A UN-backed investigation into Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip is its final phase, international investigator Richard Goldstein said Tuesday. He noted, however, that it was too soon to conclude that war crimes were committed during the conflict. Goldstone also added that his team regretted Israeli authorities having blocked it from visiting Israel and the West Bank, but that testimony from victims from those areas was heard in Geneva. Israel refused to cooperate with the mission because it regarded it as having biased instructions from the UN Human Rights Council, which has a track record of repeatedly singling out Israel for criticism and turning a blind eye to any Palestinian wrongdoing. Goldstone said he regards the mandate of the fact-finding mission as requiring an independent investigation into all alleged violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the context of the Dec. 27-Jan. 18 military operations. "The testimonies we have heard from victims and witnesses ... have been very difficult to hear, but I believe it is important that we listen to these stories," said Goldstone. He said it would be premature, however, to talk about any conclusions the team may have made or whether it has enough evidence to present a case of war crimes. The hearings gave a voice to the victims and keeps them from being lost among the statistics, he said. "Last week we were in Gaza and heard two days of hearings and listened to the stories of intense pain, loss and suffering from the people of Gaza," Goldstone said. "Yesterday and today in Geneva we have heard from victims and witnesses from Israel and from the West Bank, and they too have shared with us moving stories." He noted his preference to observe people and hear their testimonies where they were affected, and said it would have been better to hold the hearings in the south of Israel, where Israelis have been subjected to continued rocket attacks from Gaza. "Obviously on this mission visiting Gaza was very important, not only to speak to people and hear what they suffered, what they endured, but also to see the physical damage, which I think shocked all of us, the extent of it," Goldstone said. No party to the conflict was fully cooperative, he said. "That's the nature of this beast," Goldstone said. "One's dealing with strategic issues, one's dealing in some respects with intelligence matters, and one's got to do the best one can." Goldstone says the team still plans to pose questions to the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, but then will wrap up the investigation and move on to writing its report, which is to be given to the United Nations by August.