JERUSALEM — Israeli officials issued a broad defense Sunday over how their country waged the war in the Gaza Strip last summer, making a case that Israel sought to minimize civilian casualties as the Islamist movement Hamas put its people in the line of fire and cynically used the ensuing death and destruction to stoke anti-Israel propaganda.
The Israeli report is timed to preempt what officials here assume is the imminent release of a critical report by the U.N. Human Rights Council on possible criminal acts by Israel and Hamas in the Gaza war.
Israel has declined to cooperate with the U.N. fact-finding mission, citing what it calls prejudicial resolutions by the U.N. council and its experience with a previous U.N. investigation into Israel’s military during the 2008-2009 Gaza war. That report was chaired by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone, who in 2011 withdrew a sensational charge contained in his report — that it was Israel’s policy to intentionally target civilians.
Israel predicts the new report from the United Nations will be a hatchet job. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that anyone who wants to read “the truth” should download the Israeli report. “Whoever wants to automatically — and without foundation — blame Israel, let them waste their time with the U.N. Human Rights Council report,” he said.
The U.N. report could be an important document for the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, who is conducting a preliminary examination to decide whether war crimes were likely committed in Gaza and whether the court has jurisdiction.
Netanyahu and his new cabinet have been arguing that the greatest threat facing Israel comes not from Hamas rockets in Gaza, but from Palestinians and their supporters in Europe and America who want to isolate, embarrass and press Israel. Their goal is to force an end to the 48-year military occupation of the West Bank and allow for the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state.
“Israel is under an unprecedented attack of delegitimization. This attack is not substantive, it is political,” Netanyahu said upon receiving the new report at a cabinet meeting on Sunday. “This is our response.”
The Israeli report is an attempt to indict Hamas for its behavior during the war and to show that Israel’s military was a moral force.
“We’re not ashamed of the facts,” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said at a press briefing conducted in English. “Israel is following international law,” she said, even when fighting “the most cruel, cynical and violent terrorists.”
The United Nations has reported that more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed by Israel in the conflict and that the majority were civilians, including more than 500 children.
The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday produced a different count of the Palestinian dead: 936 (44 percent) militants; 761 (36 percent) civilians; and 428 (20 percent) “yet to be categorized,” all males ages 16 to 50.
Dore Gold, the new general director of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said the war against Hamas was forced upon Israel by Hamas rocket fire aimed at Israeli civilian centers, which he called an obvious war crime.
The 4,500 mortars and rockets fired at Israel by Hamas and other militant factions in Gaza had a range that could reach 70 percent of the Israeli public and caused widespread terror as was intended, with 10,000 Israelis along the Gaza border fleeing their homes, according to the report.
The discovery of 32 “attack tunnels” dug by Hamas (14 crossed the border into Israel, 18 were headed that way) lengthened the war, the report stated, because the Israeli military had to enter Gaza to destroy them.
In the immediate area near the Gaza border, where air raid sirens rang day and night, the Israelis say 38 percent of children were diagnosed as suffering from full or partial symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The war cost Israel almost a billion dollars in lost gross domestic product and almost $40 million in direct damages, according to the Israel Tax Authority. Six civilians in Israel and 67 Israeli soldiers were killed in the conflict.
For all this — and the deaths of more than 2,100 Palestinians — the Israelis blame Hamas, mostly for embedding its forces among civilians.
The report includes documents recovered by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip that extol the advantages of fighting the enemy — that is, Israel — in a dense urban environment filled with civilians.
Other Hamas texts in the report advise the populace to declare to the media that all dead Palestinians were “innocent civilians.” Internet postings from Hamas also show that the group urged civilians not to flee their homes because the leaflets being dropped by Israeli forces urging them to do so amounted to “psychological warfare.”
Israel says 550 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel and its forces from “sensitive sites” such as schools, U.N. facilities, hospitals, mosques and churches.
Hamas leader Salah al-Bardaweel disparaged the Israel report.
“The propaganda they are trying to spread in the international community by saying they are the victim and we are the attacker, it won’t work,” he said. “Over 95 percent of Israelis killed during the war were soldiers; what was destroyed were Israeli tanks.”
He said there are no areas of mass destruction in Israel that could compare with the wide swaths of Gaza leveled by Israeli artillery fire.
“I think what Israel is trying to do will not save it from the isolation that it is facing,” Bardaweel said.
Hazem Balousha in Gaza City contributed to this report.