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By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Hoping to defuse a U.N. report fiercely critical of its war in Gaza, Israel plans to review the internal inquiries that cleared its armed forces of serious wrongdoing, a political source said Sunday.
Israel has been under pressure to set up an independent investigation into war-crimes allegations raised by the fact-finding mission under South African jurist Richard Goldstone.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak "hope this move will put the issue to rest," the source, a government aide speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
Israel bombarded and invaded the Gaza Strip last December in what it said was a response to rocket fire by Palestinian Hamas. It refused to cooperate with Goldstone, citing bias concerns.
The Goldstone report lambasted both sides in the war, which killed up to 1,387 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, but was harsher towards Israel. It gave both sides six months to mount credible investigations or face possible prosecution at The Hague.
Goldstone has said he would have confidence in an independent Israeli investigation. Such panels have, in the past, prompted high-level political resignations and reshuffles.
But the political source said Netanyahu and Barak did not want to pre-empt a series of internal military investigations that supported the army's tactics. The handful of courts-martial since the war have been on minor charges such as looting.
"The idea is to set up a team to double-check the findings, to ensure there was no whitewash or lack of professionalism," the source said, adding that Netanyahu's and Barak's initiative awaited cabinet approval next week.
Asked why the government resisted the idea of an independent investigation, the source said: "Netanyahu is afraid of having his hands tied if further action is required in Gaza."
A Netanyahu spokesman declined comment. Barak's office did not immediately confirm the review initiative, but made clear it considered Israel's Gaza veterans off limit to further probes.
"Defence Minister Ehud Barak reiterates and clarifies that no investigative commission will be set up ... that will investigate an Israel Defence Force soldier or officer," it said in a statement.
"The State of Israel intends to struggle against the legitimacy of the Goldstone report. In addition, Israel will take action so that the laws of war are amended to bring them into line with the struggle against terrorists who operate among civilians."
Israel has lobbied against any bid to bring the Goldstone report to the U.N. Security Council. Netanyahu said such a move would be an assault on Israel's right to self-defence and would hurt U.S.-led efforts to revive peacemaking with the Palestinians.
Hamas, an Islamist group that refuses permanent coexistence with the Jewish state, has said it would form a committee to investigate the allegations in the Goldstone report.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Michael Roddy)

Reuters