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The Goldstone Report on Gaza

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JERUSALEM - For Jews around the world, the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is the season of soul-searching, where we ask forgiveness both from God and from our fellow human beings for sins large and small. But this year the Jewish holiday season came just as the UN issued a scathing report on Israel's recent military operation in the Gaza Strip. And so, my government's representatives around the globe have turned the tradition upside-down; rather than taking responsibility and making amends, they spent the past ten days deflecting all accusation of wrongdoing.

The UN fact-finding mission headed by Richard Goldstone found that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes in last winter's military operation in Gaza. The report calls on both sides to launch criminal investigations into these allegations and to hold accountable anyone found to have committed these crimes. If either side fails to do so, the mission has requested various UN bodies to take measures to ensure such accountability.

Israel's response is a categorical condemnation of the report as biased and one-sided (Hamas has made a similar condemnation). Government spokespeople and major Jewish organizations claim the report is so fundamentally flawed as to be useless, or worse, a blood libel. The U.S. also criticized the report, dismissing calls for any serious international follow-up.

The full-throated, unequivocal denouncement is unsubstantiated: Israel claims the report ignores eight years of Hamas rocket fire at Southern Israel, though the report firmly denounces these attacks, calling them war crimes. Israel points to the one-sided mandate formulated by the UN Human Rights Council, though we know that Justice Goldstone accepted the offer to head the inquiry only on condition that its mandate was explicitly expanded to include all sides.

This is not to say that the report has no faults. I was disturbed by the framing of Israel's military operation as part of "an overall policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population for its resilience." The facts presented in the report itself would not seem to support such a far-reaching conclusion. In light of the sweeping conclusions regarding Israel, the very careful phrasing regarding Hamas abuses is particularly conspicuous. The mission did not find conclusive evidence regarding Hamas' use of mosques and civilian buildings for military purposes, nor does it criticize Hamas' firing from and shielding themselves within civilian areas. The evidence accumulated over the past eight months regarding both these phenomenon cannot be ignored.

Yet these lacunae are an indictment of Israel as much as of the UN report. Justice Goldstone all but begged Israel to cooperate with the mission and provide all the information it has to make its case. Israel refused, thereby dooming the report to a perhaps inevitable blind spot. I cannot avoid the feeling that Israel actually prefers this emphatically harsh, yet flawed report. Israel's generals and legal advisors will never acknowledge it publicly, but they must know their conduct in the Gaza operation did not accord with international requirements. This would also be reflected in the more measured, nuanced report that would have resulted from Israeli cooperation. Yet such a report would be much harder to denounce.

All the tendentious mudslinging and the more grounded criticism cannot delegitimize the report's central recommendation: that Israel itself must conduct credible investigations into its own conduct. The whole international system is based on the premise that justice should be done at home. Only in cases where there is no possibility of obtaining a domestic remedy does the international community step in to fill the vacuum. The Goldstone report reiterates this premise.

For months the Israeli human rights community has urged Israel to open credible, independent investigations into the hundreds of allegations of military misconduct. Israel has stubbornly refused, largely making do with military debriefings that categorically absolve Israeli forces of any wrongdoing. Only a handful of military police investigations have been opened, and the one criminal investigation to be concluded is the exception that proves the rule. A soldier in the Givati brigade was tried, convicted and sentenced -- for stealing a credit card.

After eight months of lobbying and advocacy, eight months in which B'Tselem sent dozens of cases to Israeli law enforcement officials, I must conclude that left to its own devices, Israel would never conduct the necessary investigations. Such an outcome is intolerable for the Palestinian residents of Gaza, who have no redress for all that they suffered. It is also harmful for Israeli society which has a right to know what was done in its name, and for Israeli democracy. And it is extremely damaging for the international legal system if such a high-profile case can be ignored. Under the circumstances, the international community cannot let this scenario occur.

So Israel now has a choice. It can continue to shoot the messenger and bury its head in the sand, hoping despite all signs to the contrary that this whole controversy will somehow disappear. Or it can initiate a genuine process of truth-telling and taking responsibility. Such a process may well be painful, but we will emerge stronger and healthier for it. As a friend and crucial supporter, the United States should not dismiss the report out of hand but rather encourage Israel to conduct serious investigations.


Jessica Montell is Executive Director of B'Tselem: the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. jmontell@btselem.org