JERUSALEM — Israel on Sunday launched a pre-emptive assault on an upcoming U.N. report into last year's war in the Gaza Strip, saying the report is unfairly biased and issuing its own report that blames Gaza's Hamas militant rulers for the heavy civilian casualties.
The diplomatic offensive set the stage for what is expected to be a contentious showdown with U.N. officials over allegations that Israel committed war crimes during the 50-day war.
Israel has long had a contentious relationship with the United Nations, saying the world body is biased. A similar report conducted by the U.N.'s Human Rights Council following a 2008-2009 war against in Gaza was harshly critical of both Israel and Hamas.
But this time around, the stakes are higher. The Palestinians have joined the International Criminal Court and are pursuing war crimes charges against Israel. The council's new report, expected as soon as this week, could play a key role in the case against Israel.
"Having on the record our view of this war is extremely important, and we have nothing to hide," Dore Gold, the new director of Israel's Foreign Ministry, told reporters at a special briefing held to unveil Israel's own 242-page investigation into the war.
Gold was accompanied by the country's Deputy Foreign Minister, Tzipi Hotovely, and governmental and military legal experts who worked on the report.
Israel launched its offensive in Gaza last July 8 in response to heavy rocket fire from Hamas and other militant groups in the territory. More than 2,200 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed during the fighting, according to U.N. and Palestinian officials, while 73 people died on the Israeli side.
Palestinians have said that the Israeli army violated the rules of war, which include giving adequate warning to civilians, using proportionate force and distinguishing between civilians and combatants. They have pointed to the high civilian casualty count as evidence.
In Sunday's report, Israel defended itself with the same arguments it has been making since the fighting ended, albeit with a level of detail never shown before.
Israel's core claim is that Hamas is responsible for the civilian casualties because it used Gaza's residents as "human shields" by firing rockets from residential areas and operating in schools, hospitals and mosques. It also notes that Hamas' rockets and mortar shells were aimed at Israeli population centers.
The report includes what Israel says are seized Hamas documents encouraging its fighters to move in civilian areas, knowing that it would constrain Israel's ability to act.
"We were a bit struck and surprised with the amount of documentation that we managed to recover during the operation actually indicating that this is a strategy of Hamas," said Eran Shamir-Borer, a lawyer in the Israeli military's international law department.
Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official, called the latest Israeli reports "sickening and outrageous" and said they strengthened the need for the Palestinians to seek international justice.
Israel has argued that it took unprecedented measures to avoid civilian casualties, ordering residents to evacuate through leaflets, phone calls, radio broadcasts and warning strikes with unarmed shells ahead of live airstrikes.
Shamir-Borer showed reporters what he said was a declassified "target card" that laid out the calculations Israel took before striking a suspected arms cache hidden in the home of an Islamic Jihad leader in southern Gaza.
The "operational directives" listed on the card call for destroying the arms while avoiding civilian casualties. It calls for a single airstrike on the home, at night and only after warning people to leave, and "real-time surveillance" to be on the lookout for civilians.
Shamir-Borer said the home was hit, and there was a "secondary blast," indicating weapons were stored there. The report said the army was unaware of any casualties from the strike. Shamir-Borer said the army went through a similar process in all 5,000 preplanned airstrikes carried out during the fighting, though there were hundreds of reactive strikes as well. According to the latest Israeli figures, some 44 percent of the dead in Gaza were militants, far higher than Palestinian and U.N. numbers.
Officials with Hamas, a militant group sworn to Israel's destruction, rejected the Israeli report. Izzat Risheq, a senior Hamas official, called it a "lie promoted by the occupation to cover up its crimes." He said "the hand of justice will reach the perpetrators."
The new Israeli report is part of a broader campaign aimed at blunting the coming report by the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
Over the weekend, Israel released a report compiled by a group of retired Western military officers who found that Israel met or "significantly exceeded" the international laws of war. The report was sponsored by the "Friends of Israel Initiative," a pro-Israel group of retired politicians and diplomats from around the world.
"Those who want to know the truth should read this report and read the report of the top generals," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet. "Whoever wants a baseless automatic accusation against Israel can waste their time reading the U.N. report."
Israel has had a contentious relationship with the U.N. Human Rights Council for years, saying it is stacked with countries that themselves have poor human rights records and has focused disproportionate attention on Israel.
A report by the council into the 2008-2009 war conducted by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, found evidence that Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes, though Goldstone later backed off his key allegations against Israel.
Israel has attacked the council's latest investigation since it was ordered last July. The investigation's mandate focuses on Israel's activities in Gaza, but makes no mention of Hamas attacks on Israel.
Israeli claims of bias forced the head of the investigation, Canadian law professor William Schabas, to resign early this year after it was discovered he had provided legal advice to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
But these complaints may go only so far. The upcoming report is all but certain to come down hard on Israel, giving the Palestinians a potent weapon in their case against Israel at the International Criminal Court.
Although Israel refuses to recognize the court's jurisdiction, a case against its citizens would be embarrassing and could potentially hinder Israeli officials from traveling abroad.
The case against Israel is likely to include charges that the military used excessive force in several instances of fighting, causing heavy casualties by firing artillery into crowded areas.
The Palestinians also claim that the Israeli military is incapable of investigating itself — a concern that was underscored last week when an army investigation cleared troops of any wrongdoing in an airstrike that killed four Palestinian children on a beach last summer.