Liveliest Debate Over Goldstone Gaza Report is in Israel Itself

The liveliest debate over the Goldstone report on Israel's conduct in Gaza is not taking place within the United Nations or in the United States, but among Israelis themselves -- especially journalists, intellectuals and human rights groups.

For many Arabs and visceral anti-Zionists, the report in September by Judge Richard Goldstone is a "gotcha moment" -- Palestinians good, Israelis bad. For many friends of Israel, the Jewish state can do no wrong. Goldstone, the South African jurist whose history of investigating war crimes around the world is legion, is vilified beyond recognition. Up to 1400 Palestinians died in the Gaza war compared to 13 Israelis.

But while the report was widely attacked in Israel, many are reviewing it seriously without necessarily accepting it as gospel. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon late on Thursday released a report for the 192-member General Assembly on written submissions from Israel and the Palestinian Authority, saying it was too early to determine whether their investigations were independent, credible and conformed to international standards..

Said Uri Avnery, the former Knesset member and veteran peace activist, over the initial Israeli government response:

The instinctive reaction in such a situation is denial. It's just not true. It never happened. It's all a pack of lies. By itself, that is a natural reaction. When a human being is faced with a situation which he cannot handle, denial is the first refuge. If things did not happen, there is no need to cope... From this point of view, it can be said that denial is almost 'normal.' But with us it has been developed into an art form.

The 575-page Goldstone report, a UN fact-finding mission, investigated the three-week war in Gaza that began on Dec. 24, 2008, saying that both Israel and Palestinian militants engaged in actions that amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It condemned rocket attacks by Hamas, but reserved its sharpest criticism of Israel's treatment of the population, saying it was deliberate and disproportionate and destroyed its economic ability to support itself. The report analyzed 36 cases, and said in all but one there was no justifiable military objective. The Palestinians, it said, fired rockets that were aimed at Israeli civilians or risked hitting civilians and caused widespread trauma, a war crime.

Goldstone recommended both sides initiate credible investigations within six months. Otherwise he suggested, the war crimes issue be referred to the UN Security Council which could pass it on to the International Criminal Court (which in reality the Council won't do).

Hamas gave UN officials in Gaza its response, which as expected, rejected all allegations and said its killing of Israeli civilians in rocket attacks was accidental. The Palestinian Authority, which does not control Gaza, said its report would include the creation of a commission of five judges and experts for a "very independent and credible investigation," according to its UN representative, Riyad Mansour.

The government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which refused to cooperate with the Goldstone commission, has castigated the report as biased and distorted, in light of Palestinian militants firing thousands of rockets into Israel over several years. But it now delivered what the Israeli press calls a well-argued response. Amos Harel, a correspondent of the Haaretz newspaper, said the rebuttal showed "the country can, in fact respond to accusations with more than complaints of anti-Semitism."

Israel also for the first time disclosed that disciplinary measures were taken against senior commanders in the Gaza offensive, known as Operation Cast Lead, for firing at a United Nations compound. (Israel last month paid the United Nations $10.5 million for damage to its property).

The 45-page Israeli report defended military investigations, explained the country's judicial system and listed some 150 incidents it said the army was investigating. The Netanyahu government also is considering forming a committee that would evaluate the war, depending on the UN deliberations. (Advocates of an inquiry include a former Supreme Court president and a deputy prime minister.)

Much of the criticism of the Israeli army is by Haaretz correspondents. The newspaper also quoted soldiers who fought in Gaza, saying that Israeli forces killed Palestinian civilians under permissive rules of engagement and intentionally destroyed property.

But the conservative Jerusalem Post, which editorially blasted the Goldstone commission, also ran dissenting views, including a defense by Goldstone himself. And blogs and websites have joined the debate since the September release of the report.

Writing in The Jerusalem Post, columnist Larry Derfner said of Israel's reaction to the report:

This is the Israeli notion of a fair deal: We're entitled to do whatever the hell we want to the Palestinians because, by definition, whatever we do to them is self-defense. They, however, are not entitled to lift a finger against us because, by definition, whatever they do to us is terrorism.

Editorially, The Jerusalem Post said, "No army engaged on multiple fronts against irregular force, embedded among a supportive enemy population is more ethnical or takes greater care to avoid harming innocents than the IDF."

But the questions for many Israelis are: Will Israel set up any kind of inquiry rather than let the army investigate itself? And would such an independent inquiry leave it open to more criticism or judicial threats than the Goldstone report?