JERUSALEM — Israel on Wednesday rejected a call by a United Nations panel to open an independent inquiry into its wartime conduct in the Gaza Strip and launched a diplomatic campaign to thwart any prosecution of its soldiers at an international criminal tribunal.
Officials said President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior ministers were telephoning counterparts abroad in an effort to discredit a harshly critical report by the fact-finding panel. The report concludes that both the Israeli army and Palestinian fighters committed war crimes during an Israeli offensive last winter that took aim at rocket-firing militants in Gaza but also left hundreds of civilians dead.
Peres declared at a news conference that the report, issued Tuesday by former South African Judge Richard Goldstone, was one-sided and "makes a mockery of history."
"It draws no distinction between the attacker and the attacked," Peres said. "The report essentially grants legitimacy to acts of terrorism, shooting and killing, and ignores the right and duty of any country to self-defense, as outlined in the U.N. Charter."
Israel's assertive response reflected official concern that the 22-day assault on Gaza was a diplomatic and strategic defeat for the Jewish state, even though it has sharply reduced rocket fire from the territory, which is ruled by the militant group Hamas.
Although the panel said rocket fire by Gazan militants into civilian areas of Israel constituted war crimes, the 455-page report's harshest language is reserved for the Israeli military. The panel found that soldiers targeted and shot civilians in 11 well-documented cases.
The four-member panel called on Israel and Hamas to appoint independent investigators for separate inquiries into the conduct of their respective forces. If that is not done, it said, the U.N. Security Council should refer the report to Hague-based prosecutors of the International Criminal Court.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel was lobbying democratic countries in an effort to head off action by the 15-nation Security Council that could lead to criminal action against Israelis.
"The battle is political and diplomatic," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. "We are speaking to members of the Security Council and countries that are conducting operations in Afghanistan. Our message is this: If this U.N. report is allowed to set a precedent, no country can feel safe in defending itself against terrorism or any other kind of threat."
The panel's original mandate was to investigate only Israel. But Goldstone, a veteran war crimes investigator who is Jewish and has had close ties to Israel, undertook the mission only after persuading council members to change his marching orders to conduct a balanced inquiry. He has rejected Israel's accusation of bias.
As the controversy filled Israel's airwaves and news columns Wednesday, many analysts said the U.N. report had done lasting damage to the nation's international image and strategic position, even if no prosecutions come of it.
Aluf Benn, editor-at-large of the newspaper Haaretz, noted that Israeli leaders are contemplating military action against Iran to halt its suspected development of nuclear weapons and are weighing the cost of retaliation by Iran and its allies, Hamas and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
"The Goldstone report reinforces the most strategic threat Israel brought upon itself with the Gaza offensive, in that it saps international legitimacy for a similar operation in the future," he wrote.