GENEVA – Palestinian diplomats said Friday they will ensure a United Nations report on war crimes in Gaza "remains alive," despite agreeing to delay a vote in the U.N. Human Rights Council on passing the document to the General Assembly for further action.
The investigation, led by former South African Judge Richard Goldstone, concluded in a 575-page report that both Israeli forces and Palestinian militants committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during their Dec. 27-Jan. 18 conflict in Gaza.
The 47-nation rights council had been expected to pass a resolution this week that could have brought Israeli officials one step closer to prosecution at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It decided instead to delay a decision until March, after what officials described as "intense diplomacy" from the United States.
Palestinian deputy ambassador Imad Zuhairi said Friday that the deferral was a result of his government's desire to build broad international support for action next year. "This is not a victory for Israel," Zuhairi told The Associated Press. "The report is there and we will ensure that the report remains alive."
Washington and its close ally Israel have rejected the U.N. document as biased.
Senior U.S. and Palestinian officials in Washington and Ramallah, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the Palestinian decision came after heavy U.S. pressure and a warning that going ahead with the resolution would harm the Middle East peace process.
Palestinian officials said the leadership in Ramallah was bitterly divided over the issue.
The report recommended that the U.N. Security Council in New York require both sides to show they are carrying out credible investigations into alleged abuses during the three-week conflict — in which almost 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
The resolution that was under consideration late Thursday would have only taken the report to the less powerful General Assembly.
Goldstone and his team examined 36 incidents and interviewed dozens of Palestinian and Israeli witnesses in Gaza and Geneva to compile the report.
The incidents include one case in which Israeli forces allegedly shelled a house where soldiers had forced Palestinian civilians to assemble, and seven in which civilians were shot while leaving their homes trying to run for safety.
On the Palestinian side, the report found that armed groups firing rockets into southern Israel from Gaza failed to distinguish between military targets and civilians, and several allegations that Palestinians were held as human shields by militants.
Taher Nunu, a spokesman for Hamas, the group controlling the Gaza Strip, criticized the U.N. delay.
"We warn the United Nations that ignoring this report and not taking any actions based on it will pave the way for a new war in the region with international cover," Nunu said in a statement Friday. "The occupation forces will commit even more terrible crimes."
Hamas remains in a power struggle with the rival Fatah group, and is not represented at the Geneva-based rights council.
Rights groups, too, expressed concern about the consequences of the deferral.
"The United States won Israel a reprieve on the Goldstone report, so now it must ensure that Israel genuinely investigates allegations of abuse," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch.
"If this doesn't happen by March, then the U.S. should endorse the Goldstone report's call for international mechanisms of accountability."
In the West Bank, Al Haq, a prominent Palestinian human rights group, said it was disappointed by the deferral.
"We did not expect that the Palestinian Authority itself would go against justice, and not uphold the universal application of international human rights law for its own people," said Shawan Jabareen, the head of Al Haq, which is affiliated with the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva.
Jabareen said human rights groups met earlier this week with the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and were assured by him that the Palestinians would continue to seek a war crimes investigation.