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Israeli officials consider new inquiry on Gaza Strip offensive

Even as Israel defended its handling of last year’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip, officials said Friday that the government was considering heeding international calls to open a new inquiry of its army’s actions.

Officials cautioned that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made no final decision and that his Cabinet remained divided.

Israel had flatly rejected calls for an independent inquiry and insisted that its internal military investigation of the Gaza operation was sufficient. That inquiry determined that Israel took strong measures to limit civilian casualties, though it acknowledged some cases of accidental civilian deaths.

A United Nations inquiry by South African jurist Richard Goldstone reached a far different conclusion in September, accusing Israel of war crimes. The report says Israel used disproportionate force, deliberately targeted civilians -- some of whom were used as human shields -- and destroyed civilian infrastructure.

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Thirteen Israelis and nearly 1,400 Palestinians died during the 22-day campaign, launched by Israel last winter after rocket attacks at southern Israeli cities from Gaza, which is run by the Islamic militant group Hamas.

This month, Israel paid $10.5 million in compensation to the U.N. for damaging its facility in Gaza.

The Goldstone report, which also accuses Hamas of war crimes, recommends that the U.N. refer the matter to the International Criminal Court if the parties fail to adequately investigate the claims.

Israel has criticized the U.N. fact-finding commission as biased and its report as factually incorrect. But now some government officials are pushing for another inquiry to alleviate international pressure and lower the risk that Israelis will be subjected to prosecution by foreign courts.

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“We are looking at what we can do that will be considered enough so as to prevent international prosecution and investigation,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

Though many expect the United States to veto any move in the U.N. to refer the matter to the ICC, judicial systems in some European nations have intervened in cases of alleged war crimes or crimes against humanity under a legal principle known as universal jurisdiction.

Last month, former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni canceled a trip to London after it was revealed that a British judge was moving to issue a warrant for her arrest over her role in the Gaza operation.

Outgoing Israeli Atty. Gen. Menachem Mazuz said Friday in an interview with Haaretz newspaper that without a “serious, expert examination,” the Goldstone report would “continue to haunt us and take away our legitimacy.”

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Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who opposes a new inquiry, said such a move would undermine troop morale.

“All of the soldiers and officers whom we sent to battle need to know that the state of Israel stands behind them even on the day after,” he told reporters during a tree-planting ceremony.

In response to a U.N. deadline, Israel sent a 40-page letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon detailing the merits of the Jewish state’s justice system and defending its ability to investigate the matter internally.

The letter is not a point-by-point response to the Goldstone report, officials said. Such a detailed rebuttal is being prepared by the Israel Defense Forces and is expected to be released in March, Palmor said. A decision on a new inquiry could come as soon as next week.

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Separately, Hamas leaders accused Israel of assassinating one of the group’s commanders in a hotel room in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Mahmoud Mabhouh, who reportedly died Jan. 20, was accused of masterminding the killing of two Israeli soldiers in the late 1980s.

Palmor, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, dismissed the allegation by Hamas. “They accuse us of everything,” he said. “They don’t need evidence.”

edmund.sanders

@latimes.com

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