The recently released UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission on the December-January Gaza conflict, released on the eve of Barack Obama's attempt to jump-start comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, was but the latest in a series of investigations, most of them by human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Like its predecessors, the so-called Goldstone report, named after chief investigator Richard Goldstone, is devastating in its critique of Israeli actions: indiscriminate use of firepower; deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian structures, including hospitals, schools, mosques, water and sewage plants, and rescue vehicles; use of white phosphorus munitions in built-up areas; use of human shields; abusive treatment of detainees; imposition of a blockade on Gaza before and after the attack itself--the report concludes that Israel violated international humanitarian law, committed "grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of wilful killings and wilfully causing great suffering to protected persons," and war crimes, possibly even crimes against humanity. The courageous Israeli journalist Gideon Levy summed it up well in Haaretz: it was "an unrestrained assault on a besieged, totally unprotected civilian population which showed almost no signs of resistance during this operation."
Perhaps most damning of all was the testimony of some thirty Israeli veterans of the operation gathered by the organization Breaking the Silence, published in a booklet in July and cited by the Goldstone report. According to the booklet's introduction, "The majority of the soldiers who spoke with us are still serving in their regular military units and turned to us in deep distress at the moral deterioration of the IDF.… The stories of this publication prove that we are not dealing with the failures of individual soldiers, and attest instead to failures in the application of values primarily on a systemic level." The testimony is chilling: "Fire power was insane"; "if you see any signs of movement at all, you shoot. These, essentially, were the rules of engagement. Shoot if you like"; "Houses were demolished everywhere.… We didn't see a single house that was not hit"; "whole neighborhoods were simply razed because four houses in the area served to launch Qassam rockets"; "You know what? You feel like a child playing around with a magnifying glass, burning up ants. Really. A 20-year-old kid should not be doing such things to people."
Predictably, the Goldstone report was met by a wave of angry denunciations from the Israeli government--which had refused to cooperate with the investigators--and most of the Israeli media. The mainstream media here have downplayed the investigation's significance; news coverage has been sparse, and not one major US daily has seen fit to editorialize on it (unless you count a nasty little screed from the New York Daily News calling the report a "blood libel against Israel"). And US pundits and politicians--including UN ambassador Susan Rice, who called it "unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable"--have been overwhelmingly critical.
But it's not so easy to dismiss these findings. For one thing, the nearly 600-page report is carefully documented and comprehensive, and is based on field visits, public hearings, almost 200 individual interviews, photos, videos, satellite imagery and a review of more than 300 other reports. For another, its head, Goldstone, is one of the most respected and experienced international jurists, having served as a justice on South Africa's Constitutional Court and chief UN prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
And then there are Goldstone's personal connections: he's Jewish and, according to his daughter, herself an ardent Zionist who lived in Israel for six months, he's "a Zionist and loves Israel." Indeed, she said of her father, who serves on the Board of Governors of Hebrew University, "I know that if he thought what he did would not somehow be for the sake of peace for everyone in Israel or that it would have hindered such efforts, he would not have accepted the job."
Before taking it on, Goldstone insisted on expanding the mission's mandate so that it cover Palestinian acts; far from being one-sided, the report concluded that Hamas rocket and mortar barrages on southern Israel were "indiscriminate attacks upon the civilian population," acts that "would constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity." International law expert (and Nation editorial board member) Richard Falk has concluded that "no credible international commission could reach any set of conclusions other than those reached by the Goldstone Report on the central allegations."
Falk points out that there are good reasons for Israel's panicked reaction. In addition to the report's balance and the credibility of its chief, Goldstone recommends that Israel and Hamas carry out serious, comprehensive investigations of their own into the alleged crimes, and that if they do not do so within six months, the UN Security Council should consider referring the matter to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. That's highly unlikely, given US veto power in the Security Council. But the report will further diminish Israel's reputation and will probably strengthen the growing international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. In his column on the report, Gideon Levy darkly concludes, "On the eve of the Jewish New Year, Israel, deservedly, is becoming an outcast and detested country. We must not forget it for a minute."