Friday, December 18, 2009

Goldstone and after

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 2009 November

United Nations Report
What’s Next After the Goldstone Report?
By Ian Williams

[Palestinian children watch as Richard Goldstone, lead inspector for the U.N. Human Rights Council, arrrives in Gaza City on June 3 to inspect the destruction of the Samuni family home. Twenty-nine members of the extended family were killed during Israel’s December 2008-January 2009 assault on the Gaza Strip. AFP photo/Mohammed Abed]

Palestinian children watch as Richard Goldstone, lead inspector for the U.N. Human Rights Council, arrrives in Gaza City on June 3 to inspect the destruction of the Samuni family home. Twenty-nine members of the extended family were killed during Israel’s December 2008-January 2009 assault on the Gaza Strip. AFP photo/Mohammed Abed

Of course there is prima facie evidence that Judge Richard Goldstone is biased. He is Jewish, chair of Friends of the Hebrew University, president emeritus for the World ORT Jewish school system, and has a devoted Zionist daughter who made “aliyah” to Israel. But Hamas somehow neglected to make the allegations, even though Goldstone’s Sept. 15 report devoted over 70 pages to considering allegations of Hamas war crimes—compared with some 350 pages to allegations against Israeli forces, which the report suggested may have committed “acts amounting to war crimes and perhaps, in certain circumstances, crimes against humanity.”

Bearing in mind the more than 100:1 ratio of Palestinian to Israeli casualties during Operation Cast Lead and in the months leading up to it, it shows remarkable forbearance on Hamas’ part not to have accused him in advance. They waited until afterwards to complain of the “imbalance” in the report. In fact, if Israel had deigned to present evidence to the U.N. Human Rights Council inquiry, Goldstone almost certainly would have devoted many more pages to Israeli allegations.

However it was pro-Israel sources that pre-emptively and retroactively calumniated Goldstone, his committee and his report for being “one-sided” and, even more hilariously, “anti-Semitic.”

It has long been a tactic of Israel and its apologists to refuse to cooperate with investigations, judicial or journalistic, and then to pounce on the result and declare it to be “one-sided,” or “biased.” Of course one breathlessly awaits any report from the Anti-Defamation League, NGO Monitor, Zionist Organization of America, U.N. Monitor, etc., ad nauseam, that has ever, ever, found an action of Israel worthy of investigation, let alone condemnation.

“One-sided” in this libelous lexicon means any criticism of Israel whatsoever, as is indicated by the criticism of the Goldstone report, which concluded quite correctly that “the government of Israel had not carried out any credible investigations into alleged violations.” But then, it said the same thing about the Hamas-controlled authorities in Gaza. If that’s not even-handed, one wonders what is.

In fact, the report from the Goldstone fact-finding team is exemplary. A human rights stalwart from South Africa, Goldstone is a staunchly independent member of Paul Volker’s Oil for Food Inquiry, which did not exactly whitewash the United Nations, and a longstanding prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Someone who opposed the apartheid regime in South Africa—his own country, moreover—by definition has better human rights credentials than the Israeli governments that for decades armed the white settler regime and consistently broke the sanctions against Pretoria. Talk about “blood diamonds,” by all means, but then cast your mind back to when Israel was a major exporter of apartheid diamonds.

Anyone who has ever met Goldstone, or had dealings with him, knows him to be a person of deep integrity, firmly committed to human rights and very sensitive to suggestions of bias. When he accepted the Human Rights Council assignment, in fact, he did so only on the assurance that he would be able to look at the behavior of both sides in the conflict in Gaza. He must have really summoned all his courage to take this position and, on all evidence of his past career, weighed every word very carefully.

Goldstone can draw some comfort from the likelihood that the shrill calumnies hurled at him primarily emanate from people who for the most part have not read the report but are screeching from a score provided by the Israeli government. In short, to be attacked by Alan Dershowitz is no bad thing.

As Israeli dissident Uri Avnery points out, the reason the Israeli government refused to cooperate is that it knows its behavior in Gaza was legally indefensible, part of a long, bipartisan Israeli pattern of beating up on neighboring populations to appear tough for its own electorate.

The hysteria and outrage is even remarkable in its lack of substance, since there is little new in the report. Previously, broadcasters have shown Israeli servicemen backing up the allegations of murderous treatment of civilians in Gaza. The U.N. had protested attacks on its premises. The world had watched the phosphorus shells raining flesh-eating agony on civilians, and seen the tortured aftermath. Israeli television viewers had heard a doctor’s agony as his family was murdered.

Every single credible human rights organization, from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International and the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), has reported on the IDF’s criminal behavior during the operation. Just cast your mind back to January when the normally restrained ICRC said the Israeli military had “failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded,” when for four days Israeli forces refused to allow ambulances to go to casualties. When the ICRC eventually gained access, rescue workers found 12 corpses lying on mattresses in one home, along with four young children lying next to their dead mothers.

Goldstone points out, reasonably, that if the Israelis were to carry out a credible investigation it could avert the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation he has called for. In fact, that is the report’s major understated conclusion: that there is a serious case to answer.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry complained that even though the government had not testified to the commission it had sent one of 6,000 copies of its own report, but that it had been ignored. In fact, the spokesman even cited Goldstone telling interviewers “We had a lot of information that came from Israel, both from the government—there was a long 160-odd page report from the Israeli government giving their version. We took that fully into account in making our finding.”

Like many Israelis and most of the rest of the world, the inquiry found that the Israeli version was totally unconvincing. The Foreign Ministry’s faux indignation is clearly from the “Who’re you going to believe—me, or your own eyes?” school.

If Israel does not mount a credible investigation—credible being loosely and generously defined as not the customary form of the IDF investigating and finding itself blameless, but one conforming to international standards—the report wants the Security Council to refer the case to the ICC.
A Crisis and an Opportunity

This offers both a crisis and an opportunity to Obama’s Middle East peace strategy. Hitherto Israel has relied on an automatic U.S. veto on its behalf. Obama has to weigh this very carefully. The reflex action has been to defend Israel, but optimists could detect some signs of nuance in the administration’s response.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly, while complaining that Goldstone had opted for “cookie cutter conclusions” about Israel’s actions while keeping “the deplorable actions of Hamas to generalized remarks,” urged the Israeli government to investigate further.

Obama’s envoy to the U.N., Ambassador Susan Rice, said on Sept. 17 that Washington had “very serious concerns about many of the recommendations in the report,” and pointed out longstanding “very serious concern with the mandate that was given by the Human Rights Council prior to our joining the Council, which we viewed as unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable.”

It was the mandate that was unacceptable, however, not the report, which is still under study. Rice does not want to stand up in the Security Council defending the indefensible, not least on behalf of a government that is so doggedly giving the White House the finger on settlements.

Doubtless crossing her fingers for luck, she added that “We will expect and believe that the appropriate venue for this report to be considered is the [Geneva-based] Human Rights Council and that’s our strong view. And, most importantly, our view is that we need to be focused on the future.”

But that future clearly depends on bringing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to heel and the settlements to a halt. A Security Council decision on the report requires that the White House make a critical choice.

A U.S. abstention, let alone a vote for a referral to the ICC, would send a seismic signal way up the Richter scale to Israelis about what Netanyahu is doing to relations with their only ally in the world.

While a U.S. veto would indeed protect Israel from the ICC, a report with the credibility of a revered and honored jurist like Goldstone will certainly help mount prosecutions in other countries across the globe, particularly in Europe. Already, there are many Israeli military and civilian officials who find themselves having to check with government lawyers as well as their travel agents before setting off. There undoubtedly will be many more.

As Goldstone wrote the report was issued: “Pursuing justice in this case is essential because no state or armed group should be above the law. Western governments in particular face a challenge because they have pushed for accountability in places like Darfur, but now must do the same with Israel, an ally and a democratic state. Failing to pursue justice for serious violations during the fighting will have a deeply corrosive effect on international justice, and reveal an unacceptable hypocrisy.”

One hopes this is printed out and placed in a prominent position above the desks of Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—along with a reminder that Israel is committed to lifting the blockade of Gaza, as well as freezing settlements.

These leaders can point out to the supporters of Israel among the liberal majority of American Jews that they overwhelmingly supported Goldstone when, with Washington’s support, he prosecuted Yugoslav war criminals. They also supported Sudan’s referral to the ICC, in part based on the work of one of Goldstone’s colleagues on the mission, Hina Jilani, who was a member of the commission of inquiry on Darfur.

Ironically, they should be helped by a sad fact: that the Fatah wing of the Palestinian Authority, along with Egypt and many of the Arab regimes, are unlikely to invest much in the way of diplomatic capital or effort behind the report or a referral of Israel to the ICC.

They covered for Sudan in Darfur, after all, and even if they are not eager to do the same for Israel, they are prepared to see Gazans suffer in order to get rid of Hamas. Egypt is Israel’s accomplice in the blockade of Gaza, in the collective punishment of its people for their temerity in electing the wrong government. Hamas has few friends among Arab regimes, not only for its atavistic ideology, but because of the threat its example poses to them if ever they deigned to have elections. They let Beirut burn, and they will let Gaza starve.

Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations and has a blog at .

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