Justice experts seek Israel-Gaza war crimes inquiry

LONDON, March 16 (Reuters) - A group of leading judges and investigators called on Monday for a "prompt, independent and impartial" investigation into allegations of war crimes committed during Israel's conflict in Gaza earlier this year.

In a letter to the secretary general of the United Nations, the 16 signatories, including Richard Goldstone, a former chief prosecutor for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said both sides in the conflict had allegations to answer for and needed to be held to account.

"Allegations of serious violations of the laws of war have emerged throughout the latest Gaza conflict, relating to conduct and actions by both the Israeli military and by the Palestinian armed groups," the letter says.

"Without setting the record straight in a credible and impartial manner, it will be difficult for those communities that have borne the heavy cost of violence to move beyond the terrible aftermath of conflict.

"A prompt, independent and impartial investigation would provide a public record of gross violations of international humanitarian law committed and provide recommendations on how those responsible for crimes should be held to account."

Israel launched a three-week offensive in Gaza on Dec. 27, 2008, saying the land, sea and aerial attack was designed to put a stop to the firing of rockets across the border into southern Israel by militant groups, including Hamas.

A Palestinian human rights group said last week its own investigation had shown that 1,434 Gazans were killed during the conflict, including 960 civilians, 239 police officers and 235 fighters. Among the civilians were 288 children and 121 women.

In response to those findings, an Israeli military spokesman said the army had "made every effort to minimise harm to the civilian population". Thirteen Israelis were killed during the war, including 3 hit by rockets fired into Israel.

In their letter, Goldstone and others said they were "shocked to the core" by the events in Gaza and said an independent investigation was needed to adhere to the laws enshrined in the Geneva Conventions on conflict.

"The world must vigilantly demand respect for these standards and investigate and condemn their violations," said the letter, distributed by rights group Amnesty International.

It said the commission of enquiry should be established by the United Nations, but not be limited to investigating attacks on U.N. facilities and have the "greatest possible" expertise. (Reporting by Luke Baker; Editing by Janet Lawrence)