JERUSALEM: Israel demanded on Sunday that the United Nations bin a report critical of its deadly 2008-2009 offensive on Gaza after the author said he had been wrong to say it had targeted civilians.
South African judge Richard Goldstone had faced down enormous criticism in Israel at the time over the report which accused both Israel and the Hamas rulers of Gaza of potential war crimes during the 22-day conflict.
But in a surprise about-turn on Saturday, he said that information he had received since indicated that Israel had not deliberately targeted civilians during the campaign, a key charge of the report.
He said his assessment had also been changed by the fact that whereas Israel had thoroughly investigated the concerns raised by his panel, Hamas had not.
"If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document," he wrote in a commentary piece in the Washington Post.
The report’s findings had set the tone for widespread international condemnation of the Israeli assault on Hamas-ruled Gaza in which more than 1,400 people lost their lives, the vast majority of them Palestinians.
Israeli officials said the United Nations now needed to set the record straight.
"This is an extremely important development and right now we are multiplying our efforts to get this report rescinded," Defense Minister Ehud Barak told army radio on Sunday.
"I am going to give the issue my personal commitment," Barak said, adding that he deeply regretted the "harm already done."
Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would set up a team of legal experts and diplomats to find concrete ways "to turn the clock back and try to lessen the enormous damage of this train of vilification against the state of Israel."
"Goldstone himself has just confirmed what we all knew all along… I think our soldiers and army behaved according to the highest international standards," the premier said during a brief televised address on Saturday.
In his opinion piece in the Post, Goldstone said he now concurred with Netanyahu that the council had a "history of bias against Israel".
A UN committee of independent experts that followed up on the Goldstone Report’s recommendations found that Israel "has dedicated significant resources to investigate over 400 allegations of operational misconduct in Gaza".
In contrast, Hamas leaders "have not conducted any investigations" into the rocket and mortar attacks against Israel that were its grounds for going to war.
In Gaza, Hamas said it was "surprised" by Goldstone’s comments and said he did not now have the right to come and change the findings.
"It is not Goldstone’s private property, as a team of international judges as well as Goldstone participated in developing it — apart from the fact that it relies on a number of documents and eyewitness testimony which increases the report’s strength and credibility."
The statement from spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri did not respond to Goldstone’s assertion that Hamas had not investigated charges leveled against it in the report of deliberately targeting civilians with rocket fire.
Goldstone said allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the death and wounding of civilians in situations where his fact-finding mission could not reach "any other reasonable conclusion."
He said that while some incidents were validated in cases involving individual soldiers, Israeli investigations found that "civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy."
Goldstone recalled one of the most serious incidents his team investigated — without Israel’s cooperation due to its allegations that the investigators were biased — when Israeli shelling of a Gaza home killed 29 members of the Al-Samouni family.
He noted that Israel’s investigation into the attack found it was apparently due to a commander’s misinterpretation of a drone image and that an officer was under investigation for having ordered the shelling.
"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," Goldstone wrote.