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Gaza War Crimes Probe: Israel 'Very Unlikely' To Cooperate

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JERUSALEM — Israel is unlikely to cooperate with a Gaza war crimes probe because it distrusts the U.N. agency sponsoring the investigation, an Israeli government official said Wednesday.

Gaza's Hamas rulers said they would work with investigators from the U.N. Human Rights Council which ordered the investigation in January, shortly after Israel's three-week military offensive in Gaza.

The Israeli government official said Israel sent its response concerning cooperation to the U.N. agency a week ago. He said Israel is "very unlikely" to cooperate. He spoke on condition of anonymity and said he could not elaborate because it's not clear whether the head of the investigation, Richard Goldstone has been briefed. Israel has long complained that the council is biased against Israel.

International and local human rights groups have said there is strong suspicion both sides violated the rules of war.

In New York, a leading human rights group on Tuesday urged both sides to cooperate with the investigation because it will be led by Goldstone, a widely respected South African judge and former chief U.N. prosecutor of war crimes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

The group, Human Rights Watch, noted that it has criticized the U.N. rights council in the past "for its exclusive focus on Israeli rights violations."

However, Goldstone has the "experience and proven commitment to ensure that this inquiry will demonstrate the highest standards of impartiality," the group wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and 27 European foreign ministers.

Human rights groups have said Hamas should be investigated for firing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians and for allegedly using Gaza civilians as human shields.

Investigators must also look at the Israeli military's practices, such as firing imprecise artillery and white phosphorous shells in densely populated Gaza, the groups have said.

Israel's likely refusal to work with Goldstone raises questions about whether he will be able to carry out his mission. Investigators have not yet said when they will visit the region, but without Israeli cooperation they would be denied access to crucial information from the military.

Goldstone, 70, is Jewish, has close ties to Israel and is known for his impartiality.

But Israeli diplomats said their opposition has nothing to do with who heads the investigation.

"(It's) not about Justice Goldstone," said Aharon Leshno Yaar, the Israeli ambassador to U.N. organizations in Geneva Tuesday. "It's clear to everybody who follows this council and the way that it treats Israel that justice cannot be the outcome of this mission."

Goldstone, who was given the task earlier this month, said he only accepted after the Nigerian president of the council broadened the assignment to include violations by Hamas as well as Israel.

Hamas has persistently denied it violated the laws of war. Israel says Hamas gunmen used schools, mosques and homes to store weapons and launch missiles, thus turning them into targets.

Yousef Rizka, an adviser to Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, said that the investigators "will find full cooperation of the Palestinian government and Palestinian people because the crimes of the occupation are clear and no one can underestimate them."

More than 1,400 Gazans were killed in the war, including more than 900 civilians, according to a Palestinian human rights group, which has published a list of war dead. Israel insists that the majority of those killed were armed men, but has not provided evidence.

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Additional reporting by Alexander Higgins in Geneva.

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