Commentary Magazine


The Goldstone Report

After reading the Goldstone Report on human-rights abuses committed during the Gaza War (December 27, 2008–January 19, 2009), all I can say is, it’s a good thing that the United Nations wasn’t around during World War II. I can just imagine its producing a supposedly evenhanded report that condemned the Nazis for “grave” abuses such as incinerating Jews, while also condemning the Allies for their equally “grave” abuses such as fire-bombing German and Japanese cities. The recommendation, no doubt, would have been that both sides be tried for war crimes, with Adolf Hitler in the dock alongside Franklin Roosevelt. Actually, that may be giving the UN more credit than it deserves. To judge by the evidence before us, the likelihood is that the UN in those days would have devoted far more space to Allied “abuses” than to those of the Axis and would have recommended that FDR stand alone before the world court.

The nods toward Palestinian culpability in the report issued by the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, which was headed by the former South African judge Richard Goldstone, are pretty perfunctory. Yes, the report notes that “the rockets and, to a lesser extent, mortars, fired by the Palestinian armed groups . . . constitute indiscriminate attacks upon the civilian population of southern Israel” and amount to “war crimes” and possibly “crimes against humanity.” But far more space in this 575-page document is devoted to Israel’s sins, real or imagined—even if their relationship to the conflict in question is tangential at best.

Readers of the report may be surprised to learn, for example, that “individuals and groups, viewed as sources of criticism of Israel’s military operations were subjected to repression or attempted repression by the Government of Israel.” Repression? What repression? I thought Israel was one of the freest countries in the world and by far the freest in the region. But the UN, in its wisdom, finds:

Amidst a high level of support for the Israeli military operations in Gaza from the Israeli Jewish population, there were also widespread protests against the military operations inside Israel. Hundreds of thousands — mainly, but not exclusively, Palestinian citizens of Israel — protested. While in the main, the protests were permitted to take place, there were occasions when, reportedly, protesters had difficulty in obtaining permits — particularly in areas populated mainly by Palestinian Israelis. 715 people in Israel and in occupied East Jerusalem were arrested during the protests.

So reported difficulties in obtaining protest permits and the arrests of unruly demonstrators (which must remain unverified, since the UN bureaucrats were denied permission to visit Israel and the West Bank) constitute crimes under international law? Pretty rich coming from a UN Human Rights Commission whose members include states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where protesters face consequences somewhat more severe than delays in being granted a permit.

The report also goes out of its way to attack Israel for its detention policies:

It is estimated that since the beginning of the occupation [presumably 1967], approximately 700,000 Palestinian men, women and children have been detained by Israel. According to estimates, as at 1st June 2009, there were approximately 8,100 Palestinian “political prisoners” in detention in Israel, including 60 women and 390 children. Most of these detainees are charged or convicted by the Israeli Military Court System that operates for Palestinians in the West Bank and under which due process rights for Palestinians are severely limited. Many are held in administrative detention, and some under the Israeli “Unlawful Combatants Law.”

This makes it sound as if Israel imprisons people for voicing dissenting viewpoints. But Israel isn’t Egypt or Saudi Arabia. All its prisoners are behind bars because they are suspected of involvement in terrorism. In fact, left-wing Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs are free to subject their government to nonstop vituperation—and many take ample advantage of the opportunity.

The report also takes a swipe at Israeli restrictions on movement in the West Bank without any acknowledgment that this is done solely to prevent terrorism in Israel or any suggestion that this is related to the Gaza War. Israel is even castigated for “policies on the right to enter from abroad and the right of return for refugees,” meaning that the UN (or at least its Human Rights Commission) has endorsed the Palestinian bargaining position of the supposed “right to return,” which really amounts to the destruction of Israel by demographic means. But such pervasive anti-Israeli bias should not be surprising coming from a fact-finding mission that misses the elementary fact that the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip ended in 2005; the report still refers to Gaza as “Israeli occupied territory.”

The report’s findings on the actual Gaza conflict are no more convincing. It amounts to one-sided, after-the-fact second-guessing of difficult targeting decisions made in the heat of battle by Israeli soldiers. Goldstone & Co. are exercised about, inter alia,

the Israeli strikes against the Palestinian Legislative Council and the Gaza main prison. Both buildings were destroyed to an extent that puts them out of use. Statements by Israeli Government and armed forces representatives justified the attacks arguing that political and administrative institutions in Gaza are part of the “Hamas terrorist infrastructure.” The Mission rejects this position. It finds that there is no evidence that the Legislative Council building and the Gaza main prison made an effective contribution to military action. On the information available to it, the Mission finds that the attacks on these buildings constituted deliberate attacks on civilian objects in violation of the rule of customary international humanitarian law whereby attacks must be strictly limited to military objectives.

Presumably during World War II, Goldstone would have found that Allied attacks on the Reichstag were also in violation of “humanitarian law” because that building also was primarily civilian in orientation.

The UN goes so far as to excoriate Israeli attacks on Gaza police who are Hamas enforcers:

The Mission accepts that there may be individual members of the Gaza police that were at the same time members of Palestinian armed groups and thus combatants. It concludes, however, that the attacks against the police facilities on the first day of the armed operations failed to strike an acceptable balance between the direct military advantage anticipated (i.e., the killing of those policemen who may have been members of Palestinian armed groups) and the loss of civilian life (i.e., the other policemen killed and members of the public who would inevitably have been present or in the vicinity), and therefore violated international humanitarian law.

There is no indication of how Israeli military commanders were to strike the balance demanded by the UN: to defend southern Israel from Palestinian rocket attacks while at the same time not inflicting any damage on any Palestinian person or building that was designated as “civilian.” That task is hard enough to accomplish in a war against a conventional combatant whose forces operate openly in uniforms; it is impossible to achieve against a terrorist group whose members deliberately do not wear uniforms (in violation of the laws of war!) in order to blend in with the civilian population.

There is no reason to be surprised that the United Nations—long infamous for its now revoked “Zionism as racism” resolution—should be behind such a risible series of findings. But that makes it no less objectionable or worrisome insofar as Goldstone has suggested that he will push for International Criminal Court action in this matter. Israel’s President Shimon Peres—no hawk—has it right when he says that the Goldstone Report “makes a mockery of history” and “does not distinguish between the aggressor and the defender.”

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