Gaza probe to go on without Israel's OK

Goldstone: UN investigators will enter Strip through Egypt if necessary to look into possible war crimes.

richard goldstone 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
richard goldstone 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Former international prosecutor Richard Goldstone said Wednesday he will go ahead with his UN investigation into possible war crimes during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, even though Israel has withheld its approval over what it calls an "intrinsically flawed" probe. Goldstone said the UN investigators would enter Gaza through Egypt if necessary, but they had wanted to visit Israel first to assess what happened there. "I'm disappointed, and the members of the mission are disappointed, that we've had no positive response from the Israeli government," Goldstone said. "It would have been our wish to start there, to visit southern Israel, Sderot, to go into Gaza through the front door, to go to the West Bank, which is also included in our mission." Israel objected to the mission ordered by the 47-nation UN Human Rights Council in January because the original instructions were only to check what Israelis did to Palestinians. But Goldstone, a Jew with close ties to Israel, only accepted the assignment if he could see what happened on both sides. "There is no change in our position," Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Wednesday in Jerusalem. "We think that the mandate is intrinsically flawed and defective and therefore this commission will never be able to do a proper job, whatever good intentions its head may have." Asked if the UN team members would be allowed to enter Israeli territory, he said that remained to be seen. "Wait," he said. "We're not there yet." Israel regards the council, which has a large contingent of members from Islamic countries, as biased because it often singles it out for criticism. Goldstone said he approached the Israeli ambassador in Geneva, Aharon Leshno Yaar, several times and even directly appealed to Prime Minister Binymain Netanyahu. "But we've really received no official response. There've been media reports of noncooperation but I regard those as unofficial," Goldstone said at a news conference in Geneva. "It would be good to get an official response and I would hope a positive response." Israel launched its offensive against Gaza on December 27 in a bid to halt eight years of rocket fire into its the southern territory and deal a heavy blow to Hamas. The three-week operation killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 900 civilians, according to Palestinian human rights groups. It also destroyed thousands of homes and heavily damaged Gaza's infrastructure. According to Israel however, the death toll was lower than that and most of the dead were Hamas terrorists. It blames Hamas for the civilian casualties, saying that terrorists used schools, mosques and residential areas for cover. Thirteen Israelis were killed during the fighting. Goldstone spoke to reporters after meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who declined to join in the news conference because he wanted to underscore the independent character of the investigation. But Ban told The Associated Press that he had "a very good meeting" with Goldstone. "I expressed my strong support for his mission. I told him that I had discussed with the Israeli government, particularly President Shimon Peres," Ban said. "I have not yet received a reply directly, but I am going to continue to discuss this with them." Goldstone said the secretary-general was absolutely committed to the mission and "couldn't have been more warm in that support." He said the team has an August 4 deadline to submit its report, and he has decided to hold public hearings for several days. "If we can have them in the region, so much the better," he said. "But if necessary we will have them here in Geneva." Goldstone played a prominent role in the campaign against apartheid in his native South Africa and rose to global prominence in 1994 when he became UN chief prosecutor for war crimes, heading investigations into genocide in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. His team includes Christine Chinkin, professor of international law at the London School of Economics; Hina Jilani, a human rights advocate from Pakistan; and Desmond Travers, a former officer in the Irish Armed Forces with expertise on international criminal investigations. Like other UN human rights investigators, the team is independent. The members are unpaid, but receive a daily living allowance and expenses. They determine how to conduct their investigation and what they say in their report, even if that clashes with UN positions.