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Rights groups cry whitewash over Gaza probe

Rights activists demand an independent war crimes probe after Israel's military on Wednesday cleared itself of wrongdoing over civilian deaths in the Gaza war.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Human rights activists, some charging whitewash, demanded an independent war crimes probe after Israel's military on Wednesday cleared itself of wrongdoing over civilian deaths in the Gaza war.

Army commanders acknowledged "rare mishaps" during the three-week offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers, including an airstrike that killed a family of 21. However, they said Israel did not violate international humanitarian law and that Hamas is to blame for civilian deaths, because it used Gazans as human shields.

At least 1,100 people in Gaza were killed, according to counts by both sides. The military insisted that a majority of the war dead were militants, while the Palestinians said most were civilians.

Israel launched the offensive Dec. 27 to halt years of rocket fire on Israeli border towns. It unleashed unprecedented force in the small seaside strip, including more than 2,000 bombing raids and barrages of artillery and mortar shells, against Palestinian militants, who operated inside residential areas.

Human rights groups say there is grave suspicion that both Israel and Hamas carelessly put civilians in harm's way — Hamas by using them as cover and Israel by using disproportionate force in densely populated Gaza. Since the war ended Jan. 18, calls have been mounting for a war crimes probe of both sides.

U.N. investigating war crimes
A U.N. agency has appointed a widely respected former war crimes prosecutor, Richard Goldstone, to lead an investigation. Israeli officials say it's very unlikely Israel will cooperate, alleging the U.N. agency is biased. Hamas, Gaza's sole ruler since a violent takeover in 2007, said it would work with the investigator.

If Israel has nothing to hide, it should cooperate with Goldstone, a coalition of Israeli human rights groups and the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. They also questioned the military's ability to investigate itself.

The military's findings "seem to be a cover-up for serious violations of international law," Human Rights Watch said, calling the findings an "insult to civilians" killed in the war.

The Israeli military assigned five colonels to lead separate investigations into its most controversial actions, including attacks on and near U.N. and international facilities, shooting at medical workers and facilities, as well as the use of white phosphorous shells, a chemical agent that can cause horrific burns.

The military said Israeli forces operated in line with international law throughout the fighting.

It said the killing of civilians was unintentional — either a result of combat in crowded areas, with Hamas using civilians as human shields, or in rare cases because of human error.

In one such case, an airstrike killed 21 members of the Daya family in Gaza City on Jan. 5, including 12 children, according to a Palestinian list of the war dead. The Israeli military said the target was a weapons factory next door.

Israel: Hamas fought among civilians
The military said what it described as unfortunate incidents, such as the shelling of the U.N. headquarters in Gaza City, were a result of urban combat, "particularly of the type that Hamas forced on the (Israeli) military, by choosing to fight from within the civilian population."

It said U.N. facilities were not struck intentionally.

The military alleged Hamas militants often took cover in ambulances or hospitals.

Investigators noted that Gaza's prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, spent the war at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital. Haniyeh did not appear in public during the war and remained in hiding for weeks after the fighting ended, apparently fearing assassination.

Israel has promised legal and financial support for officers facing trial. In Norway, a group of lawyers filed a war crimes complaint against 10 Israelis on Wednesday, including the former prime minister.

Since the Gaza war, the political deadlock in the region has only hardened, as Hamas has tightened its grip on Gaza, and a hawkish government was elected in Israel.

The U.N.'s Mideast envoy, Robert Serry, said Wednesday that the international community wants a Palestinian state established alongside Israel.

"The problem is that the parties seem to be less ready and in a position to do what it takes to make peace," he said during a tour of Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

Serry inspected the ruins of a Palestinian home demolished hours earlier by Israel, and said witnessing the distress of the now homeless family was "pretty shocking." Israel said it was built without a permit.

He expressed concern about a rising number of demolitions in Palestinian neighborhoods and urged Israel to halt the practice.

Palestinians say Israeli authorities in Jerusalem rarely grant building permits. Israel says it's enforcing the law equally in Jerusalem, whose war-won eastern sector is claimed by the Palestinians as a capital.