By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
NEW YORK, Sept. 15 -- A U.N. human rights panel accused Israel and Palestinian militants on Tuesday of committing war crimes during the three-week war in the Gaza Strip last winter, but it reserved its harshest criticism for the Israeli military, saying that soldiers targeted civilians in an offensive that left as many as 1,400 people dead.
The U.N. team, headed by South African judge Richard Goldstone, asked the U.N. Security Council to order Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement to conduct credible investigations into the alleged crimes. If either side fails to do so within six months, the panel said, the evidence should be referred to the Hague-based prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
In a 574-page report, the four-member panel accused Israel of targeting civilians in mosques and schools, as well as destroying crops and factories, including the only flour factory in Gaza City. The panel also said Israeli soldiers blindfolded and handcuffed Palestinian civilians and, at gunpoint, used them as human shields to enter unsecured homes.
"There is strong evidence to establish that numerous serious violations of international law . . . were committed by the Israel Defense Forces," Goldstone said at a news conference in New York. "The mission concluded that actions amounting to war crimes and possibly in some respect crimes against humanity were committed by the Israel Defense Forces."
Goldstone said there was no question that the Palestinian firing of missiles and mortar shells into Israel "was deliberate and calculated to cause loss of life and injury to civilians and damage to civilian infrastructure." The mission "found that these actions also amounted to serious war crimes and also possibly crimes against humanity."
Additionally, the report charged that Hamas and its rival Palestinian faction, Fatah, have carried out political attacks, including torture and assassinations, against each other's members.
An official at the Palestinian mission to the United Nations said Palestinians were studying the report and were not prepared to comment.
Israel's Foreign Ministry said the fact-finding mission lacked legitimacy because its mandate was biased against Israel and because it disregarded Hamas's strategy of using Palestinian civilians as cover during war. Israel refused to cooperate with Goldstone's panel or to allow its researchers to interview witnesses in southern Israel or Gaza. Researchers, however, were allowed into Gaza through Egypt.
Israel says mortar and rocket attacks killed three civilians and one soldier in southern Israel during the conflict. In Gaza, nine Israeli soldiers were killed, four of them by friendly fire.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly declined to comment on the report or say how the United States would respond to Goldstone's call for a U.N.-backed investigation. But he said the Gaza conflict -- which began in late December and ended in January -- was "tragic," with loss of life on both sides. "Mr. Goldstone makes serious allegations, and we want to take time to review them," he said.
In its investigation, the panel focused on 36 incidents in which Israeli troops appeared "either reckless, disproportionate or deliberate," Goldstone told reporters. He cited one incident in which Israeli forces allegedly fired a mortar shell through the door of a mosque in Gaza City during a religious service attended by several hundred worshipers, killing 15 and injuring others. He said there was no evidence to suggest that the mosque had been occupied by militants or had been used to store weapons.
The panel's findings corroborate reports, including a detailed account in The Washington Post, that Israeli forces shelled the crowded home of the Palestinian Wael al-Samuni family in the neighborhood of Zaytoun on Jan. 5, killing 21 civilians, and prevented international relief agencies from tending to the wounded.
The report also stated that potential witnesses in Gaza were reluctant to discuss the role played by Palestinian militants in the conflict. It found that Palestinian militants operated from urban areas populated by civilians, launching missiles at Israeli targets.