Israel’s accuser recants | Nimer Sultany

Reversal under pressure betrays Palestinians’ trust

By Nimer Sultany
April 6, 2011

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FOR 18 months, supporters of Israel fulminated against the Goldstone report documenting Israel’s war crimes and human rights abuses in the 2008-09 Gaza war. Now they are hailing South African Justice Richard Goldstone’s apparent reversal — in his opinion piece in last weekend’s Washington Post. Why did Goldstone reconsider?

Some have claimed that pressure from Israel and its supporters led to Goldstone’s reconsideration. Avram Krengel, chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, credited the “Jewish lobby’’ in South Africa with Goldstone’s reversal. He “suffered greatly, especially in the city he comes from’’ and that “made him. . . regret his remarks.’’ If this pressure is what led to the change from Goldstone, a long-time admirer of Israel and self-proclaimed Zionist, then it cannot be celebrated as a triumph of reason.

In the rush to note that Goldstone is backing away from charges of Israel’s intentionally killing civilians, there is a risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Crucially, Goldstone has not disavowed the view that Israel violated the laws of war in using white phosphorus and heavy artillery in densely populated Palestinian refugee camps. But his silence today is allowing that view to take hold.

Still, examining Israel’s intentions remains crucial to understanding what transpired then. Unfortunately, Israel has successfully avoided this discussion by refusing to question its top officials regarding policy decisions. For example, according to the Goldstone report, then Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai stated on Jan. 6, 2009, in the middle of the war, “It [should be] possible to destroy Gaza, so they will understand not to mess with us.’’ Yishai has so far escaped questioning on what he intended by his remarks. Indeed, one week after he made them, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni asserted that Israel “is a country that when you fire on its citizens it responds by going wild — and that is a good thing.’’

It’s not a good thing, however, if you’re a civilian in Gaza attempting to survive a military going wild. Israel’s failure to ask top leaders about their intent should remain a real concern of Goldstone’s. At one point it was. It certainly remains a concern of the UN Committee of Independent Experts, whose work Goldstone cites in his op-ed.

That committee released its report on March 18 reiterating “the conclusion of its previous report that there is no indication that Israel has opened investigations into the actions of those who designed, planned, ordered, and oversaw Operation Cast Lead.’’

Goldstone allows Israel to portray its misconduct as no more than isolated deviations by a few low-rank soldiers and thus absolves highly ranked officials of any responsibility. But a proper inquiry into the actions and intentions of senior Israeli officials remains essential. Instead, the official providing legal counsel to Israel’s leaders is also charged with investigating them. Goldstone’s reliance on Israel’s own official reports to deny intentionality and justify his retraction is perplexing.

The lingering question is whether Goldstone can look hundreds of Palestinian civilian victims in the eye and say he stood up for them in the face of severe Israeli and American criticism. Palestinians, long abandoned by countries that should press for their freedom, have now been abandoned by a leading human rights advocate who could not withstand months of withering and cruel criticism. He is showing a new ideological bent in castigating Hamas for rocket fire, but saying nothing about the siege Israel is applying to Gaza.

In giving the appearance of exonerating Israel of culpability for hundreds of civilian deaths, Goldstone has created the very real danger that the next heavy bombardment of Gaza becomes more, rather than less, likely. And he has abandoned families in Gaza who put their trust in him that he would not 18 months later praise Israel for three convictions out of 400 cases — one for theft of a credit card — along with two suspended sentences. Israeli officials, believing they have now been provided carte blanche by Goldstone, will be more transfixed than ever with the idea that Israel can legally “destroy’’ Gaza, as minister Yishai so inelegantly put it.

Nimer Sultany is a civil rights attorney in Israel and a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School. He is the editor of “Citizens without Citizenship: Israel and the Palestinian Minority.’’