By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Israel came under pressure from its Western allies on Wednesday to launch credible investigations into U.N. allegations of possible war crimes by its army during the war in the Gaza Strip.
The United States, Britain and France all said the Jewish state should look into findings published last month by a U.N. mission led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone.
Goldstone accused Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas of war crimes during the December-January war in Gaza. Both Israel and Hamas rejected the charges in his report, which is more critical of Israel than Hamas.
At a U.N. Security Council debate on the Middle East that was not expected to take action, Israel's U.N. ambassador, Gabriela Shalev, dismissed the report as a waste of the council's time, saying the 575-page document "favors and legitimizes terrorism."
Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Alejandro Wolff said Washington had serious concerns about the report, including what he said was its "unbalanced focus on Israel." But he repeated the U.S. view that Israel should look into it.
"We take the allegations in the report seriously," he told the council. "Israel has the institutions and the ability to carry out serious investigations of these allegations and we encourage it to do so."
Wolff said Hamas was a "terrorist organisation" that was neither willing nor able to investigate its own behaviour. Hamas -- the de facto ruler of Gaza -- does not recognise Israel's right to exist.
Goldstone's report called for the Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court in The Hague if the Israelis or the Palestinians fail to take up the issue.
Discussion of the report during the council's monthly Middle East debate was a compromise the United States reluctantly accepted. Washington had opposed discussing it in New York, saying it was a matter for the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council, or HRC, which commissioned the report.
'SOUND AND FURY'
The rights council will discuss the report again on Thursday. Washington joined the HRC earlier this year, vowing to change from within a U.N. body that Washington and Israel have criticized as anti-Israeli.
British Ambassador John Sawers called on Israel to launch proper investigations into the charges outlined in the report.
"We note that the Israeli Defence Force has already conducted and is continuing to conduct a number of investigations," Sawers said. "However, concerns remain."
"We urge the Israeli government to carry out full, credible and impartial investigations into the allegations," he added.
French Ambassador Gerard Araud urged both sides to initiate "independent inquiries in line with international standards."
U.N. Undersecretary-General Lynn Pascoe told the council that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also wanted "credible domestic investigations" based on the Goldstone report.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki said the Palestinian Authority took allegations of wrongdoing by Hamas militants seriously.
But Malki said the Palestinians "reject any equating of the occupying power's aggression and crimes with actions committed in response by the Palestinian side." He added that his government supported "domestic investigations."
Malki's West Bank-based government has tense relations with Hamas, which seized power in June 2007 in the Gaza Strip from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party. Fatah has little influence over Hamas in Gaza.
Israel, which has said the Goldstone commission's mandate was biased and refused to cooperate with it, said there was no point discussing the report in the Security Council.
"By trying to bring this report before a so-called urgent debate in this council, this council's attention was diverted from the reality in our region," Shalev said.
Quoting Shakespeare's "Macbeth," Shalev said such a debate was "a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Speaking to reporters after addressing the 15-nation council, Shalev went further. "We cannot resume the peace process as long as this (report) is on the table," she said, echoing comments by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)