(New York) - The United Nations Security Council should demand justice for the civilian victims on both sides of the Gaza war, Human Rights Watch said today.  Breaking the climate of impunity in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a precondition for stability and lasting peace. The Security Council will meet on October 14, 2009, to discuss the Middle East.

The Security Council should implement a key recommendation of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Gaza, led by Justice Richard Goldstone, and create an independent committee of experts to monitor how Israel and Hamas conduct domestic investigations of alleged laws-of-war violations, Human Rights Watch said.

"The Security Council has a historic opportunity to uphold the principle of civilian protection and promote regional peace," said Steve Crawshaw, UN advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.  "As it has in other conflicts, the council should demand that the parties to the conflict punish those responsible for serious abuses."

The Goldstone report was presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 29.  It documents war crimes and possible crimes against humanity by both Israel and Hamas, and notes their poor records of accountability for such crimes. 

Under intense pressure from Israel and the United States, the Palestinian Authority withdrew its resolution on the report until the next Human Rights Council session in March 2010, although it may request a special session in Geneva this month to address the report. The deferral sparked protests against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza and the West Bank, and widespread condemnation in the Arab media of the Palestinian Authority and United States.

"The US missed an opportunity in Geneva to support justice for the civilian victims in Gaza and Israel," Crawshaw said.  "Now Washington has a second chance to show that it will demand accountability for serious crimes in Gaza the same way it has elsewhere."

Israel and the US have said that implementing the recommendations of the Goldstone report would undermine efforts at peace.  But punishing forces that attack civilians will build trust and improve confidence in the peace process, Human Rights Watch said.

"President Obama should use the weight and authority of his Nobel Peace Prize to put the peace process on the right track - and that is by demanding justice for serious crimes by all sides in the Gaza war," Crawshaw said.

Mandated to look at violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by Israel and Palestinian armed groups, the 575-page Goldstone report documents Israel's willful killings of civilians, deliberate attacks on civilian objects, wanton destruction of civilian property, indiscriminate attacks, the use of human shields, and collective punishment against Gaza's civilian population in the form of a continuing blockade.  Mortar and rocket fire from Gaza by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups, the report says, was deliberate and calculated to cause loss of civilian life and to terrorize Israeli civilians.

Thus far, Israel has convicted only one soldier for abuses during the Gaza war, and that was for the theft of a credit card. Between 2000 and 2008, Israeli forces killed more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the West Bank, but convicted only five soldiers for wrongful deaths. Hamas is not known to have investigated any of the thousands of rocket attacks launched from Gaza against Israeli civilians before, during and after the Gaza war. 

The Goldstone report recommends that Israel and the Hamas authorities conduct credible investigations into violations by their respective forces within six months, and that the UN Security Council create a group of independent experts to monitor and report on the steps they take.  If credible domestic investigations are not undertaken after six months, the report says the Security Council should refer the conflict to the International Criminal Court.

"Israel and Hamas can avoid international prosecutions by conducting credible domestic investigations," Crawshaw said.  "This will not harm the peace process but build trust and improve prospects for peace. The Security Council should send that message as clearly as it can."