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The Mideast

Israel Defends Actions in Gaza in U.N. Report

Israel submitted its response Friday to a U.N. report that accused it of deliberately targeting civilians during last year's Gaza offensive, but an Israeli spokesman sidestepped a key U.N. demand for an independent commission to investigate war crimes allegations.

U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said Israel's 46-page document had been received at U.N. headquarters and will be considered in a report by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the General Assembly in early February. The text of the letter was not publicly released.

"The secretary-general is working on his own response," Haq said.

The document, later released by Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was Israel's official response to a U.N. investigative report published in September. That report, which had been requested by the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council, was put together by an expert panel headed by respected South African jurist Richard Goldstone. The 575-page document released by a fact-finding mission accused both Israel and Palestinian militants of committing war crimes during last winter's Gaza fighting.

"Israel is committed to ensuring that every such incident is fully and fairly investigated, to ensure that lessons can be learned and that, if justified, criminal or disciplinary proceedings initiated," the Israeli government said in a document titled "Gaza Operation Investigations: An Update."

Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. observer, said Friday that the Palestinian leadership also provided Ban's chief of staff with its response to the investigation, including a preliminary report by a Palestinian commission established just days ago.

"There is no symmetry between the occupying power, Israel, and their criminal actions, including war crimes against our people, and any acts that may have been committed by the Palestinian side, those who live under occupation," Mansour said.

In November, the 192-nation General Assembly endorsed the report, urged Israel and the Palestinians to investigate alleged war crimes in Gaza, and raised the possibility of Security Council action if they don't. The assembly approved an Arab-drafted resolution insisting there must be some accountability, especially from Israel, for alleged violations of international law during the Gaza conflict in which 13 Israelis and almost 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including many civilians.

Action by the Security Council, where the U.S. has veto power, is considered unlikely.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at a tree-planting ceremony for the Jewish arbor day in southern Israel that Israel's letter "emphasizes again the fact that the Israeli military acts responsibly, ethically, morally and precisely even under the most impossible conditions."

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the letter defends Israel's investigations of last year's Gaza war, but does not address the international body's key demand, the creation of an independent commission of inquiry.

"Our response includes a description of the Israeli legal system, the fact that it is responsible and independent and acts in accordance with international law, how it operates and why it can be trusted," he said.

The decision to establish a commission of inquiry must be made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said.

Israel's government has long rejected such a move, which is seen in Jerusalem as justifying allegations many Israelis see as unfair. But there have been increasing calls inside Israel for an independent inquiry, even if just to prove that the allegations made in the Goldstone report are false.

Israel's outgoing attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, said in a farewell interview Friday that Israel must establish such a commission. If it does not, he said, the Goldstone allegations "will pursue us and continue to pursue us and undermine our legitimacy."

"It would be a serious error not to establish a commission of some kind," he told the Haaretz daily.

Israel's military says it has investigated about 150 incidents that took place during the fighting. Twenty-nine investigations are ongoing, the military said, and one soldier has been convicted of misconduct.

Human rights groups say the investigations are inadequate and that the military cannot be trusted to investigate itself.

Israel has said the military operation against Gaza was launched in self-defense to protect civilians in southern Israel from rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza, which is under the control of the militant Islamic Hamas group. Israel says its forces did everything it could to limit civilian casualties.

Earlier this week, Gaza's Hamas rulers rebuffed the U.N. call to convene an independent investigation of its rocket fire into Israel.

Hamas leaders said they did not target civilians while firing hundreds of rockets at Israeli towns, arguing that the rockets fired from Gaza were meant to hit military targets, but because they are unguided, they hit civilians by mistake.