By Laura MacInnis

Geneva – Israel’s deadly shelling in the Gaza Strip in November 2006 may constitute a war crime, Desmond Tutu has said in a report to the United Nations.

Tutu, who serves as an independent UN human rights envoy, said Israel must be held accountable for its strike that hit two homes in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, killing 18 people.

"In the absence of a well-founded explanation from the Israeli military – which is in sole possession of the relevant facts – the mission must conclude that there is a possibility that the shelling of Beit Hanoun constituted a war crime," he said in the report released yesterday to the UN Human Rights Council.

Tutu said his mission had also made clear to leaders of the Palestinian faction Hamas that "the firing of rockets on the civilian population in Israel must stop".

The Israeli military has said it decided to fire artillery against launching sites in the Beit Hanoun area on November 8 2006 on the basis of intelligence information that Gaza militants were planning rocket attacks on Israel.

An Israeli military committee that investigated the shelling decided in February that "the injury of the Palestinian civilians was not intentional and was directly due to a rare and severe failure in the artillery fire control system".

Tutu, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for his non-violent struggle against apartheid, expressed regret that Israel did not co-operate with his investigation because it alleged it was biased.

He visited the occupied Palestinian territory in May, travelling through Egypt, after three requests to travel through Israel and interview Israeli officials and those living near the Gaza border were refused.

"The effective ban on visiting Israel and meeting with Israeli actors – including victims of Kassam rocket attacks in southern Israel – has itself been an obstacle to the balance that Israel seeks," the report said.

Tutu said there should be an "independent, impartial and transparent investigation" of the shelling of Beit Hanoun, a town of 35 000 inhabitants, of whom about 70% are registered refugees.

"Regardless of whether the casualties at Beit Hanoun were caused by a mistake, recklessness, criminal negligence or wilful conduct, those responsible must be held accountable," he said.

Israel and the West tightened restrictions last year on the Gaza Strip, attempting to isolate Hamas after the group’s fighters seized the territory. The Islamist group opposes Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s peace talks with Israel.

Israel and Hamas entered an Egyptian-brokered truce in June. The lull has held despite occasional violations on both sides. – Reuters

Published on the web by Star on September 15, 2008.

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