as "disagreeable" and criticised the "weak, hesitant way that the report mentions Hamas's strategy of using civilians [in combat]".

But there is recognition that the report is not going to go away.

"It is an outrageous report that constitutes a crude blood libel - but it's a fact," wrote Sever Plocker of the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

"Our diplomatic situation has not been this bad for years. We can cry out: 'Injustice! Hypocrisy! Anti-Semitism!' from now until kingdom come, but that yelling isn't going to do any good. The snowball is already rolling, and I doubt whether there is anyone who is capable of stopping it."

Mr Goldstone himself told US rabbis this week that an independent investigation in Israel "would really be the end of the matter, as far as Israel is concerned".

Israelis are now trying to work out whether he is right.



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