Palestinians yesterday called for global action to punish Israel for alleged war crimes during its military assault on Gaza last winter, warning that the credibility of the United Nations and international human rights law was at stake.
The demand was based on the findings of a commission headed by former South African judge Richard Goldstone.
Israel immediately rejected the commission's report that accused both Israeli forces and Palestinian militants of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during their December 27-January 18 war, calling it "one-sided, biased and therefore wrong."
The report became the focus of the Security Council's monthly Mideast meeting today after an about-face by the Palestinians.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Al-Malki and Israel's UN Ambassador Gabriela Shalev opened the council meeting - which is expected to hear from more than 40 speakers - by trading accusations about the Goldstone report.
The UN Human Rights Council commissioned the report and took it up in early October, but Palestinian diplomats agreed to delay consideration until March under heavy pressure from the United States. The US feared it would jeopardise attempts to revive the Mideast peace process.
The call for a delay sparked scathing criticism of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and led the Palestinians to reverse course, first seeking an emergency Security Council meeting and then seeking to reopen the Human Rights Council debate, which will happen tomorrow.
The Goldstone report concluded that Israel used disproportionate force, deliberately targeted civilians, used Palestinians as human shields, and destroyed civilian infrastructure during its incursion into Gaza to root out Palestinian rocket squads.
It accused Palestinian armed groups of deliberately targeting civilians and trying to spread terror through its rocket attacks on southern Israel. Hamas, the Palestinian Authority's main rival, controls Gaza and most armed groups in the territory.
Mr Al-Malki said "the savage Israeli military aggression" exhibited "a callous disregard for human life" and deliberately destroyed thousands of homes, schools, mosques and industrial and agricultural facilities.
He called the report "another wake-up call to the international community that must not be ignored," adding that "the credibility and foundations of international human rights and humanitarian law, as well as of the UN as a whole, is at stake."
Israel's Ms Shalev countered that the report "favours and legitimises terrorism."
She insisted that "it denies Israel's right to defend its citizens. ... It permits terrorists to victimise civilians, target the innocent, and use as human shields those it claims to defend."
Ms Shalev accused the world of "doing nothing" about Hamas' smuggling of Iranian arms into Gaza, its launching of attacks from schools, mosques and hospitals, or its firing if 12,000 rockets against innocent Israeli civilians.
And she accused Libya - the only Arab member on the council - of trying to "hijack" its agenda by raising the Goldstone report, noting that three weeks ago Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi called the Security Council a "terror council."
The report recommended that the Security Council require both sides to carry out credible investigations within three months into alleged abuses during the conflict - in which 13 Israelis and almost 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed - and to follow that up with action in their courts.
If either side refuses, the investigators recommended that the Security Council refer the evidence for prosecution by the International Criminal Court, the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, within six months.
But council diplomats say there is little chance that the Security Council will take any action, primarily because of objections by the United States, Israel's closest ally, which said the report should be handled by the Human Rights Council.
US deputy ambassador Alejandro Wolff reiterated that the report and "the allegations of human rights and humanitarian law violations ... are not a matter for Security Council action."
He also criticised what he termed "its unbalanced focus on Israel."
Mr Wolff said Israel has the institutions to seriously investigate the allegations "and we encourage it to do so." On the other hand, he added: "Hamas is a terrorist organisation and has neither the ability nor the willingness to examine its violations of human rights."
Malki rejected any attempt to equate Israel's "aggression and crimes" with actions taken by the Palestinians in response, but reiterated that the Palestinians will pursue "domestic investigations to address this critical matter."