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UN: Support Goldstone Investigation into Gaza War Violations

UN Board of Inquiry Recommends Impartial and Comprehensive Investigation

(New York) - United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should call on Israel and the Hamas authorities to cooperate with the investigation led by Justice Richard Goldstone into serious laws of war violations by both sides during recent fighting in Gaza, Human Rights Watch said today. A UN Board of Inquiry, in its report to the secretary-general, said its own probe into attacks on UN installations in Gaza should be supplemented by a more comprehensive international investigation, but Ban has said he would not press for a broader inquiry.

The UN Board of Inquiry mandate was limited to incidents involving attacks on UN installations and personnel during Israel's major military operation in Gaza from December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009. The Board of Inquiry found the IDF responsible for casualties and damages in seven of the nine incidents it investigated; in one incident it determined that the most serious damage was caused by a Palestinian rocket most likely fired by Hamas, and in another incident it said it was unable to reach a conclusion as to which party was responsible. The separate Independent Fact-Finding Mission headed by Goldstone was established by the UN Human Rights Council. Goldstone has said that the inquiry will investigate alleged violations of the laws of war by both sides during the Gaza fighting.

"The Board of Inquiry has produced an excellent report with solid recommendations. As a next step, the secretary-general should endorse the UN fact-finding mission already established under Richard Goldstone to look into broader issues," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "The failure of both Israel and Hamas to investigate themselves, along with the Board's conclusions and Human Rights Watch's findings inside Gaza, all show the need for such an impartial and comprehensive investigation."

The UN Board of Inquiry said that several incidents it investigated, including deaths and injuries occurring near the United Nations Relief and Works Agency's (UNRWA) Jabalia and Beit Lahiya schools, and the UNRWA headquarters and nearby Gaza Training Center, "required further examination in relation to the rules and principles of international humanitarian law." The report referred to the deaths of many other civilians during the Gaza fighting, and recommended "an impartial inquiry mandated, and adequately resourced, to investigate allegations of violations of international humanitarian law" by both Israel and Palestinian armed groups.

Ban, in making public a summary of the Board's report, said that despite this recommendation "which relate[s] to matters that largely did not fall within the Board's Terms of Reference, I do not plan any further inquiry." Ban did not mention the Goldstone fact-finding mission established by the UN Human Rights Council. Justice Goldstone is a former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Israel barred media from Gaza during the major military operations from December 27 to January 18, and has continued to deny entry to Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups. In a statement issued before Ban's press conference, the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry dismissed the UN Board of Inquiry's report, saying that it was "tendentious, patently biased, and ignore[d] the facts presented" in favor of "the claims of Hamas, a murderous terror organization."

On April 22, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) released the results of its internal investigations into its behavior during the recent fighting, concluding that it "operated in accordance with international law" throughout the fighting and that "a very small number" of "unavoidable" incidents occurred due to "intelligence or operational errors."

That finding contradicted Human Rights Watch's research into the fighting in Gaza, which concluded that both Israeli and Palestinian forces were responsible for serious violations of the laws of war. For example, the IDF used heavy artillery and white phosphorus munitions in densely populated areas and apparently targeted people trying to convey their civilian status, Human Rights Watch said in a 71-page report. In particular, Human Rights Watch conducted field research into some of the same attacks covered by the Board of Inquiry, such as Israel's use of white phosphorus against the UNRWA's headquarters and a UN school in Beit Lahiya, disproving IDF assertions that "no phosphorus munitions were used on built-up areas."

"The IDF's investigation was an effort to whitewash Israeli violations of the laws of war," Whitson said. "It is regrettable that Secretary-General Ban did not speak out clearly today about the need for an impartial international investigation that can provide a measure of redress for civilians killed unlawfully."

Palestinian fighters also committed serious violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said. Immediately prior to the Israeli military operations that began on December 27, throughout the fighting, and in the period 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.

"The report of the Board of Inquiry makes a strong case for an independent investigation into laws of war violations more broadly, not just those involving UN installations," said Whitson. "The secretary-general should immediately signal his full support for the fact-finding mission headed by Justice Goldstone."

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