World Affairs: The Goldstone deadline

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is set to deliver his verdict on Operation Cast Lead war crimes accusations.

February 5, 2010 16:50
Tank shells exploding over Gaza during Operation C

cast lead 190. (photo credit: AP)

Two days before UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was set to report to the General Assembly on the Goldstone report, he encountered reporters waiting for him in front of the Security Council chambers. Dressed in a signature dark suit, Ban briefed journalists on a range of issues – including Afghanistan, Cyprus and Haiti – before taking questions. It took only six minutes before someone asked about the Goldstone report.

Ban offered a vague response.

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“I’m now preparing my report based on the input I received from the governments of Israel, Switzerland and the Palestinian authorities,” he said on Wednesday, giving away little in advance of his report to the General Assembly on Friday. The UN General Assembly, which endorsed the Goldstone report in November, gave Israel and Hamas three months to launch independent investigations into their actions and report back to the secretary-general, whose briefing will determine its next move.

But what Ban said next offered deeper insight into his focus: the humanitarian implications of Operation Cast Lead.

“That has been one of my priorities, to help people in Gaza to have more humanitarian assistance, to have more freedom of movement and easing of these crossings,” he said. With Israel’s recent $10.5 million payment to the UN to compensate for damage to UN facilities during last year’s Gaza war, Ban said it would be important for Israel to allow building supplies into Gaza.

“I have urged Israeli authorities to allow humanitarian projects of the UN as soon as possible to help alleviate the suffering of people living in Gaza,” he said. “I will continue to do that.”

EVEN BEFORE Ban reports back to the GA, UN member states drew lines in the sand months ago when Judge Richard Goldstone presented his report on the Gaza conflict, accusing both sides of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. The majority voted in favor of an Arab-backed resolution endorsing the report, which required both sides to investigate their actions or face possible criminal charges.

The US, which has expressed grave concerns and opposition to the Goldstone report, has said it supports Israel’s efforts to investigate its actions during Operation Cast Lead.

“The US supports a need for accountability for any violation that may have occurred in relation to the Gaza conflict,” one diplomatic source said. “The US believes Israel’s democratic institutions and processes must be given the opportunity to play out.”

“The responsibility to address alleged abuses lies with the domestic institution,” the source added.

Expressing the European view, France – as president of the Security Council during February – focused on human rights concerns during the last meeting.

The “allegations are grave,” Ambassador Gérard Araud said. “Throughout the Gaza conflict brought on by the firing by Hamas on Israel, France has reiterated its unswerving position: International humanitarian law should be respected in all places, under all circumstances and by all parties to a conflict, particularly in Gaza and in southern Israel.”

He said both parties should engage in independent probes into possible humanitarian violations that comply with international standards.

ISRAEL’S 46-PAGE paper, submitted to the UN on January 29, focuses on the investigations and legal issues stemming from the Gaza offensive. Entitled “Gaza Operation Investigations: Update,” the report was released by the Foreign Ministry, which emphasized it was not intended as a “comprehensive rebuttal of the Goldstone report or a catalogue of its flaws.” Instead, it stressed Israel’s capacity to investigate its actions during the conflict.

At the outset, the report notes that the IDF has opened investigations into 150 incidents arising from Cast Lead, including 36 that have been referred for criminal investigation. Stressing that its investigation system is comparable to other democratic nations and comes under civilian review, it dismissed four of the 36 allegations of war crimes in the Goldstone report.

In particular, the report vehemently denied that Israel intentionally struck water wells in Namar, or the wastewater plant in Gaza City: “Standing orders issued through the Gaza operation strictly forbade any acts damaging water installations,” and the military advocate-general found no credible evidence to suggest otherwise. In fact, “The IDF made significant efforts to ensure that the population of Gaza had a sufficient and continuous water supply.”

Regarding allegations that the IDF deliberately destroyed the Abu Askar family home in Jabalya, the report found the house “was used to store weapons and ammunition, including Grad rockets. Furthermore, the area where the house was located was frequently used as a launch area for rockets aimed at Israeli towns.”

“The Goldstone report was a distorted, false and biased report,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said last week. The Israeli response, he added, “again illustrates that the IDF is a uniquely responsible and serious military, that operates in a moral and accurate manner even under impossible conditions.”

Palestinian officials, who submitted their own response, claim there can be no comparison between their actions during the war and actions committed by Israel.

“There is no symmetry between the occupying power, Israel, and their criminal actions... and any actions that may have been committed by the Palestinian side, those who live under occupation,” the Palestinian representative to the UN, Riyad Mansour, told reporters in New York last week, adding that the Palestinian response to the UN was written by an independent commission appointed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

He said the commission appointed by Abbas would conduct a “very independent and credible investigation” in the coming months. Asked how the commission and its preliminary report could be credible if it does not include Hamas’s point of view, Mansour said: “Whatever we do internally as Palestinians, these are internal issues.”

“It is up to us to see how we can deal with our investigations without allowing anyone to try to deepen our divisions,” he added.

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