It takes courage to confront Israel on the battlefield. Egypt, Syria, and Jordan’s puffed-up armies learned that lesson in June 1967, when six days of combat forced them to throw in the towel. Courage is also necessary to take on Israel in the court of public opinion, something the once-respected South African jurist Richard Goldstone ought to have considered. When he accepted the United Nations’ invitation to investigate Israel’s military assault of December 2008 and January 2009 on the Gaza Strip, he took precautions to avert attacks on his character. At the beginning, he said, “I insisted on changing the original mandate adopted by the Human Rights Council, which was skewed against Israel.” Israel could not have asked for a more sympathetic investigator of its army’s behavior during its invasion of the Gaza Strip. Perhaps Justice Goldstone believed that, by accepting Israel’s terms of reference and emphasizing his own commitment to Zionism, he would avoid being smeared if his inquiry turned out to be anything other than a commendation to the Israeli armed forces for a job well done. If so, he discovered how wrong a good lawyer can be.
Goldstone and the three other members of the UN Human Rights Council’s Fact Finding Mission—Pakistani lawyer Hina Jilani, Irish Colonel Desmond Travers, and British professor Christine Chinkin—conducted a thorough inquiry into the conduct of Israeli soldiers and Hamas militants during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. The report acknowledged:
“When the operations began, the Gaza Strip had been for almost three years under a severe regime of closures and restrictions on the movement of people, goods and services. This included basic life necessities such as food and medical supplies….These measures were imposed by the State of Israel purportedly to isolate and weaken Hamas after its electoral victory….”
As a renowned lawyer, Goldstone knew that an embargo—such as when Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping in 1967—constitutes an act of war against which the aggrieved party is entitled to defend itself. Ignoring the proximate cause of Hamas’s futile deployment of homemade rockets against Israel was like condemning America for attacking Japan in World War II without any reference to Pearl Harbor.
Rather than appearing “skewed” against Israel, the Mission refrained from asking basic questions:
Why do 1.6 million people dwell on a narrow strip of sand between Israel and the Egyptian Sinai, when most of them, their parents, or their grandparents were born in villages a few miles away in what became Israel in 1948?
Does Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza have any connection to the violence undertaken by the occupied population?
Does Israel have any obligation to observe UN Security Council Resolution 242 calling for its complete withdrawal from territories it occupied in 1967?
While the Palestine Authority has recognized the State of Israel and its “right to exist,” is there no reciprocal obligation on Israel to recognize Palestine and its “right to exist”?
Do Israel’s attacks on Gaza and its seizure of land in the West Bank serve to undermine Palestinian voices calling for peaceful coexistence and do they fuel the radicalism of Hamas and its allies?
Israel was not required to answer any of these questions. In fact, it refused to answer any questions at all. Nor would it allow the Mission to enter the Gaza Strip from Israel, forcing it to travel via Egypt. In Gaza, the Mission could not ignore the evidence of its eyes and ears during two days of dramatic and compelling testimony that is recorded in the 575-page report it published in September 2009.
The Mission noted that at least 1,387 Palestinians were killed, compared to ten Israeli soldiers, four of whom were killed in fire from their own side. Despite the disproportion in casualties that indicate an onslaught rather than a battle, the Fact Finding Mission condemned both sides. It found Hamas guilty of “an indiscriminate attack on the civilian population of southern Israel, a war crime, and may amount to crimes against humanity.” That balance would not be enough for Israel, however, to act upon the Mission’s recommendations that soldiers and officers be investigated and prosecuted for war crimes. Instead of prosecuting war crimes, it attacked Justice Goldstone.
A US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks cites Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as saying that Israel faces “three principal threats: Iran’s nuclear program, missile proliferation and the Goldstone Report.” Israel may not have done much about Iran and the missiles, but it has now put Goldstone to rest. Israel’s thuggish foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman (who must have the suave Abba Eban moaning from the grave) triumphed, “The price of dealing [with the report] over the past few years was worth it.”
Goldstone performed an auto-da-fé in the Washington Post’s op-ed pages on April 1, which unfortunately was not an April Fools’ deception: “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.” The new development, he asserted, was Israel’s prosecution of several soldiers. That seems unlikely. This is a system of justice that ordered an Israeli settler to do six months’ community service for beating a ten-year-old Palestinian to death. No one has been prosecuted for killing twenty-nine men, women, and children of the al-Simouni family in their home. One soldier who stole and used a Palestinian’s credit card was sentenced to seven months, while two soldiers who risked a Palestinian child’s life by using him as a human shield were given three-month suspended sentences. Goldstone relied on a report by New York judge Mary McGowan Davis that he said exonerated Israel, when her report had done exactly the opposite. The more likely explanation for Justice Goldstone’s recantation was not new evidence, but what the soon-to-be-indicted-for-graft Lieberman would call “dealing.”
Leading lights of prominent Jewish organizations in South Africa told Goldstone they were unhappy with his report. Zionist groups threatened to picket his grandson’s Bar Mitzvah if he attended. He was, like the great philosopher Baruch Spinoza in the seventeenth century, suddenly an outcast among his own. The pressure was understandably too much for him to bear.
British architect Richard Rogers trod a similar path in 2006 when he hosted the founding meeting of a group opposed to construction of the Separation Barrier (also known as the Apartheid Wall) that sealed off the West Bank and added Palestinian land to the Israeli side. After the group of architects and engineers called for a boycott of companies building the wall, New York threatened to withdraw his $1.7 billion contract to reconstruct the Javits Center and Rogers was forced to dissociate himself from his colleagues. To confirm his enlightenment, Rogers stated, “I unequivocally renounce Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine and have withdrawn my relationship with them.” Like Goldstone, he learned how far Israel would go to defend itself from criticism.
Critics of Israel, beware. If you don’t have the stomach for a fight, don’t go into the ring.
Meanwhile, Israel continues its embargo and assaults on Gaza.
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