Netanyahu rejects UN report, says Israel’s action in Gaza was self-defense

Nasser al-Shaer, former deputy prime minister of Hamas, was released from an Israeli prison yesterday. Nasser al-Shaer, former deputy prime minister of Hamas, was released from an Israeli prison yesterday. (Nasser Shiyoukhi/Associated Press)
By Mark Lavie
Associated Press / September 18, 2009

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JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel yesterday rejected the UN report alleging Israeli war crimes in its Gaza war this year, warning world leaders that they and their antiterror forces could be targets for similar charges.

Netanyahu said Israeli forces were exercising their right to self-defense after rocket attacks by Palestinian Hamas militants against southern Israeli towns before and since Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

“They tell us to pull out, and after we do, and we exercise our right to self defense, they call us war criminals? I don’t accept that,’’ Netanyahu told Israel TV, speaking on the occasion of the Jewish New Year holiday, which begins today.

The report of the UN commission, headed by Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa, faulted Israel for civilian deaths in Gaza, saying it used disproportionate force in the offensive. About 1,400 Palestinians were killed during the three-week conflict. Israel alleged that Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers were to blame, saying they placed rocket launchers and forces in crowded neighborhoods.

The report also called Hamas’s firing of rockets at Israeli civilians a war crime.

Netanyahu urged world leaders to support Israel’s right to self-defense and reject the report’s findings - including its conclusion that formal charges could be brought against Israeli soldiers, officers, and leaders.

“I’m going to tell world leaders, who also suffer from terrorism: It’s not only our problem,’’ Netanyahu said. “If they charge Israeli soldiers, officers, pilots, and even leaders - they will charge you, too.’’

Netanyahu said he would accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza if it were demilitarized, as a way of “avoiding the next Goldstone report’’ on an Israeli operation against Palestinian militants.

In Washington, P.J. Crowley, State Department spokesman, said he hoped the Goldstone report would not become an obstacle to renewing peace talks. He said the United States has “concerns about the content of the report’’ but would not elaborate.

Susan Rice, US ambassador to the United Nations, reiterated Washington’s concern about the UN team’s “unbalanced, one-sided, and unacceptable’’ mandate.

“Our view is that we need to be focused on the future. This is a time to work to cement progress towards the resumption of negotiations and their early and successful conclusion,,’’ she said.

President Obama’s Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu early today after extending his stay in the region by several days. Netanyahu said he discussed an “eight-point document of Israel’s security needs’’ with Mitchell, but he did not give details.

Netanyahu gave not indication that he will give in to the main US demand - a freeze on construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

“There is a slowdown in settlement construction, but not a freeze,’’ he told Channel 10 TV. “There are 2,400 units being built, and their construction will continue.’’

Mitchell is hoping to arrange a meeting between Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, next week in New York, during the session of the . UN General Assembly. Netanyahu said no meeting has been scheduled so far.

Abbas has said peace negotiations cannot resume until Israel halts all construction in the settlements, but Netanyahu said that issue should be settled in negotiations. “It is clear that the fate of settlements and borders and territory in Judea and Samaria will be determined,’’ he said, using the biblical term for the West Bank. “But it can’t be determined before we start.’’

Also yesterday, Nasser al-Shaer, a Hamas political leader in the West Bank, was released from an Israeli prison after six months. Shaer is among dozens of Hamas lawmakers Israel arrested as pressure to free an Israeli soldier held in Gaza for more than three years.