A very UN-helpful report on the Gaza War
In the first of her reports from Israel, Nathalie Rothschild explains the implications of the Goldstone saga.
Amid steady rocket attacks from Gaza into the south of Israel, a political bombshell in the form of an op-ed in the Washington Post has got the political and media class here in Israel all worked up.
Some days have passed since Richard Goldstone, the South African judge and UN-appointed investigator of the Gaza War of 2008-9, admitted in the Washington Post that his fact-finding mission into the war had drawn faulty conclusions. He said aspects of its hotly debated report – the so-called Goldstone Report – ought to be reconsidered. But Israeli politicians and commentators are far from done with picking over Goldstone’s brief mea culpa or debating what the political consequences ought to be.
Many Israelis feel vindicated by Goldstone’s slight change of heart (he has said he won’t rescind his report, but that new information has simply made him rethink some of its conclusions). After all, his commission, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, accused both the Israeli state and Hamas of war crimes and ‘possible crimes against humanity’. It accused Israel of deliberately targeting civilians during the Gaza incursion, which was nicknamed Operation Cast Lead. Now that Israel has shared the findings of its own investigations, however, Goldstone believes killing Palestinian civilians was not a policy of the Israel Defense Forces. Goldstone explained that, by contrast, Hamas – which has refused to conduct any investigations into its own actions – launched rockets and mortars specifically aimed to kill ordinary Israelis.
Of course, despite Goldstone’s de facto admission that his conclusions were based more on prejudice and perception than reality, the cold realities of war remain. By most estimates, some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. Infrastructure and homes were reduced to rubble, the experience of war has been etched into the memories of thousands, the Hamas rockets and Israeli retaliations continue, and the prospect of finding a solution to the Middle East conflict looks even more dire today.
However, one important point is missed both by those who now call Goldstone a traitor as well as those who demand that the UN’s fact-checkers be more diligent in the future: the rights and wrongs of war are not a matter for legal adjudication. Whether a UN-appointed judge deems a war justifiable doesn’t make it right, and if a judge says that the war was unjustifiable that doesn’t automatically make it wrong. In this respect, Goldstone’s obsession with intentionality is nonsensical. Whether a military force kills individuals on purpose or not is hardly an adequate measure of a war’s justness. After all, deaths seem to be the only sure outcome of military conflict.
For Israel’s detractors, Goldstone’s report has been a pillar to lean on when asserting that Zionism is a form of racism, as a 1975 UN resolution which was toned down in 1991 had previously stated. It has been taken as proof that the bloody Gaza War was a genocidal programme and that Hamas’ Qassam rockets were a poor excuse for the Israel Defense Forces to launch a full-scale massacre of the Palestinians. At the time of the war, critics in the West likened Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto and repeated ad nauseum that the Jews in Israel were behaving just like the Nazis did in Germany. Having used Goldstone’s report as an affirmation, such historically ignorant critics look even less credible now.
On the other side are the likes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wanted to go all out with an aggressive ‘we told you so’ international media campaign and to demand a nullification of the Goldstone Report. However, as Israeli daily Haaretz reported on Wednesday, Foreign Ministry officials have convinced the government to go down a more quiet diplomatic route, proposing that Israel lobby the UN to adopt Goldstone’s op-ed as an official position paper or as an appendage to the original report. This would effectively mean a retraction on behalf of the UN as a whole.
Yet Goldstone’s already infamous op-ed is not the volte face it has been made out to be. Instead, he excused his previous conclusions by pointing out that Israel refused to comply with the commission’s demands and insisted on conducting its own inquiries instead. Effectively, Goldstone said that if Israel had only presented the evidence now available from the outset, then he might not have had to look such a fool. In other words, he has reiterated the idea that the UN is right to cast itself as the world judge of wars and that countries must be compliant if they don’t want to risk being misrepresented in the global media or be dragged to the international court on wrongful grounds.
This view has been echoed inside Israel, too. While some Israeli commentators have vowed never to forget Goldstone’s ‘blood libel’, holding fast to the view that he’s a ‘self-hating Jew’, more moderate and left-leaning commentators have argued for the news to be greeted with restraint. While there is relief over Goldstone’s admission that the UN Human Rights Council’s ‘history of bias against Israel cannot be doubted’, there have also been calls from within Israel for the government here to be more compliant with international inquiries in the future in order to avoid more PR disasters and international vilification campaigns. One leading Israeli commentator said that, despite its flaws, the Goldstone commission, and its threat of dragging Israel in front of the International Criminal Court in the Hague, served to pressure Israel into conducting hundreds of inquiries over its behaviour in Gaza and that the prospect of another damning international report will serve as a deterrent for future bloody incursions.
Writing in Haaretz, Shlomo Avineri asserted that the UN and its institutions are political bodies and that the best political response to the Goldstone commission would have been to present evidence as requested rather than boycott it: ‘Israel should have appeared before the commission and kept it busy for weeks by calling witnesses from communities in the south of the country, who would have explained the meaning of living for years in the shadow of Qassam rockets. It should have shown films and photographs of every home that was hit, and displayed the remains of the shells and missiles that were fired into the heart of a civilian population… Above all – and this is an aspect the diligent legal experts and experienced PR experts missed entirely – those witnesses and testimonies should have been presented not only before the commission, but before the international media that flocked to Geneva.’
In these PR-conscious times, playing to the galleries with heart-rending pictures and sob stories may well be a clever strategy. But for both Israelis and Palestinians there’s also a bigger price to be paid for such an approach. It would mean accepting a degrading victim status and submitting to the idea that the international media and UN-appointed commissions, rather than the people affected by the Middle East conflict, ought to be the arbiters of the region’s future.
As for Israel, it makes little sense to expect it to want to comply with the demands of the UN Human Rights Council, which appears singularly obsessed with taking Israel to task. As Jonathan Freedland pointed out in the Guardian, nearly half of all the resolutions it has passed relate to Israel, which is also the only country under permanent review: ‘There is only one rapporteur whose mandate never expires. No, it’s not the person charged with probing Belarus, North Korea or Saudi Arabia, despite the hideous human rights records of those nations. It is Israel. The UNHRC, whose predecessor body was once, laughably, chaired by Libya, had originally asked Goldstone to probe just one side of the Gaza War: it was only the judge’s own insistence that he investigate Hamas too that widened his remit.’
If any lesson is to be drawn from the Goldstone saga, it is that it is yet another example of how the ‘international community’ is not a neutral force in the Middle East conflict, that it is likely to stir up, rather than alleviate tensions, and that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians should be compelled to flagellate themselves in front of the UN in order to gain an official seal of approval for their political goals.
Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.