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On Israel, Congress Tolerates Abuse

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Yesterday the US Congress gravely insulted hundreds of civilians who were wounded or killed in the most recent war in the Middle East.

By a vote of 344 to 36, the House condemned the report of the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, also known as the Goldstone report, which documents violations of the laws of war by Israel and Hamas during the conflict last December and January. The 179 Democrats and 165 Republicans who voted yea are helping to shield those responsible on both sides.

The resolution succumbs to predictable American politics, in which criticisms of Israeli actions are rejected as delegitimizing attacks on Israel, and even as anti-Semitism. It misses a chance to break the impunity on all sides that has dogged the conflict and impeded efforts at peace. And, most significant for US foreign policy, it gives abusive governments around the world a handy excuse to deflect US criticism of their own unlawful conduct.

The nonbinding Resolution 867 calls the Goldstone report "irredeemably biased" and says the president and secretary of state should "oppose unequivocally any endorsement or further consideration" of the report in multilateral forums. It says the report is being used to deny Israel the right to self-defense.

The 344 supporters have apparently not read the report. The 575-page document records violations of the laws of war by Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups, and concludes that all sides committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. Both Israelis and Palestinians need to carry out investigations that meet international standards or face international prosecution.

The UN Human Rights Council adopted the report's conclusions in October, and the General Assembly is scheduled to consider the report later this week. The resolution before Congress rightly condemns the Human Rights Council's past bias against Israel, but ignores that in this case the Council asked the Goldstone mission to also examine Palestinian armed groups and then endorsed the findings that Hamas committed war crimes.

The report's conclusions about Israeli violations reflect the mission's research findings and not a "pre-judged" outcome, as the resolution suggests. Israel's three-week Operation Cast Lead involved a complex and multi-faceted campaign in which hundreds of civilians died in indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.

Co-sponsored by Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Democrat Howard Berman, the resolution is also wrong on a number of points. The resolution contends that the fact-finding mission's mandate was biased, but fails to mention that the mandate was deliberately expanded to look at both sides. And the resolution claims that Hamas significantly shaped the report's findings "by selecting and pre-screening some of the witnesses." Goldstone has adamantly rejected that claim, and no one has provided any evidence that Hamas selected or pre-screened witnesses.*

The resolution also repeats an oft-heard critique that the report "denied the State of Israel the right to self-defense." The report does not question Israel's right to use military force. It examines whether Israel and Hamas, in resorting to force, conducted military operations in compliance with the laws of armed conflict, which are designed to spare civilians as much as possible the hazards of war.

Congressional critics also ignore elements of the report that the Obama administration has embraced. Top US officials have strongly criticized the Goldstone report but have also said that the findings deserve attention and that Israel should conduct credible investigations. Some Israeli officials are now saying the same.

Rejecting the call for accountability also harms the US government's ability to push for justice in other parts of the world, such as the Congo and Darfur. When Washington turns a blind eye on violations by Israel, it gives abusive governments and their supporters a way to deflect criticisms of their unlawful conduct. It also dilutes President Obama's message in Cairo that the United States will take a more principled stance in the Middle East.

This approach and this resolution will not help Israel or the region. Instead of denouncing the report, members of Congress should urge Israel and Hamas to conduct credible investigations, bring those responsible to justice and halt the unlawful attacks on civilians that for too long has fueled hatred and hindered efforts at peace.

* CorrectionThis paragraph has been corrected from an earlier version that mistakenly said the resolution condemns the Goldstone report for failing to mention rocket and mortar attacks. It actually condemns the mandate of the fact-finding mission in this regard, not the report itself.

Fred Abrahams is a senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, who led the organization's research team during the Gaza war.