06 April 2011 | Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign
Israeli diplomats and pro-Israel lobbyists in the West have seized eagerly upon an article published in the Washington Post on April 1st by Richard Goldstone, the South African judge who chaired the UN Fact-Finding Mission that investigated the Israeli military offensive in Gaza two years ago, codenamed ‘Operation Cast Lead’. Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu has claimed that “everything we said has been proven true, Israel did not intentionally harm civilians, its investigating bodies are worthy and the fact that Goldstone has retracted should bring the report to be shelved once and for all”, while the Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman maintained that “the truth has come to light”.
These comments are a transparently dishonest spin on the part of the Israeli government. In fact, nothing that has been said by Richard Goldstone constitutes a “retraction” of the fact-finding mission’s report, or brings into question its conclusions that Israeli forces were responsible for major crimes against the civilian population of Gaza. Those crimes are likely to be repeated if the Israeli spin machine is allowed to whitewash the record of “Operation Cast Lead”.
1) No individual can “retract” the findings of the report
Although Richard Goldstone was the chair of the UN’s fact-finding mission, he was part of a team of four international experts (among them Ireland’s Col Desmond Travers). The report was subsequently endorsed by an overwhelming majority of states – including Ireland – at the UN General Assembly. It is not within the authority of any individual member of the fact-finding mission to “retract” its findings. A brief opinion article in the Washington Post certainly cannot be considered an adequate rebuttal of a five-hundred page report that was exhaustively documented by the UN mission.
2) Richard Goldstone has not retracted any of the central findings contained in the report
In his Washington Post article, Richard Goldstone wrote that “investigations published by the Israeli military … have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy”.
Yet the original report did not claim that civilians were “intentionally targeted as a matter of policy”. Rather, it described a “repeated failure to distinguish between combatants and civilians [which] appears to the Mission to have been the result of deliberate guidance issued to soldiers, as described by some of them, and not the result of occasional lapses”, and noted that “the instructions given to the Israeli armed forces moving into Gaza provided for a low threshold for the use of lethal fire against the civilian population”. A callous disregard for civilian life is not the same as a policy of “intentionally” killing civilians. It remains a war crime nonetheless. Nothing that was said by Goldstone’s newspaper article brings this finding into question.
This was not the only crime documented by the report. It also described “ a deliberate and systematic policy on the part of the Israeli armed forces to target industrial sites and water installations”, and found evidence that “Israeli troops used Palestinian men as human shields whilst conducting house searches”. It also drew attention to the broader context, describing the illegal occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as “the fundamental factor underlying violations of international humanitarian and human rights law against the protected population and undermining prospects for development and peace”. Goldstone’s article does not challenge any of these conclusions.
Cedric Sapey, a spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Council (the body that commissioned the report) gave the UN’s official view: “The UN will not revoke a report on the basis of an article in a newspaper. The views Mr Goldstone expressed are his own personal views.” Similarly, Ireland’s Col. Desmond Travers, an expert on international criminal investigations and member of the investigative team continues to endorse the findings saying “the tenor of the report in its entirety, in my opinion, stands”. Hina Jilani, another member of the team, has also said that “ultimately, the UN Report would not have been any different to what it was … no process or acceptable procedure would invalidate the UN Report; if it does happen, it would be seen as a suspect move … The UN cannot allow impunity to remain, and will have to act if it wants to remain a credible international governing body”.
3) Richard Goldstone has been the victim of a hate campaign without parallel
A person reading Richard Goldstone’s article without having read the initial report of the fact-finding mission would still gather the impression that his remarks constitute a significant change of heart: “ If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.” What has changed since the original report was published? Goldstone refers to internal inquiries carried out by the Israeli army. Common sense and experience in every corner of the globe dictate that no army should be given carte blanche to investigate allegations against itself – unless its investigative procedures have been given a clean bill of health by independent authorities.
Has any such authority endorsed the judicial practices of the Israeli army? Goldstone refers to another UN report chaired by retired US judge Mary McGowan Davis, noting its conclusion that “ Israel has dedicated significant resources to investigate over 400 allegations of operational misconduct in Gaza”. Yet the same report goes on to state that “there is no indication that Israel has opened investigations into the actions of those who designed, planned, ordered and oversaw Operation Cast Lead”. The conclusions of the fact-finding mission did not relate solely to the conduct of individual soldiers on the battlefield: they addressed matters of policy decided at the highest levels of political and military command. Any investigation which neglects those who “designed, planned, ordered and oversaw Operation Cast Lead” is clearly incapable of refuting the allegations made by the UN report. It is impossible to believe that such investigations can have prompted any change of heart by Richard Goldstone.
The real cause of his apparent volte-face must be sought elsewhere. Since the fact-finding mission report was published, Richard Goldstone has been targeted by a campaign of vilification that no person should have to endure. He has been described as an “evil man”, a “despicable human being”, a “traitor to the Jewish people”, and compared to Joseph Mengele – the infamous Nazi doctor who conducted experiments on live human beings at Auschwitz. As can be inferred from such remarks, Goldstone is a South African Jew and has been singled out precisely for that reason. Although the other members of the fact-finding mission have also been attacked, none has been subjected to the same kind of vilification that Goldstone has experienced. It reached a peak in 2010 when the South African Zionist Federation threatened to “demonstrate” against Goldstone’s presence at the Sandton Synagogue if he dared to attend his grandson’s bar-mitzvah.
The thinking behind this campaign was overtly anti-Semitic – even though many of its agents consider themselves to be proud Jews. It was based on the premise that any Jew, anywhere in the world, is obliged to give uncritical support to the Israeli state, no matter what it does. This nonsensical doctrine simply turns the old fantasies of European anti-Semitism on its head. The anti-Semitic gangsters and demagogues of twentieth-century Europe claimed that every Jewish person, whatever their nationality, social class or political outlook, was part of a monstrous conspiracy. The modern-day Israel lobby tries to erase the individuality of Jews and force them to adopt a monolithic position of support for “ Israel, right or wrong”. In each case, we find a style of politics that believes ethnicity must dictate behaviour – “we are what we were born to be”. No wonder so many Jewish people have found the pro-Israel lobby repulsive and denied its claim to speak on their behalf.
Richard Goldstone’s Washington Post article is surely best seen as an attempt to protect himself and his family from the unconscionable abuse they have suffered over the past two years. It should not cause us to direct our attention for one second from the crimes committed by the Israeli army against the Palestinian people. The assault on Gaza in January 2009 was merely one episode in a litany of atrocities that spans several decades. If those atrocities are not to continue indefinitely, it is imperative that we study the findings of the UN fact-finding mission – and other sources such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and B’Tselem – and act to protect the victims of wanton violence.