UNITED NATIONS - Cautious, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dropped a hot potato and avoided making a judgment on possible war crimes committed in Gaza. He said it was too soon to determine whether investigations by Israel and the Palestinians were credible.
His long-awaited 72-page report is a response to a resolution by the 192-member UN General Assembly, which called for Israelis and Palestinians to hold probes following an inquiry by Judge Richard Goldstone on Israel's offensive in Gaza that cost up to 1,400 Palestinian lives.
Thirteen Israelis were killed during the three-week battle that began on Dec. 24, 2008 when rocket attacks by the militant group Hamas prompted the Israeli attack.
In the main, the report includes responses from Israel, the Palestinian Authority (which does not control Gaza) and Switzerland as a guardian of the Geneva Conventions that set standards for treatment of war victims. (The Swiss said they had not determined whether parties to the convention should meet).
Noting that Israel had followed up on allegations in the Goldstone report, Ban said its probe was "ongoing" and that the Palestinians just began their investigation:
"As such, no determination can be made on the implementation of the resolution by the parties concerned."
In response, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said, in a statement: "Israel is satisfied with the fact that the UN secretary general showed faith in the Israeli document submitted this week."
But it is doubtful Ban's report will have much impact on the controversy, which seemed to be his objective, and the General Assembly will meet soon. His spokesman Martin Nesirky said the secretary general did what he was asked and could not say more until the probes were completed.
For many Arabs and visceral anti-Zionists, the Goldstone report in September was a "gotcha moment" -- Palestinians good, Israelis bad. For many friends of Israel, the Jewish state was under siege and can do no wrong. Goldstone, a highly respected South African jurist whose history of investigating war crimes around the world is legion, is vilified beyond recognition. But opinions diverge in Israel itself, with a lively discussion in the press and in seminars.
The 575-page Goldstone report said both Israel and Palestinian militants engaged in actions that amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It condemned rocket attacks by Hamas, but reserved its sharpest criticism of Israel's treatment of the population, saying it was deliberate and disproportionate and destroyed its economic ability to support itself. The report analyzed 36 cases, and said in all but one there was no justifiable military objective. The Palestinians, it said, fired rockets that were aimed at Israeli civilians or risked hitting civilians and caused widespread trauma, a war crime.
Goldstone recommended both sides initiate credible investigations within six months. Otherwise he suggested, the war crimes issue be referred to the UN Security Council which could pass it on to the International Criminal Court (which in reality the Council won't do).
The government of Benjamin Netanyahu had refused to cooperate with the Goldstone commission during its research and castigated the report and its author. But the report grew diplomatic legs and Israel delivered a detailed response, examining 150 allegations of wrongdoing during the war, and saying that 36 will be subject to criminal investigation.
Rejecting allegations of war crimes, the Israeli report explained how the army could investigate itself and still do a credible job. It said the IDF's advocate general is institutionally independent of the military chain of command and is ultimately answerable to the country's highly esteemed Supreme Court.
In fact, that is the main contribution in Ban's report and makes for interesting reading.
The Palestinian Authority's submission is shorter. It just appointed a five member commission, chaired by Judge Issa Abu Sharar, a former Jordanian pubic prosecutor and high court judge, and includes eminent Palestinian professors and jurists. The commission held its meeting on January 28.
In Israel itself, the government's role in Gaza has vocal critics, including soldiers involved in the operation, some of whom say Israeli forces killed Palestinian civilians under permissive rules of engagement. Others want an inquiry made up of respected civilian jurists, although the report submitted to the United Nations makes clear that will not be the case and most Israelis probably agree.
And whatever resolution the UN General Assembly adopts, it will be non-binding, with the UN opposing it and Europeans most likely abstaining. The Security Council, whose resolutions carry more weight, is not likely to touch the issue and so far the Swiss have not but may do so.
"Our main recommendation is to urge both sides to look at themselves. To have a criminal investigation and to prosecute and punish the people responsible," Goldstone said in an interview. "It's been my experience, and in the countries in which I've been involved -- and many in which I haven't been involved -- that in the aftermath of serious human rights violations, you cannot get enduring peace if you leave rancor. What victims need is acknowledgement."