Amy Teibel
The Statesman
January 26, 2010 - 1:00am

Israel will not set up a special panel to investigate last winter's Gaza offensive, a Cabinet minister said Tuesday, rejecting a key demand of a U.N. report that accused the military of war crimes.

Information Minister Yuli Edelstein said Israel would submit a document to the U.N. later this week that deals only with Israel's own investigations of its conduct during the three-week war. Those investigations have been conducted by the military, which has exonerated itself of any systematic wrongdoing.

"To the best of my knowledge, there is no intention to create an investigative committee," Edelstein told Israel Radio, saying he had checked with his colleagues in the Cabinet.

It was not certain that Edelstein's comments were Israel's last word on the subject. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was out of the country, and his office declined comment.

The U.N. report accused both Israel and Gaza's Islamic militant Hamas rulers of war crimes and urged both to independently probe their wartime conduct. The U.N. General Assembly endorsed the report last November, giving the sides until Feb. 5 to respond.

By rejecting calls for an independent inquiry, Israel could open itself to international war crimes proceedings. But Israeli leaders are worried that forcing soldiers to testify could hurt morale and make troops wary of taking part in future battles.

Israel, which considers the report to be deeply flawed, "will relay a document addressing something very specific, namely, the character and credibility of internal investigations that took place in Israel," Edelstein said.

Nine Israel-based human rights groups issued a call Tuesday to Netanyahu to order a full-fledged inquiry. In a joint statement, they said the internal probe "does not satisfy Israel's obligations to investigate."

Although Israel denies wrongdoing, it is worried about the report, which has battered its image internationally. Netanyahu recently called the report one of Israel's three biggest strategic challenges — along with Iran's nuclear threat and militants' rocket attacks that had sparked the Gaza war.

Israel launched the Gaza offensive after years of rocket barrages on its southern region. More than 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 900 civilians, were killed, as were 13 Israelis. Large chunks of Gaza were devastated and have not been repaired because of an ongoing Israeli and Egyptian blockade.

The U.N. report, authored by veteran war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, accused Israel of deliberately targeting Palestinian civilians and intentionally destroying infrastructure, homes and livelihoods.

Powerful forces in Israel have arrayed against appointing an independent panel with sweeping investigative powers. Netanyahu, who will ultimately decide the case, has said he doesn't want to see Israeli officers hauled before such a panel.

But in deference to the international outrage, top defense officials would be open to having prominent civilian jurists examine the military's own investigations, without empowering them to call soldiers to testify, defense officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to report on confidential discussions.

It's unlikely such a halfway measure would satisfy the U.N.'s call for a credible probe.

If Israel disregards the U.N.'s call, the Security Council could refer the case to prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Washington would be expected to block such a move, but would not be able to spare Israel an embarrassing, high-profile investigation.

Israel says Hamas is to blame for civilian casualties because militants operated within residential areas. It says it made exceptional efforts to avoid harming civilians.

Israel refused to cooperate with the Goldstone probe, despite Goldstone's Jewish faith and his close ties Israel, because the U.N. body that commissioned it has a history of singling out Israel for particular censure.


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