UNITED NATIONS (AP) – A U.N. investigation concluded Tuesday that both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, raising the prospect that officials may seek prosecution in the International Criminal Court.
The probe led by former South African judge Richard Goldstone concluded that “Israel committed actions amounting to war crimes, possibly crimes against humanity,” during its Dec. 27-Jan. 18 military operations against Palestinian rocket squads in the Gaza Strip.
In a 575-page report, Goldstone and three other investigators also found evidence “that Palestinian armed groups committed war crimes, as well as possibly crimes against humanity.”
Goldstone said the probe, which included interviews as well as a review of documents, photos and 30 videos, was completed Tuesday morning, just hours before the hastily called news conference.
“There should be no impunity for international crimes that are committed,” said Goldstone, a veteran war crimes investigator who has served as chief prosecutor for the U.N. criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. “It’s very important that justice should be done.”
The report said that Israel’s attacks in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, including the shelling of a house where soldiers had forced Palestinian civilians to assemble, amounted to war crimes.
It found seven incidents in which civilians were shot while leaving their homes trying to run for safety, waving white flags and sometimes even following Israeli instructions, as well as the targeting of a mosque at prayer time, killing 15 people, were also war crimes.
Investigators found no evidence the mosque was used to store weapons or for any military activity by Palestinian armed groups, but said they were unable to look more broadly at Israel’s allegation that the mosques were used generally by Palestinian groups for storing weapons.
A “direct and intentional attack” on the Al Quds Hospital and an adjacent ambulance depot in Gaza City “may constitute war crimes,” the report said.
Several Palestinians told the mission they were used as human shields by the Israeli forces, the report said, noting the case of Majdi Abd Rabbo, a 39-year-old intelligence officer of the Palestinian authority who was forced to walk ahead of the troops as they searched his and his neighbor’s house. Rabbo was forced to undress down to his underwear in front of the soldiers and his sons had to strip naked, the report said.
On the Palestinian side, the report found that armed groups firing rockets into southern Israel from Gaza failed to distinguish between military targets and the civilian population.
“Where there is no intended military target and the rockets and mortars are launched into civilian areas, they constitute a deliberate attack against the civilian population,” the report said. “These actions would constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity.”
Goldstone agreed to head up this latest probe only after he had won agreement from the Belgian president of the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council, which ordered the investigation, to look at Palestinian actions as well.
Israel, which refused to cooperate with the investigation, said the Human Rights Council was biased by its 47-nation constituency, over which Arab and developing nations hold sway. The investigation was ordered earlier this year, before the United States joined as a member.
On Thursday, the subject could arise when the 15-nation Security Council holds its monthly debate on the Middle East. The council this month is presided over by Israel’s chief ally, the United States, which has veto power as one of five permanent council members.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the U.S. had just gotten a copy of the report and would review it carefully.
“These are serious issues and Mr. Goldstone makes serious allegations. And we want to take time to review them,” Kelly said.
The investigators have recommended that the Security Council require both sides to launch their own, credible investigation into the conflict within three months, and to follow that up with action in their courts. If either side refuses, the investigators recommend that the Security Council refer the evidence for prosecution by the International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal, within six months.
The Palestinian group Hamas rules Gaza and has been accused by Israel of using human shields during the conflict, in which almost 1,400 Palestinians were killed, many of them civilians. Thirteen Israelis also died, including four civilians.
“The mandate of the mission and the resolution establishing it prejudged the outcome of any investigation, gave legitimacy to the Hamas terrorist organization and disregarded the deliberate Hamas strategy of using Palestinian civilians as cover for launching terrorist attacks,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said.
Hamas officials were not immediately available for comment.
Goldstone, who is Jewish and has strong ties to Israel, told reporters at U.N. headquarters that “to accuse me of being anti-Israel is ridiculous,” anticipating such criticism. He said it was in the interest of both Israelis and Palestinians to establish the truth of what happened in the conflict.
In a joint statement, nine Israeli human rights groups said the findings join a “long series of reports” indicating that Israel and Hamas violated the laws of war. It called on the Israeli government to conduct an “independent and impartial investigation.”
“The groups expect the government of Israel to respond to the substance of the report’s findings and to desist from its current policy of casting doubt upon the credibility of anyone who does not adhere to the establishment’s narrative,” it said.
In a preliminary investigation earlier this year, the army cleared itself of any systematic wrongdoing during the war and said any rights violations were isolated incidents.
Since then, it has opened a series of separate investigations into the conduct of individual soldiers. “Notwithstanding its reservations, Israel will read the report carefully,” the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday of the U.N. report, noting that the military has examined more than 100 allegations regarding the conduct of its forces during the Gaza operation, resulting in 23 criminal investigations.