Israel has submitted its response to a UN report that accused it of deliberately targeting civilians during last year's Gaza offensive, but sidestepped a key UN demand for an independent commission to investigate war crimes allegations.
Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, told reporters in the southern Negev desert on Friday that the report backed the army's actions during Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day Gaza war, which ended last January.
"All of the soldiers and officers whom we sent to battle need to know that the state of Israel stands behind them even on the day after," Barak said.
"The Goldstone Report is a distorted, false, and irresponsible report."
UN demand ignored
The 575-page report, compiled by Richard Goldstone, a South African judge, concluded that there was "strong evidence" Israel had committed war crimes during its bombing and shelling of Gaza.
Yigal Palmor, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, said the response defends Israel's investigations of last year's Gaza war, but does not address the international body's key demand, the creation of an independent commission of inquiry.
"Our response includes a description of the Israeli legal system, the fact that it is responsible and independent and acts in accordance with international law, how it operates and why it can be trusted," he said.
The decision to establish a commission of inquiry must be made by Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, Palmor said.
Farhan Haq, the UN associate spokesman, said Israel's 46-page document had been received at UN headquarters. It will be considered in a report by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the General Assembly in early February.
"The secretary-general is working on his own response," Haq said.
The Palestinian leadership also provided Ban's chief of staff with its response to the UN panel's investigation, including a preliminary report by a Palestinian commission established just days ago, Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian UN observer, said on Friday.
"There is no symmetry between the occupying power, Israel, and their criminal actions, including war crimes against our people, and any acts that may have been committed by the Palestinian side, those who live under occupation," Mansour said.
The Palestinian Hamas-run government in Gaza was also accused of war crimes during the conflict that left about 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.
Hamas said it had prepared a 52-page response to the Goldstone report, which had accused the Palestinian fighters of targeting Israeli civilians by firing hundreds of rockets across the de-facto border.
Salah al-Bardaweel, a senior Hamas official, hinted at the content of the report on Thursday.
"The killing of three Israeli civilians as alleged by Israel and as mentioned in the Goldstone report was by mistake and the target was military installations inside the Zionist cities", al-Bardaweel said.
"Resistance fighters were warned against hitting civilians."
The UN General Assembly in a November 5 resolution endorsed the Goldstone report and gave Israel and the Palestinians three months to undertake "independent, credible investigations" into the allegations against them.
That deadline expires on Friday, February 5.
But the UN secretary-general had asked both sides to report to him on the progress made so far so as to enable him to report back to the General Assembly before the February deadline.
Barak and the army chief of staff have so far opposed a commission that would expose private soldiers to legal prosecution, because they fear that would compromise combat in the future.
According to the officials quoted in the Yediot Ahronoth newspaper, only higher-ranking officers with the rank of brigadier-general and up, as well as political leaders including Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, would have to appear before the commission being considered by Netanyahu.
One government official told Yediot that Israel had "no choice" but to form such a commission if it wanted to escape prosecution at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.