UN report finds Israel guilty of war crimes

By Kim Bullimore

On September 15, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) released a report it commissioned into Israel’s war on Gaza in December-January, during which some 1400 Palestinians were killed  by the Israeli military. Thirteen Israelis also died, including four civilians. The report found that Israel had committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity during its three-week assault on the 1.5 million Palestinians resident in the Gaza Strip.

The report criticised Israel for deliberately destroying nonmilitary targets, citing a flour mill, a chicken farm and water pumps. It said Israel’s wider policies toward Gaza over the last two years, including a border blockade imposed after the 2007 Hamas takeover of the territory, “might justify” a court finding of crimes against humanity.

The UNHRC investigation, which was opposed outright by Israel, was headed by Jewish South African jurist and ardent Zionist Richard Goldstone who was the chief prosecutor of the UN’s International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda from 1994 to 1996. Goldstone’s team included Hina Jilani, a member of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur in 2004, as well as Colonel Desmond Travers, a former officer in the Irish armed forces and Christine Chinkin, a professor of international law at the London School of Economics.

The role and mandate of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, according to an announcement made by the president of the UNHRC on April 3, included investigating “all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law that might have been committed at any time in the context of the military operations that were conducted in Gaza during the period from 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, whether before, during or after”. The mission’s 575-page report was based on more than 20,000 pages of information and also included 1200 photographs, 30 videos and 188 interviews with victims of the war, as well as with medical, legal and human rights experts.

The final report issued by Goldstone and his team also addressed a range of broader issues. These included an examination of the events leading up to the war, Israel’s illegal siege of Gaza, the firing of Qassam rockets into Israel by the Palestinian resistance movement and Israel’s illegal military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967, including the excessive or lethal use of force during protests against the occupation and its consequences. The report also examined the repression of dissent in Israel by Israeli security forces, Fatah’s targeting of Hamas supporters in the West Bank and the restriction of free assembly and expression by Fatah, as well as looking at the issue of Palestinians in Israeli prisons and the continuing detention of Israeli prisoner of war Gilad Shalit by the Palestinian resistance.

While Hamas and the Palestinian Authority cooperated fully with the Goldstone mission, Israeli officials refused to do so, even denying its members entry to Israel or the Occupied West Bank. As a result, Goldstone and his colleagues were forced to enter Gaza via Egypt and to hold additional public hearings in Geneva and Amman, in order to gather testimony from individuals and organisations from Israel and the West Bank, including medical, legal and military professionals and experts.

Even before the report was released, the Israeli government began a propaganda offensive to discredit it, saying the report would be biased. The September 16 Tel Aviv Haaretz newspaper reported that the Israeli government would seek to discredit the report by “stress[ing] that the Goldstone report is one-sided, that it rewards terrorism and that it sets a precedent which will make it difficult for any country in the world to defend itself against terror … Israel’s diplomatic efforts will focus on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — but will also give priority to members of the European Union, because of their influence in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.”

According to a senior Israeli official, quoted by Haaretz, “We will involve our friends around the world, especially the United States, to prevent Israel’s isolation”. The Obama administration willingly obliged, with its UN ambassador, Susan Rice, telling the September 18 Jerusalem Post that Washington had “serious concerns” about the mandate given to Goldstone, saying that it was “one-sided and basically unbalanced”.

However, while both the Israeli and US governments have sought to discredit the Goldstone report as “unbalanced”, neither have sought to prove that the findings in the report are untrue. These include that the Israeli military carried out indiscriminate attacks on Palestinian civilians, as well as deliberately targeting Palestinian civilians during both ground and air attacks; that the Israeli military used Palestinian civilians as human shields on at least four occasions and the Israeli military’s systematic and “reckless” use of chemical weaponry such as white phosphorus (which burns through flesh and bone) and small arms fletchettes missiles in densely populated urban areas.

Despite claims by Jerusalem and Washington that the report was biased against Israel, Goldstone and his colleagues also addressed the issue of Qassam rockets being fired into Israel by the Palestinian resistance. They noted that these constituted indiscriminate attacks on a civilian population and, despite the fact that these attacks “caused little damage”, were a violation of International law. The Goldstone report, however, also noted with concern, in relation to this rocket fire, that Israel had failed to protect its Arab citizens in the same way it protected its Jewish citizens. The report noted that while there was an early warning system in place in Jewish areas, there was a “lack of an early warning system and a lack of public shelters and fortifications available to the Palestinian Israeli communities living unrecognised and in some of the recognised villages that are within the range of rocket and mortars being fired”.

While the key recommendations of the Goldstone report are not binding on anyone, the report called for the immediate lifting of the Israeli siege of Gaza, the cessation of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian sea access, lifting of Israeli restrictions on freedom of movement between Gaza and the Occupied West Bank and Israeli reparations for the destruction its assault wrought on Gaza. The report also recommends that Israel release all Palestinian prisoners detained as a result of its occupation and that the Israeli authorities should cease actions inside Israel aimed at limiting criticism of government policy and its military operations in Gaza.

Veteran Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, in his regular column in Haaretz on September 17, accused Israel of carrying out another Sabra and Shatila massacre in Gaza, writing that “[Operation] Cast Lead was an unrestrained assault on a besieged, totally unprotected civilian population which showed almost no signs of resistance during this operation”. On the other hand, Israeli radio stations devoted heavy chunks of air time to interviews with Israeli officials denouncing the Goldstone report. “Classic Anti-Semitism”, blared the headline of an opinion piece in the Israeli Hayom daily.