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.