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UN-Appointed Judge Withdraws Verdict Accusing Israel Of War Crimes

Richard Goldstone: "If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone report would have been a different document."
The judge who accused Israel of war crimes and of deliberately targeting civilians in its 2008 invasion of Gaza has admitted that the findings of his United Nations-backed inquiry may have been wrong.

Writing in "The Washington Post," Richard Goldstone says his mission, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, did not have all the facts when it produced its findings.

"If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone report would have been a different document," he writes.

The retraction has been widely welcomed in Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing to try to get the report retracted by the UN. Goldstone, who is Jewish, has previously been condemned by Israeli politicians and commentators, some of whom accused him of producing an "anti-Semitic report."

His report into the December 2008 assault on Gaza concluded that both Israel and Hamas, the Islamist organization that runs the Palestinian territory, were guilty of potential war crimes and accused both sides of intentionally trying to kill civilians.

More than 1,400 Palestinians -- at least half of them civilians -- and 13 Israelis -- including three civilians -- were killed during the three-week Operation Cast Lead campaign, which Israel said it launched in response to the firing of rockets from Gaza at Israeli towns.

Now Goldstone says only Hamas intentionally targeted civilians and that Israel had no such policy. He cites Israeli military investigations suggesting that any deliberate acts of killing of civilians that took place may have been the work of "individual soldiers."

"The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion," he adds. "I regret that our fact-finding mission did not have such evidence explaining the circumstances in which we said civilians in Gaza were targeted, because it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes."

Palestinians help a wounded woman in Gaza City following an Israeli air strike on December 28, 2008.

Goldstone, a retired justice of South Africa's Constitutional Court, attributes some of the report's flaws on Israel's refusal to cooperate with his inquiry.

His reversal was greeted with disappointment by Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi, who said Goldstone had succumbed to Israeli pressure.

But Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman of the Israeli human rights group Betselem, welcomed Goldstone's about-face.

"We welcome the retraction of a couple of points that [Betselem] criticized in the original Goldstone report -- the issue of intentionality, the claim that Israel intentionally targeted the civilian population of Gaza, and the easy attitude that we identified on Hamas in comparison to Israel," Michaeli says. "The fact that Goldstone now corrects these mistakes is an important and positive development."

However, she took issue with Goldstone's endorsement of around 400 internal investigations into alleged abuses conducted by the Israeli military.

"Some of these cases were investigated," she says. "We disagree with Judge Goldstone's current position that these investigations were appropriate and that the investigative process has been appropriate. We have very severe criticism of the way Israel chose to investigate Cast Lead, the internal military debriefings, field investigations, and the process that involved the Israeli military police investigations. We are not satisfied with the quality of these investigations and with the fact that they have mostly not been concluded."

Writing in Britain's "Guardian" newspaper, Israeli journalist Aluf Benn credits Goldstone with moderating Israel's behavior toward Gaza.

"It's doubtful whether the Israeli inquiries, few of which have led to indictments and convictions, would have been carried out without his report and its threat of referral to The Hague [war crimes tribunal]," Benn writes. "Moreover, the fear of another incriminating report serves as a powerful deterrent against a sequel. Israel has changed its behavior in Gaza, favoring pinpoint strikes in response to rockets and mortar bombs."

written by Robert Tait, with agency reports

The smoke trail of a Palestinian rocket launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel on December 29, 2008.
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