Israel under pressure as UN reviews war in Gaza

President and prime minister lobby to prevent vote of censure that could lead to charges in the International Criminal Court.

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TEL AVIV // Israel is stepping up its diplomatic battle against the UN report accusing it of war crimes during its winter onslaught in the Gaza Strip before today's special meeting of the UN's Human Rights Council.

The Geneva-based council is holding an extraordinary session on the situation in the Palestinian territories, and is likely to focus on the report that has censured Israel over its war conduct in Gaza. The council may also criticise Israel during the meeting for its crippling blockade on Gaza as well as discuss the recent clashes at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque, according to a report yesterday in Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper.

But the 575-page report on the Gaza assault will undoubtedly take centre stage. The council, whose debate is expected to continue tomorrow, could vote to refer the findings to higher UN bodies as a first step that could lead to a war crimes prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. The report, written by a UN team headed by Richard Goldstone, a South African judge, recommended last month that the UN Security Council forward its allegations to the ICC if Israel fails to carry out its own credible probe within six months. While the document was more critical of Israel, it also made similar charges against Hamas, the Islamist group ruling Gaza.

The Human Rights Council's debate comes one day after the UN Security Council took up the report as part of a monthly discussion on the Middle East that had been brought forward from next week following pressure from Libya, the council's only Arab member. In a bid to thwart the allegations, top Israeli officials, including the country's prime minister, defence minister, foreign minister and president, have embarked on a campaign to convince western heads of state not to support the charges.

Ehud Barak, the defence minister, pressed senior diplomats including the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Spain and Norway in the past few days to reject the document's conclusions. Mr Barak, according to his spokesman, lambasted the report as "false, twisted, biased and supporting terror", and added: "Democratic nations must understand that accepting the report will severely impair their ability to fight terror."

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has warned that adopting the report would hinder the resumption of the Middle East peace process. He said during a fiery speech at the opening of the parliament's winter session on Monday that "Israel will not take risks of any kind for peace if it cannot defend itself". In the speech, he also vowed that he would never allow any of Israel's leaders or soldiers to be put on trial for war crimes.

But even as Israel turns its most powerful diplomatic guns against the report, analysts say the country's leadership is using the document to shift international attention away from another burning issue: pressure on the country to curtail settlement activity. Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said Mr Netanyahu "could not have asked for something better than the Goldstone report".

He added: "Netanyahu is a virtuoso at using diversions to avoid difficult and politically costly decisions. He is using the campaign against the report to divert attention away from his resistance to US and European pressure to freeze or remove settlements." Indeed, Israel's bid to bury the report coincides with vigorous efforts, especially by the administration of Barack Obama, the US president, to renew stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks. But those efforts are being hampered by Israel's refusal to an outright halt to settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, which is a key Palestinian demand for returning to the negotiating table.

Mr Ezrahi, referring to the opposition of Mr Netanyahu's mostly right-wing, pro-settler governing coalition partners to a settlement freeze and to the creation of a Palestinian state, said: "Netanyahu is only partly concerned by the report. His major worry is his political survival." The Israeli premier is sparing no diplomatic resources to fight the document, whose discussion today by the 47-member council was prompted by a Palestinian request.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority, two weeks ago bowed to US and Israeli pressure to delay action on the report until March, but this week announced a reversal of his initial decision following condemnation and protests at home. His request to reopen the debate was co-sponsored by 18 countries. The report had accused Israel of allegedly targeting civilians, intentionally destroying infrastructure and violating international law by using civilians as human shields.