The United States last night vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel in the wake of the artillery attack which killed 18 Palestinian civilians last week in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun.
The veto on the resolution on which Britain abstained came despite efforts to redraft the original text to make it more acceptable to its opponents.
The US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, said the resolution, proposed by Qatar and also calling on Israel to withdraw its forces from the area "does not display an even-handed characterisation of the recent events in Gaza, nor does it advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace".
Although the resolution was modified by Qatar to include condemnation of rocket attacks into Israel, Mr Bolton described it as "in many places biased against Israel and politically motivated". France and Russia voted in favour of the resolution, which called for secretary-general Kofi Annan to launch a 30-day fact-finding mission to investigate Wednesday's attack. Both Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem have called for a fuller investigation into Wednesday's killings than the internal inquiry by the Israeli military, which found that a defect in the artillery battery's hi-tech guidance system had misdirected the shells.
Human Rights Watch said last week that an investigation should examine "command responsibility including criminal responsibility" for breaches of international humanitarian law. Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch said: "Israeli forces launched the artillery attack on Beit Hanoun at a time when their commanders knew, or should have known, that the risk of civilian deaths far outweighed any definite military advantage."
The UN veto overshadowed an earlier cautious welcome by Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni for the announcement by the prominent Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh that he was ready to step down as prime minister if it would help to ease the crippling international boycott of the Palestinian Authority. Ms Livni said: "There is hope for the moderates, those who believe in the two-state solution."
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, yesterday spoke at a rally in Ramallah to commemorate the third anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death. He said that "great progress" had been made in talks on establishing a new unity government "that can end the siege and open the way toward a political settlement".
Neither declaration guarantees a successful outcome to the talks and still less that it will fulfil Mr Abbas's hopes that it will lift the embargo imposed by the international community and Israel. But it is the main hope for Gaza's 1.3 million beleaguered and increasingly poverty-stricken inhabitants after the bloodiest nine days there since the current round of Israeli military operations began.
The new UN text vetoed last night dropped the word "massacre" to describe the shelling, in which 17 members of the Athamneh family died as they tried to flee shells landing on their home, and substituted the term "military operations". It also called on the Palestinian Authority to take "immediate and sustained action'' to end the rocket fire.
The veto the fourth by the US on resolutions criticising Israel is likely to fuel anti-American feeling in the Palestinian factions after the claim by Khaled Mashaal, the exiled Damascus-based Hamas leader, that the attack on Wednesday had been conducted "under American cover".
But it is also likely to anger moderate Palestinians who have been uneasy about the launching of Qassam rockets since long before last Wednesday's carnage. These moderates would have been strengthened by a resolution which condemned both Israel and those firing the rockets.
Last week's shelling in Beit Hanoun, whose orchards are frequently used for rocket launches, took place less than 24 hours after the end of a a six-day incursion by Israeli forces. This caused widespread destruction and left more than 50 Palestinians dead. The Israeli army says these were mainly gunmen, but accepted that there were also civilians, including children.
There has been some questioning within Israel over the efficacy of military means even when better targeted than Wednesday's lethal strike to stop the rockets.
Yossi Beilin, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, suggested last week it would be more effective for Israel to say it will hand over the duties it is withholding from the Palestinian Authority if the rockets stop.
But there have equally been voices raised by some rank-and-file Gazans about the Qassams. This is not least because of their relative ineffectiveness so far compared with the devastating consequences visited on Palestinians by Israel's countermeasures. Eight Israeli civilians have been killed by Qassams in six years.
Wednesday's attack is merely likely to reinforce convictions on both sides of this debate, which anyway long predates it. On Friday, a group of men gathered at the edge of the ruins of Beit Hanoun's 800-year-old al Nasr mosque, which was largely destroyed in a battle with gunmen who holed up in it the previous week. They had just heard the Imam pray for a "day for the Jews" in which Israelis would suffer the same fate as the Athamneh family.
"More and more people will support the resistance," said Eyad Bilal, 34. "In the Seventies there were 500 fighters. Now I think there are 10,000. If this goes on there will be 100,000."
But some others take a different view, at least about the rockets.
"I don't support the [Qassams]," said Ashraf Kafarna, 26, "They are not necessary. The militants just shoot them to give a message they are there." Pro- Fatah policeman Shadi Kafarna, 25 whose extended family is one of the largest in Gaza and includes members of the armed factions said that he had 10 days ago shot at militants launching rockets, and added: "We don't need Khaled Mashaal [the exiled Hamas leader] sitting in Damascus talking about fighting Jews."
Not even the strongest Palestinian opponent of Qassams remotely accepts the Israeli military's defence that the ultimate "responsibility" for last Wednesday's slaughter rests with the militants.
But some would almost certainly like to see the rethink on both sides of an escalating war which is bringing success to neither but instead an ever-rising Palestinian death toll.
"Israel must be held to account for its disproportionate military policy and the accelerating suffering of Palestinian civilians," Sami Abdel Shafi, the respected Gaza analyst and business consultant, said last week. "But none of this relieves Israeli and Palestinian leaders, to differing degrees, from having somehow to realign their bearings or otherwise risk deep and long-term failure."
Jean-Marc de la Sablière, France's ambassador to the UN, said last night he felt the final negotiated text had been "a balanced one" . He added: "I hope the fact that this text has not been adopted will not renew tensions on the ground."
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