ISRAEL is reeling from the accusations of a UN fact-finding mission that it deliberately sowed death and destruction among civilians in the Gaza Strip during a three-week military operation ending in January.
The mission was chaired by a respected South African judge, Richard Goldstone and published its report on Tuesday September 15th. It concludes that “While the Israeli government has sought to portray its operation as essentially a response to rocket attacks in exercise of its right to self-defence, the Mission considers the plan to have been directed, at least in part, at a different target: the people of Gaza as a whole.”
The purpose, the mission added, was “punishing the Gaza population for its resilience and for its apparent support for Hamas”. It held that Israel’s partial blockade of the Gaza Strip since Hamas took power there three-and-a-half years ago amounted to collective punishment and violated the Geneva Conventions.
The mission recommends international legal action not only against Israel, but also against Hamas, for war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. It has recommended that the findings are handed to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague and also urged the UN Security Council and, separately, the General Assembly, to ensure that those responsible for the crimes are brought to justice. In particular the mission would like to see the Security Council set up a committee of experts to monitor whether Israel and Hamas conducts domestic investigations and, if so, to see how thorough these are. It also urges that, if the experts are not satisfied, the Security Council should refer the matter to the ICC prosecutor.
The death toll in Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead”, between December 27th and January 18th, is put at around 1,400 by Palestinian sources and non-governmental aid agencies. Israel estimates the toll at 1,166. Three Israeli civilians were killed by rocket fire into Israel, and ten soldiers were killed during the fighting, four of them by “friendly fire”.
“The data provided by non-governmental sources with regard to the percentage of civilians among those killed are generally consistent and raise very serious concerns with regard to the way Israel conducted the military operations,” the Goldstone mission concludes. It accuses Israel of “indiscriminate attacks” that resulted in civilian deaths and injuries, and also, on several occasions, of deliberately targeting civilians.
It also concluded, among other findings, that 240 Palestinian policemen were killed unlawfully, 99 of them in bombings on the first day of the operation, even though some of them may have been Hamas fighters. The bombing of public buildings, including the parliament and the main prison, was found to be unlawful. Israel’s warnings to civilians to flee targeted areas were described as inadequate. The report notes that the mission found no evidence of the Palestinians firing from mosques, hospitals or UN facilities, although “this might have occurred”. The mission also concludes that “It may be that the Palestinian combatants did not at all times adequately distinguish themselves from the civilian population.” In addition it concluded that repression within Israel fosters “a political climate in which dissent with the government and its actions in the Occupied Territories is not tolerated.”
Israeli officials argue that the last two points are so patently biased that they ought to reflect on the credibility of the whole 575-page report. Israel refused to co-operate with the mission (although individual Israelis did testify), noting that the UN Human Rights Council, which established it, has a long record of egregious bias against the Jewish state. In correspondence with Justice Goldstone, Israel noted pointedly that other eminent jurists had declined to serve on the mission because of its provenance.
Israel’s government argues, too, that one of the mission’s four members, Professor Christine Chinkin of the London School of Economics, had expressed “prejudgmental assertions, including that ‘the rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas do not amount to an armed attack entitling Israel to rely on self-defence’.” The other two mission members are Hina Jilani, a Pakistani jurist and Desmond Travers, a retired Irish army officer.
Justice Goldstone, who was a prosecutor at the international criminal tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, insists that his mission had “unbiased and even-handed terms of reference” and functioned as a “completely independent body.” Israeli officials wondered privately yesterday whether he had set the tone of the report, or was swept along by other mission members and staffers.
In its formal reaction, Israel declares itself “appalled” at the report. Officials say privately they had expected a tough document accusing the army of a disproportionate response to the years of incessant but largely ineffective firing of rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel. They were shocked, they said, that the mission accused Israel of deliberately targeting the Palestinian civilian population. The prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has given orders for a diplomatic campaign to discredit the report and counter the mission’s effort to have Israelis charged with war crimes.
The Israelis dismiss the mission’s ostensible evenhandedness in recommending that the Palestinians, too, be held to account for firing rockets at Israeli civilians and for acts of brutality and repression against their own people. In the prevailing atmosphere at the UN, they say, this will remain a dead letter while the recommendations against Israel will be assiduously followed up.