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Goldstone report: the unanswered questions
6 April 2011
It is difficult, in this digital world of instant claim and rebuttal, to say that you were wrong. But Richard Goldstone`s retraction of one of the claims of the report that he chaired – that Israel targeted civilians in the war on Gaza as a matter of policy – is one such instance. Mr Goldstone deserves credit for honesty. It is another matter altogether to decide whether all the other claims of a 575-page report are now invalidated. The Goldstone report was a fact-finding mission, not a judicial inquiry. It was not a document of verdict, but put forward evidence for further investigation. So which facts caused Mr Goldstone to retract? Three, principally: that the shelling of a home in which 22 members of one family died was the consequence of an Israeli commander`s erroneous interpretation of a drone image; that the officer was still under investigation; and that Israel has since investigated over 400 allegations of operational misconduct. Had he known then what he knows now, he concludes, the report would have been very different.
Two of the three other members of the mission disagree with their former chairman`s change of heart. Hina Jilani, who served on a similar fact-finding mission on Darfur, said that nothing changed the substance of the original report, and Desmond Travers, an expert on international criminal investigations, still feels the tenor of the report stands `in its entirety`. Mr Goldstone has parted company with the other members of his mission. It is therefore worth returning to the original report. The retracted allegation refers to the attack which killed 22 members of the Samouni family, who, following instructions from Israeli soldiers, were sheltering in a house in Zeitoun. But there are 35 other incidents that Goldstone`s team investigated. It found seven cases where civilians were shot leaving their homes waving white flags; a direct and intentional attack on a hospital which may amount to a war crime; numerous incidents where ambulances were prevented from attending to the severely injured; nine attacks on civilian infrastructure with no military significance, such as flour mills, chickens farms, sewage works and water wells – all part of a campaign to deprive civilians of basic necessities. The key paragraph of the report states: `The Mission finds that the conduct of the Israeli armed forces constitute grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of wilful killings and wilfully causing great suffering to protected persons and as such give rise to individual criminal responsibility.` On the Samouni killings it states that even if it amounted to an operational error and the mission concludes that a mistake was made, `state responsibility of Israel for an internationally wrongful act` would remain. All of this still stands, as does the charge that Hamas`s rockets deliberately targeted Israeli civilians.
Clear to one side the superheated flak of the debate today. It arises from Israel`s current international isolation, of which the Gaza operation formed only a part. It is now said that the Goldstone report became the cornerstone of a campaign to delegitimise Israel. None of this is relevant to what happened in Gaza between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, events which led to the deaths of 1,396 Palestinians, 763 of whom, according to the Israeli human rights group B`Tselem, were not taking part in hostilities when they were killed. The report did not in fact claim that Israel set out deliberately to murder civilians. It said that Operation Cast Lead was `deliberately disproportionate` and intended to `punish, humiliate and terrorise`. That charge stands unanswered. Indiscriminate warfare, as opposed to deliberate killing, was undoubtedly state policy. Shooting the messenger is always easier than dealing with the message itself. This time, the messenger had the grace to shoot himself. It does not change what happened in Gaza, nor what will happen the next time war breaks out.
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