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U.N. war crimes inquiry hopes to visit Gaza early June

GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations human rights investigators said on Wednesday they hoped to visit Gaza and southern Israel in early June and hold public hearings on whether war crimes were committed in the recent conflict.

Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist who heads the four-member team, said Israel has not yet officially responded to its request to enter the country for the investigation into its invasion of Gaza in late December.

But the team was prepared to enter the coastal strip via the Rafah crossing in Egypt, a “second choice,” Goldstone said.

“We are intent on doing our fact-finding mission, taking account of all relevant factors and allegations by all parties,” said the former chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor for Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

“We have to complete our field work by the end of June.”

According to a Palestinian rights group, 1,417 people including 926 civilians were killed during Israel’s December 27-January 18 offensive in the Hamas-ruled territory of 1.5 million people.

Israel lost 10 soldiers and 3 civilians in the offensive, which it launched with the declared aim of halting cross-border rocket fire by militants. It says 1,166 Palestinians were killed, 295 of them civilians.

International human rights groups have called for a credible independent investigation into the conduct of Israeli troops in Gaza, including the destruction of several Gazan residential areas and firing artillery shells containing white phosphorous which can cause severe burns.

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Israel says an internal probe by its armed forces last month found no evidence of serious misconduct by troops.

PUBLIC HEARINGS

“One decision we have taken is we will have a number of days of public hearings. If we can in the region, so much the better, and if necessary we will have them in Geneva,” Goldstone said.

It would be the first time that a U.N. human rights inquiry takes the form of public hearings, where alleged victims testify openly, a U.N. spokeswoman said. It was modeled on national inquiries conducted in post-apartheid South Africa, she added.

Goldstone, a former judge in both South Africa’s Supreme Court and Constitutional Court, led a commission of inquiry into political violence and police hit squad activities in the early 1990s in his homeland.

The U.N. team will also probe allegations that Hamas fighters fired rockets at civilian targets in southern Israel.

“It would have been our wish to start there, to visit southern Israel and Sderot, to go through Gaza through the front door, to go into the West Bank which is also included in our mission,” Goldstone said.

He was speaking after the team held talks with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in Geneva.

Pillay, a former judge at the International Criminal Court, has raised specific concerns about the Israeli shelling of a home that killed 30 Palestinian civilians, and a lack of care for young, starving children whose mothers died in the attack.

She also denounced Israel’s shelling of a U.N. school compound which killed 42 people, including women and children. Israel says the area near the compound was being used by militants to fire rockets.

Richard Falk, the U.N. human rights investigator for the Palestinian territories, said in a March report that launching attacks without the ability to distinguish between military targets and surrounding civilians “would seem to constitute a war crime of the greatest magnitude under international law.”

Falk, an American international law expert who like Goldstone is Jewish, was detained and turned back from Israel when he tried to conduct a separate mission last December.

Goldstone said he had made a direct approach to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be able to enter Israel but had received no official response. He said he was aware of media reports last month that Israel did not plan to cooperate.

The other members of the inquiry, which is due to report back by August 4, are Pakistani human rights lawyer Hina Jilani, British international law professor Christine Chinkin, and retired Irish colonel Desmond Travers.

Editing by Dominic Evans

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