(New York) - Israel and the Hamas authorities in Gaza should cooperate fully with the United Nations fact-finding mission, headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, to investigate allegations of serious violations of the laws of war in Gaza and southern Israel, Human Rights Watch said today. In letters to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and 27 European Union foreign ministers, Human Rights Watch called on them to endorse the Goldstone investigation and to urge Israel and Hamas to cooperate.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for an independent and impartial international investigation into allegations of such violations by all parties to the recent Gaza conflict. On April 3, 2009, the president of the UN Human Rights Council announced that Goldstone will lead the council's fact-finding mission with precisely this mandate.

"We have strongly criticized the Human Rights Council in the past for its exclusive focus on Israeli rights violations, but Justice Goldstone is committed to an independent and impartial investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups alike," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "He has the experience and proven commitment to ensure that this inquiry will demonstrate the highest standards of impartiality."

Goldstone is the former chief prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and a member of the Human Rights Watch board. In his remarks to the media on April 3 accepting this appointment, he said that the mission would look at "all human rights and international humanitarian law rights violations committed both in Israel and in Gaza and in the Occupied Territory."

Ambassador Martin Uhomoibhi of Nigeria, the current president of the UN Human Rights Council, added that he has asked the fact-finding mission to "produce a report that is fair, that is balanced and that is impartial; that will address the question of proportionality. You cannot address proportionality in a vacuum."

Prior to major Israeli military operations in Gaza that began on December 27, 2008, throughout the fighting and in the more than two months since, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups fired hundreds of rockets into Israeli civilian areas, in flagrant violation of prohibitions against deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly and forcefully condemned those. In addition, Human Rights Watch has reported on serious violations of the laws of war by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), most recently the firing of white phosphorus munitions into densely populated areas of Gaza, as well as a protracted blockade of the Gaza Strip - a policy that amounts to the unlawful collective punishment of the civilian population.

Hamas has shown no inclination to investigate or prosecute violations of the laws of war that Palestinian fighters are accused of committing, and its spokesmen continue to justify the rocket attacks that target Israeli civilians.

Israel says that it has begun internal inquiries. But Human Rights Watch's past research into IDF investigations and prosecutions regarding the wrongful deaths of Palestinian civilians found that Israeli investigative practices and procedures were not thorough, impartial, or timely. The IDF has declared that it used white phosphorous in Gaza in compliance with international humanitarian law, but Human Rights Watch's findings contradict this claim. On March 19, nine Israeli human rights organizations issued a statement strongly criticizing the Israeli government's failure to establish an independent and impartial investigative body to look at the conduct of IDF forces in Gaza.

"The US and EU have supported efforts to bring accountability and justice in other deadly conflicts, and should welcome the establishment of a credible international investigation into alleged violations in Gaza and southern Israel," Roth said. "Failure to do so will leave the impression of double standards and will harm American and European credibility when they insist on justice for serious crimes elsewhere."