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By Laura MacInnis
GENEVA (Reuters) - Israeli and Palestinian leaders should launch investigations of alleged war crimes in Gaza to help rebuild trust and support peace, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Thursday.
At the opening of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting on the issue, Navi Pillay said all sides in the Middle East conflict were violating international law and voiced concern that transgressors were left unpunished.
"A culture of impunity continues to prevail in the occupied territories and in Israel," she told the 47-member body, calling for impartial and prompt investigations into reported violations.
In a session due to stretch into Friday, Geneva envoys met to consider a resolution that chastises Israel for failing to cooperate with a U.N.-ordered fact-finding mission into the December-January war in Gaza.
In the report circulated last month, the investigators led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone accused both Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas of war crimes in Gaza, but were overall more critical of Israel than Hamas.
Israel has rejected the charges in the report and says the Human Rights Council resolution -- drafted by the Palestinians with Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan and Tunisia, on behalf of non-aligned, African, Islamic and Arab nations -- threatens peace efforts.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday Israel would not be able to take "risks for peace" if it could not defend itself from attacks on its citizens.
"It's important for the principle countries, outside of this automatic majority of the United Nations, to say we are not taking part in this. We know we should act otherwise," he said.
Israel however came under pressure in a U.N. Security Council debate on Wednesday to fully investigate its allegations.
PRESSURE ON NETANYAHU
The text calls for the U.N. General Assembly to consider the Goldstone report and for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to review Israel's adherence to it. That would keep up pressure on Netanyahu who Washington is trying to convince to commit to a "two-state solution" that previous Israeli governments have signed up to.
The rights council agreed during its last regular session to postpone discussion on the Gaza report after Washington applied pressure aimed at getting the Middle East peace process back on track. But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas came under criticism for agreeing to the delay, leading to the request for a special session on the topic.
The resolution would be difficult for Israel's allies to endorse.
It "strongly condemns all policies and measures taken by Israel, the occupying power, including those limiting access of Palestinians to their properties and holy sites" and calls on Israel to stop digging and excavation work around the Al Aqsa Mosque as well as other Christian and Islamic holy sites.
In her speech, Pillay cited concern about the restrictions on Palestinians wishing to enter Al Aqsa and expressed "dismay" about the Israeli blockade of Gaza that she said "severely undermines the rights and welfare of the population there."
Washington joined the rights council earlier this year, vowing to change the U.N. body that the United States and Israel have criticised as anti-Israeli.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay)

Reuters