The UN Human Rights Council and its recent Goldstone Report are either biased or mistaken respectively in some of their fundamental accusations against Israel, according to the director of one of Israel's main rights groups.
Even so, "Israel has only itself to blame" for its failure to investigate the accusations of abuses during January's Operation Cast Lead that led to the report, according to B'Tselem executive director Jessica Montell.
"There's no question that the HRC, which mandated the Goldstone [fact-finding mission into the Gaza fighting], has an inappropriate, disproportionate fixation with Israel," she said, adding that the Council was "a political body made up of diplomats, not human rights experts, which means that the powerful states are never going to come under scrutiny the way the powerless will. So China, Russia and the US will never have commission of inquiry, regardless of how their crimes rank relative to Israeli crimes."
Furthermore, the Goldstone Report itself, which was presented in its final version to the Human Rights Council on Tuesday, is "disagreeable" and mistaken in some of its gravest accusations against Israel, she believes. These include the claim that Israel intentionally targeted the civilian population rather than Hamas, and the "weak, hesitant way that the report mentions Hamas's strategy of using civilians [in combat]."
But, she added, Israel could have avoided such a report had it conducted "a thorough investigation" of Cast Lead itself, something which B'Tselem continues to urge on Israel's leaders.
The report, she says, bears "the message of the new international legal system: Justice has to be done at home, or else. Israel has only itself to blame that it took the Human Rights Council to tell [Israel] what it should have done eight months ago."
"Before 2000, you had a Military Police investigation every time a Palestinian was killed," Montell related. "You could argue that the Palestinian's word may not have carried the same weight as the soldier's, but the fact that there was an investigation placed limits on [behavior] at roadblocks, etc."
With the outbreak of the Second Intifada, however, IDF and government lawyers "said the situation is now an armed conflict, and you don't have to open [so many] criminal investigations in an armed conflict. They'll [still] open an investigation on theft complaints or beatings at a checkpoint - things that have no operational connection. But when it comes to gunfire, there are no automatic investigations."
This is a mistake, Montell believes, since "the laws of war are laws. We are asking the IDF to investigate Cast Lead according to the laws of war."
Montell's call for an Israeli investigation is aimed at an Israeli audience, but reflects deep unease both in Israel and abroad over the report's conclusions.
Even the international magazine The Economist, which has stridently criticized Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza in the past, said the report's conclusions were unfairly critical of Israel.
"The report takes the very thing it is investigating as its central organising premise," the magazine opined just days after the mid-September publication of the report. "Israeli policy in Gaza, it argues, was deliberately and systematically to inflict suffering on civilians, rather than Hamas fighters. Israel's assertions that, in the difficult circumstances of densely populated Gaza, it planned its military operations carefully and with constant legal advice are taken by the report as evidence not of a concern to uphold international law but of a culpable determination to flout it."
Meanwhile, political commentators such as Tom Gross have blasted the Human Rights Council itself in the wake of the Goldstone report, saying the Council shows little concern for human rights abuses "unless they can blame them on Israel."
"The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the least bloody of the dozens of conflicts ongoing around the world. More Palestinian civilians have been killed by Fatah, Hamas, and the Lebanese army in recent years than by Israel. Not that the UN Human Rights Council cares about casualties unless they can blame them on Israel. The Council has adopted more resolutions and decisions condemning Israel than all the other 191 UN member states combined. In three years, it has issued 25 resolutions against individual states: 20 of them targeted Israel," he told The Jerusalem Post this week.
However, even while she acknowledged that international law "is uneven, not applied uniformly, and of course allows all the biases of the [international] system to come into play," Montell urged Israelis not to vilify Judge Richard Goldstone himself, or his intentions.
"Goldstone is not the HRC. It's absurd to talk about a lifelong Zionist and Jew and supporter of Israel as someone with a bias against Israel."
Rather, Israelis should focus on Goldstone's call for "justice to be done at home. Israel has to investigate the very severe allegations that have been raised" - such as the bombing of central civilian infrastructure in Gaza, including chicken coops and flour mills.
The Goldstone Report may yet yield good results, she believes. "It has revived a crucial Israeli conversation about the need investigate ourselves so that we actually know what went on and how our troops conducted themselves."
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