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Goldstone report: Israel's failings

A U.N. report finds war crimes in last winter's fighting; now Israel must be held accountable.

September 18, 2009|George Bisharat | George Bisharat is a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.

Will Israel's decades-long impunity from international law finally come to an end? That is the question facing the international community in the aftermath of the just-released Goldstone report.

Richard Goldstone, formerly a supreme court justice in South Africa and chief prosecutor in the international tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, headed a four-person United Nations mission investigating both Israel and Hamas for possible war crimes during Israel's attack on the Gaza Strip last winter. The mission conducted 188 interviews and reviewed more than 300 reports, 10,000 pages of documents, 30 videos and 1,200 photographs. The Israeli government barred the group from entering Israel or the Gaza Strip (it reached Gaza, ultimately, through Egypt). By contrast, Palestinian authorities, both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, cooperated with the mission. The 575-page report concluded that both sides committed war crimes before, during and after the intense fighting in December-January.

In its findings on Israel's conduct, the report noted that the ruinous siege on Gaza, imposed long before the invasion, collectively punished its residents in violation of international law. During the attack, Israeli troops killed civilians without justification, wantonly destroyed civilian infrastructure and private homes, and used weapons illegally. Israeli troops targeted and destroyed Gaza's last functioning flour mill. Israeli armored bulldozers razed the chicken farm that provided 10% of Gaza's eggs, burying 31,000 chickens in rubble. Israeli gunners bombed a raw sewage lagoon, releasing 200,000 cubic meters of filth into neighboring farmland. Repeated pinpoint strikes on a water well complex destroyed all of its essential machinery.

These are just some of the facts that led the mission to conclude that Israel's objective in the attack was "to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability."

Since a January cease-fire, Israel has maintained its illegal blockade, keeping relief supplies and construction materials from Gaza, and thus guaranteeing continued Palestinian civilian suffering.

The Goldstone mission found that Hamas, in its indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, also committed war crimes, calling the rockets "a deliberate attack against the civilian population."

The report recommends that all parties to the fighting conduct credible internal investigations of the abuses it documented. If they fail to do so within six months, the report recommends that the U.N. Security Council refer the matter to the International Criminal Court for investigation.

Israel clearly anticipated a critical report and has been planning for months to discredit it. Its spokespeople are making preposterous accusations, such as that Goldstone is "anti-Israel" (in fact, he is Jewish and has strong ties to Israel), and its diplomats are working the phones in an attempt to sway Western governments and members of the Security Council. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised the report in discussions with U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is trying to orchestrate condemnation of the report by senior Obama administration officials and members of Congress.

This urging must be resisted, and Israel's serial violations of international law -- whether in pulverizing Lebanon in 2006; illegally detaining, torturing or assassinating Palestinians under its dominion in the occupied Palestinian territories; or building settlements on Palestinian lands for exclusive Jewish occupancy -- must come to an end. Israel may not be the worst human rights violator in the world, but it is among those that most consistently evade accountability.

Israeli abuses are deeply resented around the globe. For too long, we in the United States have abetted Israel, bestowing on it roughly $3 billion annually in aid since 1973 and vetoing scores of resolutions in the Security Council that attempted to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law.

To his credit, President Obama has called for a halt to new Israeli settlements, though he has failed to enunciate consequences for Israeli defiance. He should now embrace the Goldstone recommendations strongly, and must also demand an immediate end to Israel's illegal siege of Gaza.

Israel's friends, rather than reflexively dismissing Goldstone's findings, should reflect instead: Are the interests of Israeli citizens genuinely served by continued indulgence of their military's excesses? Impunity for one state undermines the very legitimacy of international law. Yet international law protects weak and strong alike, and we ignore its continuing abuse at our peril.

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