Image: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office on Monday. In the meeting, Netanyahu accused Arab extremists of spreading lies to foment violence in the disputed city of Jerusalem.
updated 10/12/2009 12:25:46 PM ET 2009-10-12T16:25:46

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday vowed never to allow Israeli leaders or soldiers to stand trial for war crimes over their actions during last winter's military offensive in the Gaza Strip, furiously denouncing a recent U.N. report in a keynote address to parliament.

Netanyahu's fiery rhetoric — and his decision to open the high-profile speech with remarks on the U.N. report — reflected the deep distress felt among Israeli leaders after a U.N. commission accused Israel of intentionally harming civilians when it launched a massive attack in Gaza to stop years of rocket fire.

"This distorted report, written by this distorted committee, undermines Israel's right to defend itself. This report encourages terrorism and threatens peace," Netanyahu said in his address at the opening of parliament's winter session. "Israel will not take risks for peace if it can't defend itself."

The U.N. report, compiled by a team led by former war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, accused Israel of using disproportionate force, deliberately targeting civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure during a three-week offensive against Hamas militants last winter. The report also accused Hamas of war crimes by deliberately targeting civilians and trying to spread terror with rocket attacks.

Israeli officials across the board have condemned the report, saying the operation came in response to years of Hamas rocket attacks. They also blame Hamas for civilian casualties, saying the Islamic militant group took cover in residential areas during the fighting.

Netanyahu angrily noted the report's portrayal of Israeli leaders as war criminals. "The truth is exactly the opposite. Israel's leaders and its army are those who defended the citizens of Israel from war criminals," he said, before vowing to defend the country's wartime leaders.

"We will not allow Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak, who sent our sons to war, to arrive at the international court in the Hague," he said.

While Netanyahu has repeatedly lashed out at the U.N. report, Monday's comments appeared to be a direct response to a new Palestinian push for a vote on the report in the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission. If the vote takes place, the matter could be referred to higher U.N. bodies that could theoretically push for war crimes prosecution.

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