Netanyahu to world: Back Israeli self-defense

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday rejected the U.N. report alleging Israeli war crimes in its Gaza war this year, warning world leaders that they and their anti-terror forces could be targets for similar charges.

Netanyahu said Israeli forces were exercising their right to self-defense after rocket attacks by Palestinian Hamas militants against southern Israeli towns before and since Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

"They tell us to pull out, and after we do, and we exercise our right to self defense, they call us war criminals? I don't accept that," Netanyahu told Israel TV, speaking on the occasion of the Jewish New Year holiday, which begins Friday.

The report of the U.N. commission, headed by South African justice Richard Goldstone, faulted Israel for civilian deaths in Gaza, saying it used disproportionate force in the offensive. About 1,400 Palestinians were killed during the three-week conflict. Israel charged that Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers were to blame, saying they placed rocket launchers and forces in crowded neighborhoods.

The U.N. report also called Hamas' firing of rockets at Israeli civilians a war crime.

Netanyahu urged world leaders to support Israel's right to self-defense and reject the report's findings - including its conclusion that formal charges could be brought against Israeli soldiers, officers and leaders.

"I'm going to tell world leaders, who also suffer from terrorism: It's not only our problem," Netanyahu said. "If they charge Israeli soldiers, officers, pilots and even leaders - they will charge you, too."

Netanyahu said he would accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza if it were demilitarized, as a way of "avoiding the next Goldstone report" on an Israeli operation against Palestinian militants.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said he hoped the Goldstone report would not become an obstacle to renewing peace talks. He said the U.S. has "concerns about the content of the report" but would not elaborate.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, reiterated U.S. concern about what it calls the U.N. team's "unbalanced, one-sided and unacceptable" mandate.

"Our view is that we need to be focused on the future. This is a time to work to cement progress towards the resumption of negotiations and their early and successful conclusion,," she said.

President Barack Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, is scheduled to meet Netanyahu early Friday after extending his stay in the region by several days. Netanyahu said he discussed an "eight-point document of Israel's security needs" with Mitchell, but he did not give details.

Netanyahu did not indicate he is giving in to the main U.S. demand - a freeze of construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

"There is a slowdown in settlement construction, but not a freeze," he told Channel 10 TV. "There are 2,400 units being built, and their construction will continue."

Mitchell is hoping to arrange a meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas next week in New York, during the session of the U.N. General Assembly. Netanyahu said no meeting has been scheduled so far, but added, "I hope there will be one."

Abbas has said peace negotiations cannot resume until Israel halts all construction in the settlements, but Netanyahu said that issue should be settled in negotiations. "It is clear that the fate of settlements and borders and territory in Judea and Samaria will be determined," he said, using the biblical term for the West Bank. "But it can't be determined before we start."

On Iran, Netanyahu repeated Israeli policy that Iran must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons, but he would not be drawn about what Israel might do to prevent that. In the past, Israeli leaders have not taken military options off the table.

Also Thursday, Nasser al-Shaer, a Hamas political leader in the West Bank, was released from an Israeli prison after six months behind bars. Al-Shaer is among dozens of Hamas lawmakers Israel arrested as pressure to free an Israeli soldier held in Gaza for more than three years.

At Israel's border with Gaza, the captive soldier's father was among a group that delivered a package for his son. It was handed to Palestinian activists in hope that the letters would reach the soldier, who has not been seen since his capture in June 2006.

In return, the Israelis took supplies for Hamas prisoners in Israel.

Sami Abeed, a Palestinian journalist who accepted the Israeli package, said it contained letters, fruit and drawings for the soldier. He said he did not know whether the goods would reach him.

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Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.

© 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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