A United Nations investigator has defended a report published earlier this month that accuses Israel and Palestinian fighters of war crimes following the Israeli offensive in Gaza earlier this year.
Addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday, Richard Goldstone said a lack of accountability for war crimes committed in the Middle East had reached "crisis point", undermining any hope for peace in the region.
The former South African judge rejected criticism by Israel that the 575-page report was politically motivated.
He said his team was led by a belief in the rule of law, human rights and the need to protect civilians during war.
Goldstone said the report had investigated 36 incidents surrounding Israel's military operation.
"A culture of impunity in the region has existed for too long, the lack of accountability for war crimes and possible war crimes against humanity has reached a crisis point," he said.
"The ongoing lack of justice is undermining any hope for a successful peace process and reinforcing an environment that fosters violence."
Goldstone's report urged the UN Security Council to refer the allegations to the International Criminal Court in The Hague if either Israeli or Palestinian authorities failed to investigate and prosecute those suspected of such crimes within six months.
Michael Posner, the US assistant secretary of state, called on Israel on Tuesday to conduct credible investigations into the allegations, saying it would help the Middle East peace process.
Posner said that Hamas' leaders also had a responsibility to investigate crimes and to end what he called its targeting of civilians and use of Palestinian civilians as human shields in the strip.
Israel did not co-operate with the UN inquiry and has rejected the report as biased.
Hamas, which helped facilitate the work of the UN in compiling the report, has agreed that local authorities will investigate the relevant cases in the inquiry.
"We encourage Israel to utilise appropriate domestic [judicial] review and meaningful accountability mechanisms to investigate and follow-up on credible allegations," Posner said in a speech to the Geneva forum.
"If undertaken properly and fairly, these reviews can serve as important confidence-building measures that will support the larger essential objective which is a shared quest for justice and lasting peace."
The US joined the council, set up three years ago, for the first time earlier this year.
Posner reiterated Washington's view that the council paid "grossly disproportionate attention" to Israel, but said that the US delegation was ready to engage in balanced debate.
'Barrage of criticism'
Goldstone said his four-member panel had been hit with a "barrage of criticism" on its findings and it was important not to ascribe collective guilt to a people.
|Goldstone says he found evidence that Israel targeted civilians [AFP]
"People of the region should not be demonised," he said.
Goldstone urged the 47-member state forum to adopt the report which would mean it is referred to the UN Security Council for further action.
An Arab-backed resolution to accept the findings is opposed by European countries and the United States because of concerns about how the report was compiled.
In his report, the judge said that he had found evidence that Israel had targeted civilians and used excessive force in the assault which took place from December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009.
"The mission concluded that actions amounting to war crimes, and possibly in some respects crimes against humanity, were committed by the Israel Defence Force," Goldstone said.
While the report was more sharply critical of Israel, it also said that there was evidence "that Palestinian armed groups committed war crimes, as well as possibly crimes against humanity", by firing rockets into southern Israel.
Saad Djebbar, an international lawyer and the deputy director of the Centre for North African Studies, said that the investigators must be given credit for a well-documented case.
"I think you have to start somewhere and usually we criticise the UN and such bodies, like the human rights council, for not doing enough. But to focus on one particular situation and do it well goes to the credit of the council," he told Al Jazeera.
"Before we complained that there wasn't much interest in the Palestinian issue by the international community because of the influence of Israel."
More than 1,400 Palestinians - about a third of them women and children - were killed in the offensive.
Thirteen Israelis died during the same period, mostly due to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.