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(photo credit: AP [file])
UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk charged Tuesday that Israel's military incursion into Gaza "was not legally justified given the circumstances and diplomatic alternatives available, and was potentially a crime against peace."
He made the comment as he presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, claiming that the IDF's 22-day operation in January appeared to be "a war crime of the greatest magnitude."
Falk argued further that Palestinian rocket fire into Israel had been mostly a retaliatory act.
In response, Israel Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Roni Leshno-Yaar, said that Falk's defense of what he called in the report the "Palestinian right of resistance" constituted "poorly veiled" support for terrorism against Israeli citizens.
Leshno-Yaar told the council that Israel had suffered eight years of intentional attacks against its civilians, including women and children, in which Palestinians had launched more than 8,000 rockets into Israel from Gaza.
Underlying his remarks, another rocket was fired at Israel from Gaza on Tuesday, landing south of Ashkelon.
Leshno-Yaar said that when Israel acted in self-defense, "wild accusations are made," but "when Palestinians use the terrorists' tactic - the coward tactic - of using civilians as shields while leaders make pathetic demonstrations of bravado from bunkers in Gaza and luxury hotels in Damascus, this council condemns Israel."
The Falk report, he said, focused on Israeli misdeeds when it was Hamas that had stolen humanitarian aid destined for its own people, stored weapons in mosques, schools and hospitals, and launched attacks from inside homes and adjacent to UN facilities.
In spite of all this, the council, he said "finds fault only in Israel's most basic right - the right to defend its citizens. It is a double standard that offers a searing view of the dangers of abusing this forum for narrow, politicized objectives."
Falk took issue with Israel's argument that Operation Cast Lead had been an act of self-defense.
He faulted Israel for attacking densely populated areas and for sealing Gaza's borders so that civilians were not able to flee the fighting.
"It was certainly foreseeable that hospitals, religious and educational sites and United Nations facilities would be hit... and that extensive civilian casualties would result," he said.
While Israel has said that the majority of those it killed were Hamas terrorists, Falk claimed that only 235 of the 1,434 of the Palestinians fatalities were combatants and another 239 were policemen.
Of the 960 civilians who lost their lives, 288 were children and 121 women, he said.
Falk said that 5,303 Palestinians were wounded, including 1,606 children and 838 women.
An estimated 21,000 homes were destroyed or damaged and 51,000 people were displaced, he said.
The level of destruction, he said, went well beyond anything that could be characterized as a mistake.
"It is not a matter of mistakes and fallibility but rather a massive assault on a densely populated urbanized setting where the defining reality could not but subject the entire civilian population to an inhuman form of warfare that kills, maims and inflicts mental harm," said Falk.
Israel could have protected its civilian population by extending a cease-fire with Hamas that expired in December rather than attacking innocent people in Gaza, Falk said.
While Israel has repeatedly argued that Palestinian rocket attacks were unprovoked, Falk claimed that in the six months that proceeded Operation Cast Lead, it was largely Israel that had failed to observe the cease-fire and it was Hamas which had retaliated.
From 2000 to 2008, he said, in 79 percent of violent flare-ups between the IDF and Palestinians in Gaza, it was Israel that had broken the calm with an act of violence.
The cease-fire, in the second half of 2008, he said, broke down when Israel killed a Palestinian in Gaza on November 4. This was followed by mortar fire in retaliation. An IDF air strike was then launched that killed an additional six Palestinians.
"The breakdown of the cease-fire seems to have been mainly a result of Israeli violations, although this offers no legal, moral or political excuse for firing of rockets aimed at civilian targets," said Falk.
Hamas, he said, would have been ready to extend the cease-fire if Israel had reopened its borders.
Falk said Israel had violated the Fourth Geneva Convention, which regulated the actions of an occupying power and rejected Israel contention that since it withdrew from Gaza it was no longer bound by those laws.
Israel is obligated to that convention given that it controls the Gaza borders, including the sea and airspace, said Falk.
"By imposing a blockade since the summer of 2007, it has profoundly affected the life and well being of every single person in Gaza," said Falk.
"It is disquieting that other Israeli officials have made formal statements to the effect of taking all necessary steps to protect any member of the Israel Defense Force from being accused, and if excused, to prevent indictment and prosecution."
Falk added that such statements show that Israel has no intention to cooperate with any serious investigation and noted that he himself had been barred by Israel for entering Gaza.
As a result, he said, the UN might have to rely more heavily on data provided by non-governmental bodies.
He noted that since the UN secretary-general and its human rights commissioner had already called for an investigation of war crimes against Israel, he did not have to do so.
Falk did, however, recommend that a similar investigation of war crimes be conducted against Hamas, particularly for its firing of rockets at civilians, the use of its own citizen population as human shields and its abuse of the protected status of certain structures to hide weapons.
Already on Monday, the US State Department spokesman Robert Wood preempted Falk's report by saying that it found his views on Israel "to be anything but fair. We find them to be biased. We've made that very clear."
But Wood added that the US would do nothing to prevent a UN investigation into Israeli actions in Gaza.
Hilary Leila Krieger and AP contributed to this report.