Behind all the media buzz about events in Libya, Yemen and Syria, the Arab-Israeli conflict resurfaced at the weekend in a bizarre manner.
Richard Goldstone, the South African judge who was author of a controversial 2009 report that carried his name – wrote an article for The Washington Post, sending shockwaves throughout the upper echelons of power in the Gaza Strip and Israel.
Goldstone, for two years hailed as a hero by the Arab street, had chaired the fact-finding mission appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and its report accused Israel of committing war crimes during the Gaza war of 2008. The report actually was tough on both the Israelis and the Palestinians – but that seemingly did not matter to the Arabs. What mattered to them was the strength of its words.
The Palestinian street eagerly endorsed the report, seeing it as a triumphant victory at the United Nations, although the same cannot be said for the Palestinian governments in Gaza and the West Bank. Although Hamas had facilitated the investigation, it nevertheless was very unimpressed with the report because it also accused the Palestinians of war crimes for deliberately targeting Israeli civilians.
For their part, the Israelis dismissed the Goldstone Report as biased, having refused to even cooperate with the UN probe. Jewish communities around the world trashed the report for being too harsh on Israel. Pro-Palestinian communities around the world trashed it for being too harsh on the Palestinians. Goldstone himself trashed it yet again on April 1, adding to the chorus saying that it was flawed and misleading.
To understand what’s happening, let’s go back to early 2009. The UNHRC passed a resolution condemning Israel for “grave violations” of human rights, appointing a team headed by Goldstone to investigate “all violations of international human law and international humanitarian law that might have been committed at any time in the context of the military operations that were conducted in Gaza during the period from 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, whether before, during or after”.
The mandate was to investigate operations in Gaza and not those in Israel, which means by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) not Hamas. When the report was released in mid-September 2009, it concluded that both sides had committed violations, stating that Israel had used disproportionate force, targeting Palestinian civilians and destroying their infrastructure.
The Israelis, it noted, were possibly guilty of crimes against humanity. Hamas was also accused of targeting Israeli civilians and firing rockets indiscriminately at northern Israel. Both sides were encouraged to launch internal investigations to bring wrongdoers to justice or otherwise recommended taking the matter to the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
In October 2009, the UNHRC voted in support of the report, but both Hamas and Israel dismissed it, refusing to admit that they had committed war crimes. Even Mahmud Abbas, the pro-Western president of the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank helped drown the report at the UN – suffering tremendous damage in the Palestinian street.
In his recent article, Goldstone wrote: “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone report would have been a different document.”
The Israelis immediately grabbed on his apparent u-turn, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that the original report “should be thrown into the waste-bin of history”. Israeli President Shimon Peres demanded an official apology from Goldstone, while Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, “It is very odd that Goldstone suddenly backtracks on the content of his fact-finding report and says he accepts the Israeli narrative.”
Israeli columnist Aluf Benn described the Washington Post article as a “major public relations coup” for Israel, explaining that Goldstone had “retracted his allegations that Israel had committed war crimes against humanity during Operation Cast Lead”. All Goldstone said was that people should re-read the article closely.
I tried to do just that, reading the article twice then comparing it to the 275-page report that I went through the burden of printing and highlighting. What Goldstone basically said in the article was that the Palestinian civilians targeted by the IDF “were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy”. He makes particular reference to the killing of 29 members of the Simouni family, which in 2009 was signaled out as one of the worst crimes of the Gaza war. Now, Goldstone says that shelling the home “was apparently the consequence of an Israeli commander’s erroneous interpretation of a drone image”.
Originally, the Goldstone Report said that Israel’s strikes into Gaza were “deliberately disproportionate” and intended to “punish, humiliate, and terrorize” the Gaza Strip. It even speaks of the “blockade policies” of Israel on Gaza, claiming that they are a “violation” of the Geneva Convention.
The report actually quotes IDF Northern Command chief Gadi Eisenkot saying:
What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.
That only reminds us of Peres speaking to The Jerusalem Post on January 14, 2009 (during the Gaza War) when he said that his country’s aim was to “provide a strong blow to the people of Gaza so that they would lose their appetite for shooting at Israel”.
Goldstone neither refutes nor confirms nor challenges, any of that information in his new article. What he does is find excuses for Israel to act in the manner that it did during the Gaza war. He then praises the Israelis for bringing wrongdoers to justice, noting that no such action took place on the Palestinian side. “Israel has done this [investigation] to a significant degree.”
Strangely, in the original report, Goldstone clearly says that the Israeli system was unfit to “deal with allegations of serious wrongdoings by armed personnel” according to international principles. It also says that Operation Cast Lead could not be viewed “in isolation” from Israel’s general approach towards the Palestinians, many of which are “violations of international law”.
How he now has faith in Israeli justice when he doubted its international standards only two years ago, remains a mystery. So is the reason behind Goldstone’s decision to publish such an article, at this particular time. However, we must not give too much credit to Goldstone’s article – it remains nothing but an article, carrying little weight when compared to a 275-page UN-mandated report. That report, accepted by the UNHRC, was authored by four judges, not one, whereas this article was written by one person, Richard Goldstone.
This article appeared in Asia Times on April 6, 2011 entitled, “Goldstone now praises Israel.”