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UN probe into Gaza conflict

Israelis and Palestinians question the credibility and effectiveness of 'unprecedented' public hearings about last January's attacks.

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On Sunday and Monday in Gaza City, civilian victims, eyewitnesses, and aid workers testified one by one in front of a four-member expert panel, where they were questioned by UN investigators on everything from the ability of ambulances to move during the war to the details of airstrikes on mosques, schools, and houses.

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"We had no warning and suddenly bodies and smoke were everywhere," said Ibrahim Moussa of the day his neighborhood mosque in the Jabaliya refugee camp was struck by an Israeli missile, killing 17 people.

Israel balks at UN hearings in Israel

The UN requested permission to hold hearings in southern Israel for victims of Palestinian rocket fire, but the Israeli government refused to host the team – or even allow it to travel through Israel into Gaza or the West Bank.

Mr. Steinberg says Israel's government decided the investigation is so political in its leanings that allowing the fact-finders into southern Israeli towns like Sderot and Ashkelon – both regular targets of Palestinian rocket fire – would do nothing to either repair the image of bias or influence the ultimate findings of the mission.

"The general consensus was that there is so much bias and built-in animosity towards Israel with this investigation that allowing them into Sderot simply wouldn't change anything," Steinberg says.

Others say Israel's blanket refusal to work with the UN team or even acknowledge Israeli crimes may have taken place is fodder for those who accuse its officials of enjoying years of impunity.

"The track record of Israeli impunity, it's been a longstanding problem," says Amnesty International's chief researcher for Israel and the Palestinian territories, Donatella Rovera.

"The chances of the victim to get justice by going through Israeli avenues is next to nil; it's quite scandalous. Israel could do the right thing, if it wanted, and prosecute people – or at least engage in the process."

To persuade the Israeli government to participate in any UN-led investigation, Steinberg says an entirely new and independent panel unaffiliated with the Human Rights Council, which he says is influenced by an "Islamic bloc" of nations, would need to be established.

"Unless there are people on this panel who know something about military options, about weighing military necessity against the protection of civilian combatants, this is not an appropriate body to deal with these issues," says Steinberg.

Ms. Rovera dismisses the assertion that the UN mission is lacking in capability or impartiality due to either diminished knowledge of the conflict or the fact that UN facilities were attacked.

But she is also skeptical the findings will produce much accountability or justice for the victims.

"I have no doubt that the team will do a good work, and they certainly seem to be making their best effort to do so. Richard Goldstone is someone of quite amazing stature, and these experts on the team now, they don't work for the UN," Rovera says.

"But I think in the short term it is far-fetched to be optimistic in terms of justice," she continues. Goldstone plans to deliver a report of his findings in the fall.

"The key really is whether or not the international community will deliver at the next level. The next step for all sides, simply, is accountability."