Goldstone's Legacy for Israel
This essay is adapted from the introduction to The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict (Nation Books).
A sprawling crime scene. That is what Gaza felt like when I visited in the summer of 2009, six months after the Israeli attack. Evidence of criminality was everywhere—the homes and schools that lay in rubble, the walls burned pitch black by white phosphorus, the children’s bodies still unhealed for lack of medical care. But where were the police? Who was documenting these crimes, interviewing the witnesses, protecting the evidence from tampering?
For months it seemed that there would be no investigation. Many Gazans I met on that trip appeared as traumatized by the absence of an international investigation as by the attacks. They explained that even in the darkest days of the Israeli onslaught, they had comforted themselves with the belief that, this time, Israel had gone too far. Mona al-Shawa, head of the Women’s Unit at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, told me that Gazans took great solace from news of pro-Palestinian protesters filling the streets of London and Toronto. “People called it war crimes,” she recalled. “We felt we were not alone in the world.” It seemed to follow from these expressions of outrage that there would be serious consequences for the attacks—criminal trials for the perpetrators, sentences. And under the glare of international investigation, Israel would surely have to lift the brutal embargo that had kept Gaza sealed off from the world since Hamas came to power. Those who really dared to dream convinced themselves that, out of the lawlessness and carnage, a just peace would emerge at last.
But six months later, an almost unbearable realization had set in: the cavalry wasn’t coming. Despite all the righteous indignation, Israel had not been forced to change its behavior in any way. Gaza’s borders were still sealed, only now the blockade was keeping out desperately needed rebuilding supplies in addition to many necessities of life. (It would take Israel’s lethal attack last year on a humanitarian aid flotilla for a debate about the siege to begin in earnest.) Even worse, the people I met were acutely aware that they could find themselves trapped under Israeli air bombardment again tomorrow, for any arbitrary excuse of Israel’s choosing. The message sent by the paralysis of the international legal system was terrifying: Israel enjoyed complete impunity. There was no recourse.
Then, out of nowhere, a representative of the law showed up. His name was Justice Richard Goldstone, and he was leading a fact-finding mission for the United Nations. His mandate was to assess whether war crimes had been committed in the context of the attack. I happened to be in Gaza City when Justice Goldstone was wrapping up his public hearings and met several people who had testified before him, as well as others who had opened their homes to the mission, showing the scars left by Israeli weapons and sharing photographs of family members killed in the attacks. Finally some light seemed to be shining on this rubble-choked strip of land. But it was faint, and many Gazans remained skeptical that justice would follow. If the attacks had failed to provoke action, they reasoned, what hope was there that words in a report would awaken the world? This caution, it turns out, was a wise form of self-preservation.
The attempts to block, then sabotage, then bury the Goldstone Report began before a single word had been written. The Israeli government rejected the original decision by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate allegations of war crimes during the Gaza attack. The council was hopelessly biased, Israel claimed, and the January 12, 2009, resolution creating the fact-finding mission was, according to Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs, “one-sided and irrelevant.” It is true that the original mandate of the mission called only for an investigation of violations committed “by the occupying Power, Israel, against the Palestinian people.” But when Justice Goldstone took the top job and announced that the mandate had been expanded to include possible crimes committed by Palestinians “whether before, during or after” the attacks, Israel flatly refused to acknowledge this new reality. “There is no formal expansion of the mandate,” foreign ministry spokesman Yossi Levy insisted, against abundant evidence to the contrary. He added, “We will not cooperate with the mission, because its duty is not to find the truth but to find semi-judicial ways to attack Israel.”
When it became clear that the mission would proceed despite this obstructionism, the Israeli government switched to a new strategy: doing almost everything in its considerable power to sabotage Goldstone’s work. To this end, the Israeli government refused to allow the UN team to travel inside Israel. That meant that to get into Gaza, members had to go through Egypt. It also meant that Goldstone’s investigators could not travel to Sderot and Ashkelon to hear from Israeli victims of Qassam rocket attacks—critical testimony if the mission was to fulfill its mandate to investigate crimes on all sides. Israel’s strategy was transparent enough: it would force Goldstone to produce a one-sided report, which it would then enthusiastically dismiss for being one-sided.
It didn’t work. To get around the government roadblocks, Goldstone flew Israelis to Geneva so he could hear their testimony in person. When the report came out, it reflected the scale of the crimes committed by each side, concentrating mostly on Israel’s actions, including attacks on houses, hospitals and mosques that together killed scores of people, as well as attacks on civilian infrastructure such as water installations, agricultural facilities and factories. But the report did not give Hamas a pass. Goldstone concluded that the launching of rockets and mortars into populated areas “where there is no intended military target”—a practice used by Hamas’s military wing as well as by other armed Palestinian groups—“indicates the commission of an indiscriminate attack on the civilian population of southern Israel, a war crime, and may amount to crimes against humanity.” He also accused Hamas of “extrajudicial executions” in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority of repression and possibly torture in the West Bank.
The Goldstone Report is a serious, fair-minded and extremely disturbing document—which is precisely why the Israeli strategy since its publication has been to talk about pretty much everything except the substance of the report. Distractions have ranged from further posturing about the UN’s bias, to smear campaigns about Justice Goldstone’s personal history, to claims that the report is an integral part of a grand conspiracy to deny Israel’s right to exist. Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador and top political adviser, said the report was “the most serious and vicious indictment of the State of Israel bearing the seal of the United Nations” since the UN equated Zionism with racism in 1975 and “an assault on Israeli society as a whole,” while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained that “there are three primary threats facing us today: the nuclear threat, the missile threat and what I call the Goldstone threat.” The phrase “blood libel” was thrown around with great promiscuity, disgracefully equating the Goldstone Report with the anti-Semitic trials of the Middle Ages in which Jews were accused of drinking the blood of Christian children. (For some reason this seems to be a problem only when Sarah Palin abuses the term.)
Given this kind of incitement from the top, it’s little wonder that the 72-year-old judge was very nearly prevented from attending his grandson’s bar mitzvah in a Johannesburg suburb, with the synagogue worried about violence breaking out. “I could not believe that political anger against him—which people had every right to express—had evolved into an uncontrolled and unconscionable rage that sought to violate the spirit of one of the most sacred aspects of formal Jewish tradition,” observed noted South African judge Albie Sachs.