U.N. Human Rights Council Endorses Report on Gaza War

By Howard Schneider and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 17, 2009

JERUSALEM, Oct. 16 -- The U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday endorsed a controversial report on alleged Israeli war crimes in the Gaza Strip, advancing a process that has roiled Palestinian politics and threatens to further derail the Middle East peace process.

The vote drew condemnation from Israel's main political parties, while both the Islamist Hamas movement and the Palestinian Authority hailed the decision.

Led by a coalition of Arab and Muslim states, the Geneva-based council voted 25 to 6 to approve the recommendations of a U.N. panel that found that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes during their three-week conflict in December and January.

The United States, which only this year joined the 47-member council, voted against the resolution. Eleven countries abstained, and five, including France and Britain, did not vote.

The decision sets the stage for a complex legal and diplomatic battle to be played out at the United Nations, even as the Obama administration tries to persuade the two sides to restart peace talks.

Israeli leaders have been organizing for such a fight since the establishment of the panel on Gaza, headed by former South African judge Richard Goldstone, and in recent days said they could not envision holding peace talks while the Palestinians are pushing for a war crimes tribunal.

"We are being asked to take risks for peace," Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Thursday as Israeli diplomats worked to defeat the resolution. "At the same time, we are being told that we will be unable to defend ourselves if peace talks fail. If an area we vacate is used to launch rockets at our citizens, we will be expected to sit and do nothing -- our hands will be tied."

Two weeks ago, Palestinian officials agreed under U.S. and Israeli pressure to a six-month deferral of the report in the council, a step expected to blunt its impact. But the deferral sparked a deep backlash against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Ibrahim Khraishi, the Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, said Friday that Palestinians "want to live in peace, side by side, with the state of Israel. We want a state having East Jerusalem as its capital." But, he added, "until we achieve this goal, our people will never forgive the international community if they leave the criminals and perpetrators of crimes to have impunity."

Israeli leaders say that they launched the Gaza war in self-defense, after years of Hamas rocket and mortar fire into Israel, and that the Goldstone study played down that part of the conflict. According to the report, Israel and Hamas should conduct internal investigations; if they fail to do so, the report says, the cases should be referred to the International Criminal Court. Israel says it is conducting a probe through its military justice system.

Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem Mohamad, the acting chairman of a grouping of nations known as the Arab Group, said Friday that the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and other supporters of the Palestinians intend to push for action in the U.N. Security Council next week. They are also drafting a General Assembly resolution that would seek a ruling on Israel's conduct by the International Court of Justice.

The Gaza war claimed hundreds of Palestinian lives -- 1,100 by the Israeli count, 1,400 according to Palestinian officials. Israel acknowledges at least 200 civilian deaths; Palestinian officials say the toll among noncombatants was perhaps three times that number. Thirteen Israelis died, including three civilians.

The Goldstone report focused on civilian casualties and whether Israeli military practices -- from the use of white phosphorus munitions to the conduct of combat soldiers -- did enough to minimize them.

The rights council's action will probably add to concerns about international isolation in Israel. One of its staunchest Muslim allies, Turkey, refused this week to participate in scheduled NATO military maneuvers, reportedly because of Israel's participation. There has been sharp criticism by neighboring Jordan over recent clashes around Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem and worry among Israelis that top officials such as Defense Minister Ehud Barak might be arrested over the Gaza war during travels abroad.

Douglas M. Griffiths, the U.S. envoy to the rights council, said Friday that although the United States had encouraged Israel to investigate its conduct in the conflict more closely, it felt the resolution "only exacerbates polarization and divisiveness" at a time when the emphasis should be on relaunching peace talks.

Lynch reported from the United Nations.

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