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War crimes in Gaza reported

A United Nations inquiry concluded Tuesday that Israel and Palestinian armed groups committed war crimes during their conflict in the Gaza Strip, and it called on both sides to prosecute wrongdoers or face possible intervention by an international court.

The probe led by former South African Judge Richard Goldstone detailed what investigators called Israeli actions “amounting to war crimes, possibly crimes against humanity,” during a 22-day winter offensive against Hamas-led rocket squads in which nearly 1,400 Palestinians, many of them civilians, were killed.

The 575-page report by Goldstone and three other investigators asserts that Palestinian militants “committed war crimes, as well as possibly crimes against humanity” by firing rockets and mortar rounds indiscriminately into southern Israel.

International human rights groups had previously spelled out such allegations against both sides in Gaza. But the U.N. report was significant because it could, in theory, trigger cases against Israelis and Palestinians in the Hague-based International Criminal Court.

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Neither side has filed charges against any of its combatants, and Israel does not accept the court’s jurisdiction. But Goldstone called for steps to hold both parties accountable.

“There should be no impunity for international crimes that are committed,” he said at a news conference at U.N. headquarters in New York. “It’s very important that justice should be done.”

The investigation found seven incidents in which Palestinian civilians were shot while leaving their homes, trying to run for safety or waving white flags. The report says Israel targeted a mosque at prayer time, killing 15 people, and shelled a Gaza City house where soldiers had forced Palestinian civilians to assemble. These attacks constituted war crimes, the report says.

On the Palestinian side, the report calls the firing of rockets into Israel “a deliberate attack against the civilian population” because the militants failed to distinguish between military targets and residential neighborhoods. Three Israeli civilians died in the fighting, along with 10 Israeli soldiers. The investigators urged the U.N. Security Council to set up a body of experts to report to it on any criminal inquiries and prosecutions initiated by Israel and Hamas over the next six months. If the sides take no such action, the investigators said, the 15-nation council should refer the U.N. panel’s charges to the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor.

Legal experts said the likelihood of indictments by the court appears remote for now. But they said the U.N. findings might play into private lawsuits filed by Palestinian groups in foreign courts that accept such cases.

Israel’s government issued a statement saying it would “read the report carefully.” But it challenged the U.N. panel’s objectivity and noted that the military is already conducting 23 criminal investigations of what it called isolated incidents of alleged misconduct by its forces in Gaza.

“We knew it would be biased and one-sided but did not imagine it would be so harsh,” said Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev.

Hamas’ terse response, issued by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, simply noted the U.N. panel’s “real condemnation of Israeli war crimes” without acknowledging the allegations of Palestinian war crimes.

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The conflict lasted from Dec. 27 to Jan. 18. Goldstone’s panel based its findings on 188 interviews and thousands of documents and photographs. It spoke to witnesses in Gaza and at its Geneva headquarters but not in Israel, which barred the investigators from its territory.

The panel said Israel violated international humanitarian law in several ways: It said the dozens of Palestinian policemen killed when Israel bombed their stations at the start of the conflict were not involved in hostilities and should have been treated as civilians. And it cited evidence that Palestinians were forced to walk ahead of Israeli soldiers searching civilian neighborhoods.

Israel’s Gaza offensive, the report concludes, “humiliated, dehumanized and carried out an assault on the dignity of the people in Gaza, through the use of human shields, unlawful detentions, unacceptable conditions of detention . . . obscenities and racist slogans.”

Israel insisted it did not deliberately target civilians and said the U.N. panel “disregarded the deliberate Hamas strategy of using Palestinian civilians as cover” in the fighting.

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While acknowledging that Hamas militants fought from urban neighborhoods, the panel said it found no evidence they forced Palestinian civilians to shield them against attack. Nor has Israel identified any such cases, it said.

The panel faced controversy from its inception because its original mandate from the U.N. Human Rights Council focused exclusively on Israel’s alleged abuses. Upon accepting the job of leading the inquiry, Goldstone, who is Jewish and has had close ties to Israel, insisted on expanding the scope to include allegations against Hamas.

Goldstone played a prominent role in the campaign against apartheid in his native South Africa and later served as chief U.N. prosecutor for war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

The U.N. report came out on a day of intense American diplomacy aimed at reviving peace talks between Israel and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

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U.S. envoy George J. Mitchell met separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas but announced no breakthrough.

Abbas is insisting that Israel halt all expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem before he will agree to a proposed three-way meeting with Netanyahu and President Obama. U.S. officials want to hold the meeting next week.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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