Since the United Nations Human Rights Council approved Judge Richard Goldstone’s report on the war crimes committed in the Gaza conflict, the Israeli government has been in a state of furious panic. The Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, as it is officially called, is quite explicit in its denunciation of Israel. It accuses Israel of using disproportionate force in the Gaza war, of deliberately targeting civilians, and of using Palestinian civilians as human shields, and says that Israel should pay reparations to those Palestinians whose property was damaged in the conflict. It also suggests that Israel’s continuing blockade of Gaza is a crime against humanity. While the report also says that Hamas targeted civilians during the war, and calls this a war crime, the vast majority of it is given over to Israeli violations of international law, as befits a war in which 926 Palestinian non-combatants were killed as opposed to three Israelis.
The report says that both Israel and Hamas must conduct impartial investigations into crimes committed during the Gaza conflict within six months and punish those responsible. Responding to the fury of the Israeli government, Judge Goldstone confirmed this. “If the Israeli government set up an appropriate, open investigation, it will really be the end of the matter,” he said in a speech to a conference of American rabbis. “That’s where the report would end as far as Israel is concerned.” However, this report also represents the first time in history that Israel has been condemned by a United Nations body for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The report suggests that if Israel does not conduct an impartial inquiry, it should be referred to the U.N. Security Council, who would in turn refer Israel to the International Criminal Court, which would have the power to take action against Israeli officials accused of crimes. Some commentators have suggested that the United States will allow the Security Council to take such action, either voting for, or abstaining from voting on a resolution referring Israel to the ICC. However, this is extremely unlikely given the fact that the Obama administration has criticized the report’s “unbalanced focus on Israel” and voted against it at the U.N. Human Rights Council, and given its unwillingness to exert any meaningful pressure on Israel whatsoever on issues such as the settlements and the blockade of Gaza.
Still, this does not mean that Israel has nothing to fear. On the contrary, the Goldstone report can now be used to prosecute Israeli officials in courts across the world. This would severely restrict the movement of any Israeli official responsible for war crimes in Gaza. Already, some Israeli generals are unable to leave Israel for fear of prosecution abroad. The Goldstone report will make the situation worse for the Israeli government, increasing the number of officials unable to leave Israel and increasing the danger of arrest warrants being issued and successful prosecutions mounted. Senior ministers, such as Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who oversaw Israel’s attack on Gaza, could face prosecution. This explains why the Israeli government has reacted in the way it has. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently made a speech to the Knesset saying that Israel will never allow any Israeli to be put on trial for war crimes, and now Israel is even seeking to change the laws of war in order to adapt them, it says, to “the spread of terrorism throughout the world” and ensure that its soldiers and officials escape prosecution.
Israel has also launched a hysterical propaganda campaign against the Goldstone report. Perhaps the most ridiculous element of this campaign is the characterization of the report as “one-sided anti-Semitic slander”. Israel could not have wished for a better judge, from its perspective, than Richard Goldstone. Goldstone is a respected jurist with a reputation for integrity and a record of experience as a chief prosecutor in the UN war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and as a judge in the South African Constitutional Court. He is also a Jew and a self-declared friend of Israel. He was formerly chairman of the Friends of the Hebrew University and his daughter is an Israeli citizen. Israel however, refused to give him any cooperation while he was preparing his report, not even allowing him to enter Israel. On the other hand, he was given extensive cooperation by Hamas.
Israel is now also threatening to pull out of peace talks with the Palestinians, or to render them meaningless. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said that the Goldstone report harms the peace process and his spokesman, Yigal Palmor has said that the Goldstone report, if it led to the prosecution of Israeli officials for war crimes, would deprive Israel of the right of self-defense. This would make any further territorial concessions to the Palestinians impossible because Israel would fear that territories it withdrew from would go the same way as the Gaza Strip which, after the Israeli withdrawal in 2005, “was transformed into an Islamic statelet run by a dissident terrorist group and was used as a platform to attack [Israeli] civilians. If the principle [of self-defense] is not legitimate, we will not be inclined to withdraw from territory.” As one would expect, Mr. Palmor did not mention that ever since its “withdrawal”, Israel has been exercising control over Gaza’s borders, airspace, and territorial waters, and subjecting the inhabitants of Gaza to a crippling siege which deprives them of the most basic necessities of human life, as well as carrying out frequent military raids onto the territory.
Responding to Lieberman, Goldstone said, “That just is a shallow, I believe, false allegation. What peace process are they talking about? There isn’t one. The Israeli foreign minister doesn’t want one at all.” On October 7th, before the Palestinian Authority announced that it was in talks to convene an emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council in order to endorse the Goldstone report, Lieberman gave an interview in which he said that there was no chance of a comprehensive peace agreement. Issues like the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of refugees would never be agreed upon and people would just have to learn to live with the conflict. An internal document from the Israeli foreign ministry, leaked to the BBC, backs this up. It recommends that Israel should convince Europe, the US, and the Palestinians to forget about the idea of a comprehensive peace agreement and says that instead, “We can reach an interim agreement between the sides without solving the core issues such as Jerusalem, right of return and borders – that is the maximum which realistically could be attained and it’s very important to convince the US and Europe of this.” This leaves one wondering what else is left to solve.
Israel’s threatening to pull out of the peace talks and to cease withdrawal from Occupied Territory is like threatening to shoot a man who is already dead. Israel has not withdrawn from any territory on the West Bank for more than ten years – on the contrary its settlements there are ever expanding. It has no desire whatsoever to come to a credible peace agreement with the Palestinians or to see a viable Palestinian state come into existence. The Palestinians should do what they can to hold the Israelis to account for their crimes internationally, without fear of Israel’s threats to the long-deceased peace process and the Goldstone report provides them with the mechanism to do so.