Probe Launched Into 'Israel War Crimes In Gaza'

An international inquiry into Israel's actions in Gaza has been launched, after the UN's Human Rights Commissioner said there was a "strong possibility" the country was guilty of war crimes.

The 46-member Human Rights Council backed a Palestinian-drafted resolution to begin the investigation by 29 votes, with Arab and fellow Muslim countries joined by China, Russia and Latin American and African nations.

The United States was the only member to vote against, while European countries - including the UK - abstained.

It came after Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay told the emergency debate in Geneva that Israel's punitive house demolitions and killing of Palestinians raised serious concerns about excessive use of force by the Jewish state.

Ms Pillay also condemned the indiscriminate firing of rockets and mortars by Hamas into Israel.

"Once again, the principles of distinction and precaution are clearly not being observed during such indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups," she said.

"Every one of these incidents must be properly and independently investigated."

Those dead include 687 Palestinians, mostly civilians, 32 Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians, during two weeks of airstrikes and rocket attacks followed by an Israeli ground offensive inside Gaza.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) also released a report, which said one child had been killed in Gaza every hour over the previous two days.

On Wednesday, hundreds of people reportedly fled Khan Younis amid heavy fighting between Israeli troops and members of the armed wing of Hamas.

The Red Crescent said Hamas fighters were using rocket propelled grenades and light weapons, including machine guns, against the Israelis.

The Israeli military was said to be firing tank shells and missiles from drones into the area.

A photograph of the violence in Israel and Gaza taken from the International Space Station was posted on Twitter by astronaut Alexander Gerst on Wednesday evening.

He wrote: "My saddest photo yet. From #ISS we can actually see explosions and rockets flying over #Gaza & #Israel."

It came after US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Tel Aviv to push for ceasefire talks, with newly appointed British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond also having arrived in the city.

Mr Kerry said he was making "some steps forward" in the search for a halt to the fighting but did not provide any details.

"We are doing this for one simple reason," he said.

"The people in the Palestinian territories, the people in Israel, are all living under the threat or reality of immediate violence. And this needs to end for everybody."

Mr Kerry held talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before having discussions with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Hammond said the UN Human Rights Council resolution would not help achieve a ceasefire.

He said: "It is fundamentally unbalanced and will complicate the process by introducing unnecessary new mechanisms.

"The UK could not support this resolution, but recognising the strength of feeling about the loss of life and the desire by a large number of members of the Council to express that feeling in a resolution, the UK joined other EU nations in abstaining in the vote.

"We will continue to urge Israel to exercise restraint, make every effort to avoid civilian casualties and work for an immediate ceasefire, while recognising its right to defend itself against these attacks."

Meanwhile, in a move that could effectively turn Mr Abbas into the main Palestinian figure in talks over a truce in Gaza, his umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) formally supported core conditions set by the Hamas-led fighters.

Israel's UN representative Eviatar Manor said the UN vote was a knee-jerk reaction, adding that Israel's duty to defend itself was enshrined in International law and that it was Hamas committing war crimes.

He said Israel would destroy Hamas' military infrastructure, but that Gaza residents themselves were "not our enemy".

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al Malki claimed Israel was committing "a crime against humanity" and urged world powers to end what he called Israel's impunity, adding: "Israel must be held accountable for its crimes."

Israel, which accuses the council of bias, boycotted the UN's forum in Geneva for 20 months, resuming co-operation in October.

It comes as major airlines from the US, Europe and Canada refused to fly to and from Israel after a rocket fired from Gaza landed near Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion international airport.