This week the United Nations released an explosive report on Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip in late December last year. It finds both Israel and armed Palestinian groups guilty of war crimes and, potentially, of crimes against humanity. Over 1400 mostly civilian Palestinians (including over 300 children) and 13 Israeli (including nine soldiers) were killed during Israel’s massive invasion of the Gaza Strip, the most densely populated region on the planet.
The report, prepared by a four-person committee headed by the respected South African jurist Richard Goldstone, has singled out Israel for particular criticism. It speaks of "a deliberately disproportionate attack [by Israel]designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population" — including the demolition of homes, factories and infrastructure, the deliberate targeting civilians and a failure to distinguish between civilian and military targets.
Rockets fired into Israel from Gaza were also judged to be war crimes, and potentially crimes against humanity, because they deliberately targeted civilians or failed to distinguish between civilian and military targets.
Also significant was the mission’s conclusion that Palestinian armed groups did not, as charged by Israel, use human shields or shelter in hospitals. Yet Israeli forces were found guilty of this very same crime, as had already been widely documented by human rights groups and Palestinian civilians at the time.
The Goldstone report calls on Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza to investigate the alleged crimes listed in the report and, unless prosecuted within three months, recommends that they be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). It further recommends that Israel pay compensation to Palestinians who lost family members or property during the invasion, something which could create a precedent for future claims with respect to Israel’s program of land confiscation in the West Bank.
At a press conference announcing the report’s findings, Goldstone noted that Israel had not mounted any "credible" investigation into alleged crimes arising out of the Gaza invasion. Israel says it has undertaken over a hundred investigations into alleged crimes committed by its forces but, it adds, these investigations found all the claims to be baseless. Israel’s findings lie in stark contradiction to those of independent bodies like the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch — and now the Goldstone inquiry.
The report represents a powerful challenge to decades-old Israeli exceptionalism in the face of multiple breaches of international law and politics. It is not the first report of its kind. In 2007, for example, another South African lawyer, then UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Palestine John Dugard, likened Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories to the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Another 2007 report by a senior UN official, Alvaro de Soto, on the devastating blockade of Gaza, caused a stir when it was leaked to the media.
Unlike de Soto’s report, which was never intended for wider release, the Goldstone report is the most detailed public condemnation of crimes committed by Israel. The character of these crimes — extrajudicial killings, collective punishment, targeting civilians and using them as human shields — have, however, been frequent features of its 43-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The massive report — all 575 pages of it — is based on 188 interviews, more than 10,000 pages of documentation, 1200 photographs and 30 videos. It includes several hours of live testimony in Gaza and Geneva. Israel refused to cooperate with the inquiry — including with respect to access to its territory.
Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh welcomed the report’s findings with respect to Israel, but rebuked its condemnation of Palestinian rocket fire saying it was an act of self-defence incomparable to the latter’s powerful military force.
Israel immediately rejected the report, calling it "biased and encouraging terror". It argued that the UN Human Rights Council, which commissioned the report, always singles out Israel for criticism while ignoring other countries accused of human rights violations. It has commenced an international campaign to scupper the report and to prevent its findings from being brought before the Security Council, the only body capable of bringing Israelis or Palestinians before the ICC.
Moreover, in light of the report’s findings, some countries may seek to indict individual Israeli leaders or military personnel on charges of war crimes or crimes against humanity.
The prospect of those accused of crimes being hauled to the ICC may be remote. But the report has nevertheless struck a powerful, measured blow for the principle that international criminal law ought to be applied universally regardless of the nationality of the culprits.
According to the historian Norman Finkelstein, the report may not lead to an end of Israel’s brutal occupation of the Palestinian territories, but it nevertheless represents the end of blanket support for the state among the liberal Jewish diaspora.
Of added importance is the fact that the Jewish South African Goldstone has strong personal links to Israel. He is a noted jurist who cut his teeth as an anti-apartheid activist before decades later becoming chief prosecutor at the Yugoslavia and Rwanda war crimes tribunals. Indeed, according to his daughter Nicole, Goldstone is an ardent Zionist whose presence in the inquiry "softened" the report’s findings.
Most non-Arab nations, however, have been notably silent in response to the report’s findings. As ever, either by their direct military or economic ties or by their refusal to condemn Israel, the international community remains complicit in the destruction of any viable Palestinian state.
Remarkably, the Western media has relegated its coverage of the report to the second tier of its newspaper columns. In a bitter twist of tragic irony, most spoke of US envoy George Mitchell’s meeting with Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about a Jewish settlement freeze in the West Bank as though it were taking place on another continent or, perhaps, a different planet. Such lapses in attention point to a continued disparity between the reality on the ground and the so-called Peace Process.
It is sobering to describe a massacre as a watershed. But in years to come the devastation of Gaza by Israel at the beginning of 2009 and the subsequent Goldstone report may well be seen as key moments in the struggle for Palestine.
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