Israel could stop the UN's pursuit of the Goldstone Report's findings if it held an independent inquiry into its offensive in Gaza last winter, South African jurist Richard Goldstone told American rabbis in a telephone conference call on Sunday night.
"If the Israeli government set up an open investigation, that would really be the end of the matter, as far as Israel is concerned," said Goldstone, who chaired the four-person fact-finding mission on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council.
The report accused Israel of possible war crimes.
The call was organized by Taanit Tzedek-Jewish Fast for Gaza, a group composed of US rabbis who have been organizing monthly fasts since July to protest Israel's closure of the Gaza crossings to all but humanitarian aid. The conference call was co-sponsored by the Rabbinic Cabinet of Brit Tzedek, and Rabbis for Human Rights-North America.
A recording of the conversation was posted Monday on Taanit Tzedek's Web site and a transcript was posted on the Velveteen Rabbi blog.
Goldstone spoke with the rabbis two days after the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva endorsed his report and sent it on to the General Assembly and the Security Council. During the debate that followed the vote, many countries called on Israel to hold an independent inquiry.
"If Israel would carry out an internal investigation there would be huge pressure on Hamas to do the same," Goldstone said. He added that he did not know if Hamas was capable of an open and transparent probe.
During the call, he repeated some of the charges outlined in his report, that the level of civilian destruction in Gaza "was not by error, it was by design. It was not a mistake, the IDF does not do those things by error," Goldstone said.
It was a charge that the IDF has denied.
"It was a collective punishment. I do not believe that significant distinction was made between civilians and combatants in that respect," Goldstone said.
When he visited Gaza as part of his fact-finding work, Goldstone said, he was shocked by what he saw.
"I've been shocked twice in my life in that context. The first was my first visit to Sarajevo after I became prosecutor of the Yugoslavia tribunal; I'd read reports about the damage done to Sarajevo, the bombing of mosques and so on, but I wasn't prepared for what I saw when I was flown over it in a helicopter during the war. I could not believe mile after mile of absolute destruction.
"It came back to me in Gaza, because one can't drive a block in Gaza City or Rafah without seeing destroyed buildings, without seeing people living in makeshift tents," Goldstone said.
He added that what he saw had not "changed my love for Israel, which remains unaffected."
Goldstone told the rabbis he had grown up in a typical middle class South African Jewish home with a mother who was an active Zionist.
In South Africa, to be Jewish is to be Zionist, he said. It was his understanding that "if one were Jewish, one supported Israel, and I certainly did from an early age."
He said he did not believe that his appointment to head the mission was connected to the fact that he is a Jew, but rather to his judicial experience investigating war crimes.
If anything his Judaism should have been considered a hindrance, he said, because the Palestinians could have objected.
"I would have been concerned that being Jewish would be unacceptable to the Palestinians. The immediate reaction from Hamas was negative. One senior Hamas member rejected it because it was headed by a Jew.
He cannot accept, he said, "the suggestion that I was co-opted, misused or manipulated."
The negative response to his work from members of the Jewish community and the government of Israel was to be expected, he said.
What did surprise him, Goldstone said, was the venomous, unfair personal attacks leveled against him after the report was published in September.
"It saddened me. It's the sort of thing that keeps me awake at night, not only for myself but even more for my family. They live in Jewish communities, in South Africa and in Canada, and this obviously has a very serious effect on them," he said.
Initially he rejected the UN request that he head the fact-finding mission, because he did not believe the mandate was evenhanded.
The UN did not give up easily, he said.
Goldstone said he was asked to meet with the high commissioner and the then-president of the Human Rights Council. They gave him a mandate that sought an investigation into all relevant violations.
He felt he had no choice but to accept, he said.
"But I felt that to live with myself and with my own conscience, I couldn't justify having gotten involved in investigations in so many other countries but because I was Jewish refusing to use those same norms and principles in relation to Israel," he said.
His report is meant to be a blue print for further judicial investigations, he said. It was meant to be the result of a fact-finding mission.
"We weren't conducting a judicial investigation. We didn't make our findings according to the criminal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. I would say it was a prima facie case, reasonable on weighing the evidence," Goldstone said.
"The information we've got would not be admissible as evidence in a criminal court," he said. He added that he supports the report, but that people should understands its limits.
What had concerned him, Goldstone said, was the five-page draft resolution regarding the report that had been submitted by the Palestinians to the Human Rights Council.
"I was concerned, and am still disappointed, that the resolution dealing with our report wasn't a separate resolution. It shouldn't have been mixed in with condemnations about east Jerusalem and other matters that were not relevant to our report," he said.
Also, it only mentioned Israel and not the violations by Hamas or Fatah.
His complaints on the topic led to the insertion of an additional paragraph "calling for accountability of all parties and condemning all violence against civilians," Goldstone said.
He was pleased that the council endorsed the entire report, because he had been worried that it "would treat the report as a kind of a la carte menu, accepting the parts which condemned Israel but not the parts which condemned Palestinians."
Goldstone rejected Israel's assertion that the report would damage the peace process.
"I don't believe you can have a lasting peace until these things have been put on the table," he said.
The Israeli claims "are shallow and false," Goldstone said. "What peace process are they talking about? There isn't one."