Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, urged the Palestinian Authority (PA) not to accept the findings of a UN report into Israel’s war on Gaza because of fears it might scupper attempts to restart peace talks, Palestinian sources have told Al Jazeera.
Clinton reportedly called Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, on Thursday to encourage him to withdraw PA support for the report, which heavily criticised the conduct of Israeli forces during the December-January conflict.
The UN Human Rights Council had been due to vote on Friday on the report by Richard Goldstone, an investigator appointed by the world body.
Though the PA did not reject the Goldstone report, it backed moves to postpone a vote on the findings until March, triggering widespread condemnation from Palestinian groups and human rights organisations.
More than 1,400 Palestinians, at least one-third of them women and children, were killed in the December-January conflict, when Israel attacked Gaza to ostensibly end Palestinian rockets from being intermittently fired into its territory.
Ten Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians were killed during the 22-day conflict.
Goldstone’s 575-page report blamed both the Israelis and the Palestinian group Hamas for war crimes, but was more critical of Israeli troops for "targeting and terrorising civilians".
Of its 31 chapters, only one related to alleged war crimes by Palestinian fighters.
Analysts say the postponement in the vote lets Israelis off-the-hook for alleged war crimes.
Goldstone’s findings were meant to be passed on to the UN Security Council after the planned vote. Israel and the Palestinians would have then got six months to impartially investigate the war crimes allegations.
While Hamas has already promised investigations, Israel has been loath to undertake any such exercise, fuelling accusations that Tel Aviv is indifferent to "excesses committed by its troops".
Various Palestinian groups and human rights bodies have reacted strongly to the PA decision to back a delay in the vote.
"We were shocked today," Khaled Meshaal, the political chief of Hamas, said.
"Is it reasonable for Israel to commit all these crimes against Gaza, all this destruction, all this devastation, all this killing of civilians, all these institutions, mosques, and universities it has demolished, these war crimes which Israel has committed and the white phosphorus?"… after this a Palestinian voice emerges and asks for delaying looking into the results reached by the fact-finding committee, despite the few reservations we have on it, but a Palestinian voice comes to ask the world to postpone discussing it? What a shame"
Another Palestinian group, the Islamic Jihad, in a statement said the postponement was against Palestinian interests.
It said the move underlined "the Palestinian Authority’s defeatism, lack of will and inability to shoulder responsibility towards the suffering of our people".
Ekmaluddin Ihsan Oglu, the secretary-general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, said that the delay was agreed after a deal was reached between the US and the PA.
Lamis Andoni, a Middle East expert, observed that Abbas had succumbed to US pressure.
"The deferment has relieved the unprecedented pressure on Israel to face the consequences of its actions," she said.
"The decision has only given Israel and the US time to defuse the international outcry."
She said that many in the PA had been against the move and that Abbas had broken an agreement with the Fatah Central Committee by failing to consult the the newly elected body before making his decision.
"Abbas may have not wanted to alienate Obama, but the American president already squandered his credibility among the Palestinians when he dropped his demand for an Israeli settlement freeze as a prerequisite for the resumption of peace negotiations," she said.
The PA insists the delay was aimed at achieving greater consensus on the report.
Nimr Hamad, an aide to Abbas, said: "The report wasn’t withdrawn … It’s still there."
But condemnation of the PA move has got louder and a Hamas legislator went to the extent of saying it amounted to "betrayal".
"This … represents a betrayal of the Palestinian cause and confirms the extent of the collaboration between Abbas and his aides with the Zionist enemy, against the Palestinian people," Mushir al-Masri said.
Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said that the move "was totally unacceptable, unjustified…"
"There is no justification for postponing the approval of that report and all human rights organisation, most political organisations in Palestine are against that decision.
Sameh Habeeb, founder and editor of the Palestine Telegraph online newspaper, told Al Jazeera that an opportunity had been missed to raise awareness about "Israeli crimes".
"We wanted this process to be carried through to label the Israeli actions as criminal and the Israelis as war criminals," he said.
"The decision to delay the report to March is a method to make the Palestinians forget it, this is simply biding time."
The US, however, welcomed the delay, saying Washington would now concentrate on working towards renewing negotiations between the two sides.
"We appreciate the decision to defer consideration of the Goldstone report,"Esther Brimmer, the US assistant-secretary of state for international organisation affairs, said.
"And will continue to focus on working with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to relaunch permanent status negotiations as soon as possible."
(Aljazeera.net English and Agencies)