THE NAVIGATOR: Former Constitutional Court judge Richard Goldstone . 'We've got no judicial powers at all. We simply report the facts.'

IN THE quiet news days between last Christmas and New Year, Israel leapt to front pages the world over with a series of attacks it launched on Gaza . Operation Cast Lead was a response to rocket attacks into Israeli territory by Palestinian militants. The bombardment of Gaza that began with air and naval attacks on December 27 was followed by a land offensive on January 3. Israel called a cease-fire on January 18 and withdrew its troops two days later.

While statistics varied, the damage was immense. The death toll, according to Palestinian figures, was 1434; Israeli figures put it at 1166. Palestinians said the number of noncombatants killed was 906; Israelis put it between 295 and 460. Palestinians said the toll of children under 16 killed was 288; Israelis said it was 89.

An Amnesty International report last month said more than 3000 homes in Gaza were destroyed and 20000 damaged. Amnesty said both sides committed wrong - Hamas and other groups fired hundreds of unlawful rocket attacks at civilians, while Israel fired shells containing white phosphorous, a toxic chemical that causes severe burns and is outlawed by international law in civilian areas. Israel has said its use of weapons conformed with international law.

In April, South African Richard Goldstone was appointed to lead a fact-finding mission to find out whether international human rights or humanitarian law had been broken during the 22-day conflict. It was an unenviable assignment. In the polarised and poisoned world of the Palestinian- Israeli conflict, it is questionable whether any fact-finding mission could lay the ground for green shoots of peace to grow.

Goldstone was not the first choice to lead the mission. The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, which gave birth to the mission by means of a resolution, was reportedly first turned down by former Irish president Mary Robinson and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari. Both regarded the resolution as biased. Resolution S-9/1 calls for a mission "to investigate all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law by the occupying power, Israel, against the Palestinian people throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip".

Goldstone, who as a Transvaal Supreme Court judge in 1982 overthrew a key part of the notorious Group Areas Act and who was chosen by Nelson Mandela in 1994 to be one of the first judges on the newly created Constitutional Court, says his initial response was the same. "When I saw the resolution, I wasn't interested. It seemed to me to be a one-sided resolution," he says.

Goldstone changed his mind after discussing it with the president of the council, Nigeria's ambassador to the UN, Martin Uhomoibhi. "He said he regarded himself as authorised to set up a balanced, even-handed fact-finding mission with an appropriate mandate. We really worked out together the terms of the mandate, which satisfied me. It entitled us to all relevant facts in the context of Operation Cast Lead, expressly before, during and after military operations. It was on that basis that I accepted the invitation."

Goldstone says Uhomoibhi explained the mandate and its need for even-handedness to the human rights council. He says members of the four-person mission discussed it with ambassadors of the countries that supported the initial resolution - Cuba, Egypt and Pakistan. None objected. And so he went ahead. The mission - which visited Gaza twice to hear private and public testimonies, heard private testimony from Israelis and Palestinians in Amman, Jordan, and public hearings in Geneva - is now finalising its report, which will be made public next month.

What hope does Goldstone hold that either side will believe he has a purely neutral point of view on the matter? The Israeli government's view was clear: it never gave Goldstone's mission permission to enter Israel, interview military sources or speak to the victims of Hamas missile attacks. "I perhaps naively and certainly overoptimistically thought that Israel would grab this opportunity of having a UN mission with an even-handed mandate to look into all allegations, including the Israeli allegations. I was extremely disappointed they didn't see it that way," he says. "It was the Israeli refusal to co-operate that made me think of having public hearings .. I thought, 'We can get Israelis to come and talk to us in Geneva.' The idea grew into having public hearings in Gaza and in Geneva. It's actually worked out quite well."

Israelis who gave testimony were a doctor from the Israeli city of Ashkelon, that city's mayor and the father of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. While touring Gaza, the mission visited families hurt and homes damaged by the attacks, nongovernmental and government organisations.

While the Palestinians were keen for the exposure, their behaviour was not perfect, either, Goldstone says when asked.

"I'd rather deal with it in the report.. Let me put it this way - there were some areas of information where we did not receive full co-operation."

Still, he says reports that the mission was escorted by Hamas minders who may have intimidated Arab witnesses are baseless.

"That's absolutely untrue. We had our own UN security that was very efficient. We were driven around in armoured vehicles - it's a highly volatile area - and Hamas police officers were sometimes in the background around our hotel, but they never came remotely near any people that we spoke to. It would have been unacceptable. I wouldn't have done it."

Goldstone is a short man with a great capacity to consume coffee. He drinks most of the large plunger pot set before us in the Michelangelo Hotel. He also has a formal demeanour. Knowing he will be photographed, the 70-year- old arrives at the interview wearing a smart jacket and tie, which he removes once the photographer is finished. His speech is precise and measured, but you sense an internal conflict playing out during a conversation. His sharp mind and rigorous manner (suggesting he is not one who suffers fools gladly) seem at odds with his obvious willingness to explain to another journalist, probably for the 100th time, details of the mission or some arcane point of international law.

Goldstone is strong-minded and resolutely convinced of his ability to chart a neutral path between the warring parties. "It's exactly what I did here. The (1991- 94) Goldstone commission (into political violence in SA) was no less fraught with antagonism and disputes - you name it, between white groups and black groups and within the black community - and we were able, by being open and transparent, to navigate through that, and not allow the politics in any way to dictate what we said or what we did or what we wrote. It's exactly what we're doing (in the Middle East)," he says.

Despite this, the Human Rights Council gave critics easy ammunition when it appointed Christine Chinkin, a professor of international law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, as one of the four mission members. In January, while the Israeli offensive raged, Chinkin was a signatory to a London Sunday Times article denouncing the military action and declaring it "contrary to international law".

Surely it was not right to include someone on the mission who had already declared her views?

"I was asked about this on Israeli television today and I repeat what I said. Firstly, I've known Christine Chinkin for years. I've always found her to be not only highly intelligent but a person who has an open mind. This is not a judicial inquiry. If it had been a judicial inquiry, that letter she'd signed would have been a ground for disqualification . I have absolutely no reason to question her open-mindedness, her willingness to change her opinions if need be, and indeed she has demonstrated that openness during all of her work on this mission and in all our discussions."

So what made this mission different from a judicial inquiry?

"All we're doing is collecting facts. We've got no judicial powers at all. We simply report the facts and any recommendations we wish to make to the Human Rights Council and possibly to other organs of the UN."

That may be a legal distinction, but in such a fraught area of the world, will people pause to consider the difference? Goldstone starts answering even before I've finished the question. "Absolutely. A judicial inquiry - I'm talking about a criminal inquiry where a court would have the power to find people guilty and punish them - is very remote from the sort of brief we've got."

But given Israel's apparent view that the UN is out to get it, surely this fact would guarantee that the government - especially in the build-up to a general election, which it held in February - wouldn't recognise the fact-finding mission? For the first time in our conversation Goldstone drops his legal rigour and reveals the passionate person beneath. Behind the legal argument is an honest, human assessment. "Look, there are four of us. We're going to be reporting on facts and making recommendations on them. It's not a judicial job. It really isn't. Everybody brings views to the table.. All of us brought our political views with us. Human beings have them."

At the same time, Palestinians fear the commission will water down its final report. Given that a confirmation of human rights violation by Israel would require the UN to act against the Israeli state, Arab media have expressed the concern that the world body will soften the final report to avoid such a confrontation. Goldstone says the report will not pull its punches, but speak the truth.

So with truth and openness, Goldstone hopes his report will contribute towards the rebuilding of a Middle East peace process.

"I think the truth is always helpful. If the truth makes all sides that little bit uncomfortable, that's not a bad thing."

When I saw the United Nations resolution, I wasn't interested - it seemed to me to be a one-sided resolution