Israel "punished and terrorised" civilians in Gaza in a disproportionate attack in its three-week offensive on the territory earlier this year, a United Nations report has found.
Judge Richard Goldstone, who led the inquiry, said on Wednesday that he found evidence Israel targeted civilians and used excessive force in the assault, which was launched on December 27, 2008.
"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, a former South African justice, 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.
More than 1,400 Palestinians - about a third of them women and children - were killed in the offensive. Thirteen Israeli died during the same period, mostly due to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip .
The US state department reacted to the report, telling Al Jazeera that they had "concerns about some of the report's recommendations", without giving specifics.
Washington said that the mandate given for the report had been "one sided and unacceptable" but that Goldstone had attempted to broaden the scope of the report "to cover abuses on all sides of the conflict".
Goldstone's report, which came at the end of a six-month inquiry and will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council later this month, said Israel deliberately attacked civilians, failed to take precautions to minimise loss of civilian life and cited strong evidence that Israeli forces committed "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions.
He said: "In the months since the end of the war, various rights groups both domestic and international have provided evidence of Israel’s war crimes."
Goldstone said the evidence included accounts of "the shooting of civilians holding white flags ... the deliberate and unjustifiable targeting of UN shelters ... and the killing of over 300 children whilst the Israeli Army had at their disposal the most precise weaponry in the world".
He also condemned Hamas' - the de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip - conduct, whom he said undertook extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of Palestinian detainees.
Goldstone also called for the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal abducted by Gaza fighters in June 2006, on humanitarian grounds and said that the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank had committed human rights violations against political opponents.
Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros, reporting from Gaza, said: "The theme [of] this new UN report is the idea of excessive force being used [by Israel] and deliberate targeting of civilians.
"[It said] There was nothing to warn civilians that there were incoming rockets.
"The Israelis say they provided leaflets and made thousands of calls to Gazan citizens, but ... [regardless] they didn't give them any option of where to go."
The report said there were "numerous instances of deliberate attacks on civilians" and civilian objects in Gaza by Israel.
Its firing of white phosphorous shells and the use of high explosive artillery shells were listed as "violations of humanitarian law".
The investigators recommended that the UN Security Council should call on Israeli and Palestinian authorities to launch their own credible investigations into the conflict within three months.
If either side failed to do that, the council should refer the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor in The Hague within six months, they added.
Israel has already ruled out such an investigation.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, told Al Jazeera: "This report is further evidence Israel committed war crimes during its war on Gaza, and we call on the international community to bring Israeli war criminals to trial."
|Goldstone urged both sides to launch investigations into the conflict [Reuters]
The report said that Palestinian authorites in the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank had cooperated with the panel.
Israel, which had refused to co-operate with the investigation, claimed the UN Human Rights Council that ordered it was biased against Israel, allegations which Goldstone and the three other members of the team have denied.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli government, said the army did not target civilians during its campaign against Hamas.
"Israel did not target civilians. The opposite is true - we made every effort not to see the civilian population caught up in the crossfire," he told Al Jazeera.
The Israeli government said that its military had opened more than 100 inquiries into allegations of alleged wrongdoing by its forces, but had closed most of them because the accusations were found to be baseless.
Israel also said Hamas "unnecessarily exposed the civilian population of Gaza to the inherent dangers of military operations" around them by firing rockets into Israel, and therefore violated "international humanitarian law".
Goldstone told Al Jazeera: "I'm surprised that Israel has so speedily read a 575-page report and so quickly rejected it."
Goldstone, the former chief prosecutor of the international courts for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, headed the fact-finding mission which conducted dozens of interviews and investigations.