Richard Goldstone, a South African judge and former chief prosecutor at the international criminal tribunals for ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda, will head an independent mission to investigate alleged war crimes by Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in Gaza, the United Nations said on Friday.

The four-strong mission, which is due to leave for the region within the next few weeks, was mandated by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council in a resolution in January, amid a world outcry over the scale of civilian casualties during Israel’s three-week offensive against Hamas fighters in Gaza.

“It is in the interest of all Palestinians and Israelis that the allegations of war crimes and serious human rights violations related to the recent conflict on all sides be investigated,” Judge Goldstone said.

However Yigal Palmor, spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry, said the council had a history of singling out Israel for alleged wrongdoing and dismissed the planned investigation as a “farce”, whose outcome was fixed in advance.

Palestinian rights groups say more than 1,400 Palestinians died, two thirds of them civilians. Israel claims the majority of those killed were “Hamas terror operatives”. Thirteen Israelis also died, three of whom were civilians.

The other members of the mission were named yesterday as Christine Chinkin, professor of international law at the London School of Economics, Hina Jilani, a senior Pakistani human rights lawyer, and Desmond Travers, a retired Irish army colonel and a director of the Institute for International Criminal Investigations.

Judge Goldstone, Ms Jilani and Colonel Travers were all signatories of last month’s open letter to the UN Security Council by 16 international human rights investigators and judges that called for establishment of a UN commission of enquiry into the “shocking” events in Gaza.

UN and other human rights advocates have repeatedly said Israeli actions in Gaza may constitute war crimes, including deployment of “excessive” force, indiscriminate use of white phosphorous shells and use of heavy weapons in densely populated areas.

Israel, which says its actions were in conformity with international law, this week dismissed allegations that its soldiers shot civilians in cold blood, calling the reports “hearsay”.

Mr Palmor declined to say if Israel would cooperate with the Goldstone mission.

Two years ago it refused visas to another UN team led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa that investigated Israeli shelling of the Beit Hanoun refugee camp in Gaza in 2006, and rejected its conclusion that a war crime may have been committed.

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