Sharp indictment

Published : Oct 23, 2009 00:00 IST

Justice Richard Goldstone, head of the U.N. inquiry committee on the Gaza conflict.-MARK GRATIN, THE UNITED NATIONS/AP

Justice Richard Goldstone, head of the U.N. inquiry committee on the Gaza conflict.-MARK GRATIN, THE UNITED NATIONS/AP

THE United Nations inquiry committee led by the retired South African Judge Richard Goldstone has submitted a damning report about the Israeli assault on Gaza in the beginning of the year. The 575-page report, released on September 15, has concluded that Israel punished and terrorised civilians in Gaza during its three-week-long war, code-named Operation Cast Lead, which claimed some 1,400 Palestinian lives.

Goldstone, while summing up the report, says that there is enough evidence to show that Israel deliberately targeted civilians and used excessive force in the military assault. The mission concluded that actions amounting to war crimes, and possibly in some respects crimes against humanity, were committed by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), Goldstone says.

His report is the result of a six-month-long inquiry and will be submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) shortly. It corroborates the findings of earlier fact-finding missions led by other human rights groups and U.N. officials. Clinching evidence of the IDFs atrocities, if any were still needed, was provided in the document Breaking the Silence, which contained testimonies by 30 members of the IDF who participated in Operation Cast Lead.

The Goldstone report has reiterated that Israel deliberately attacked civilians, and failed to take precautions to minimise the loss of civilian lives. It cites several instances in which the IDF committed grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

Goldstone recounts that the evidence that his team gathered includes first-hand accounts of the shooting of civilians holding white flags the deliberate and unjustifiable targeting of U.N. shelters and the killing of over 300 children whilst the Israeli army had at their disposal the most precise weaponry in the world. The report says that Israeli troops committed the war crime of using Palestinian civilians as human shields.

Many observers are, however, surprised that the report has also chosen to mention that Palestinian armed groups committed war crimes, as well as possibly crimes against humanity by firing rockets into Israel. The rocket firing from Gaza only resulted in three civilian casualties among Israelis.

Only four paragraphs in the seven-page summary of the Goldstone report are devoted to Palestinian violations. Professor Richard Falk, the eminent jurist and Special Rapporteur of the U.N. for the occupied territories, while praising the Goldstone report, said that there was no need to endorse the misleading main line of the Israeli narrative by assuming that Israel was acting in self-defence against a terrorist adversary.

The report does take note of the ceasefire called by Hamas prior to the first massive Israeli strike in November last year that led to a virtual cessation of rocket attacks from Gaza. The focus of the report is on the overwhelming force being used by Israel on a defenceless population and the deliberate targeting of civilians.

The report cites numerous instances of deliberate attack on civilians and civilian targets by the IDF. Particular mention has been made of the use of white phosphorus shells and high-explosive artillery shells. The report has characterised this as violations of humanitarian laws. The Goldstone Committee has recommended that the U.N. Security Council call on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to credibly investigate the charges within three months. And if they fail to do so, the UNHRC should refer the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor at The Hague within six months, it says.

The report also concludes that Israels invasion of Gaza was a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise 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.

Another important conclusion is that the economic blockade of Gaza by Israel in the years before the military attack amounted to collective punishment intentionally inflicted by the government of Israel on the people of the Gaza Strip. The spokesperson for the Hamas-led government in Gaza said that the report was further proof that Israel committed war crimes during its assault on the territory and called on the international community to bring Israeli war criminals to trial.

Israel has been steadfastly refusing to cooperate with the investigations. The Jewish state rejected the findings of the Goldstone report within 24 hours. Im surprised that Israel has so speedily read a 575-page report and so quickly rejected it, Goldstone told the media. The right-wing Likud-led government in Israel continues to insist that the UNHRC has an inherent anti-Israel bias. Motives were even attributed to Goldstone, a practising Jew and a known supporter of the Jewish state. His family continues to have a strong association with the Zionist movement.

Goldstone and his three colleagues who conducted the investigations said that their work was based on independent and impartial analysis. Goldstone was the first prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda.

Despite his international reputation as an eminent jurist and an anti-apartheid campaigner, Israel refused him and his colleagues permission to enter Gaza, the West Bank and its own territory. Goldstone and his team had to reach Gaza through the Egyptian border crossing. Witnesses from the West Bank were interviewed by the fact-finding team in Jordan, while Israeli victims of Palestinian rocket attacks were flown to Geneva to give their testimonies.

The inquiry looked not only on the Gaza war but also on the circumstances that led to the conflict and the current Israeli policies towards the trapped populace in the enclave. The report accuses Israel of many instances of violation of international law, such as trying to starve and humiliate Gazans into submission. The report maintains that the ICC has the right to investigate individuals violating the laws of war. All countries that have ratified the Geneva Conventions, the report says, are duty bound to prosecute those responsible for war crimes.

After the release of the report, the Israeli government seemed to be in damage control mode. A senior official in the Prime Ministers office told the local media that the priority was to avoid the slippery road which would lead Israel to The Hague. Goldstone has said the international community should be happy to be living in a world where there is now accountability for war crimes.

Israel is hoping that its all-weather friend, the United States, will again bail it out of the tight situation and prevent the Goldstone recommendations from being referred to The Hague. True to form, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, said that Washington had very serious concern with the mandate given to [the Goldstone team] by the Human Rights Council prior to our joining the Council, which we viewed as unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable.

But there still could be danger lurking for those involved in the Gaza massacre. Private legal initiatives have already started in European countries against Israeli officials accused of war crimes. In 2005, an Israeli general, Doron Almog, was nearly arrested at Heathrow Airport on the basis of a private prosecution based on an earlier Israeli military operation in Gaza. The Israeli peace activist, Gideon Levy, wrote in Haaretz after the release of the U.N. report: Theres a name on every bullet, and there is someone responsible for every crime. The Teflon cloak Israel has wrapped around itself since Operation Cast Lead has been ripped off, once and for all, and now the questions must be faced.

Calls for an international boycott of Israel are now being heard worldwide. Campaigns of the kind that were once initiated against apartheid South Africa are now being mooted against Israel. Famous international artists are refusing to perform in Israel. Film producers and directors have in recent times withdrawn their films from screenings at international festivals in Israel. Neve Gordon, an Israeli peace activist, wrote recently that the only way to counter the apartheid trend in Israel was through massive international pressure.

Gordon, who teaches at Ben Gurion University in Israel, has announced that he is now a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement formed by Palestinian activists in 2005. In 2008, a coalition of organisations from all over the world met in Bilbao, Spain, and formulated the 10-point campaign. Its objective is to ensure that Israel respects its obligations under international law and that Palestinians are given the right of self-determination.

Recently, the Brazilian Parliamentary Commission on Foreign Relations and National Defence recommended that the countrys Parliament should not ratify the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Mercosur (Common Market of the South) and Israel until Israel accepts the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay are members of the economic grouping, which is the fifth largest in the world. Member-countries are refusing to ratify the FTA with Israel, which was signed in 2007.

At the recent African Union summit in Libya, its Chairman Muammar Gaddafi made an impassioned speech calling on all African countries to sever diplomatic links with Israel. He accused Israel of having played a key role in destabilising the continent.

The Indian government, while swearing eternal fealty to the Palestinian cause, is now one of Israels key strategic allies. Israel seems to be all set to dethrone Russia as Indias biggest defence supplier. India has sent into space an Israeli satellite, which the Arab world alleges is a spy satellite. The huge profits that the Israeli military-industrial complex is making at the expense of Indian taxpayers are being used to subjugate and humiliate the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

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