'Syria, Somalia can't preach morality'

Israel fumes after Goldstone gives it 3 months to probe alleged Gaza war crimes or face prosecution.

Goldstone in Gaza 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Goldstone in Gaza 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel called the Goldstone Commission Report "nauseating" on Tuesday, saying it created an unjust "equivalence of a democratic state with a terror organization" and lacked the context of a decade of terrorist attacks by Hamas. The commission, established by the UN Human Rights Council and led by former South African constitutional court judge Richard Goldstone, concluded that "Israel committed actions amounting to war crimes, possibly crimes against humanity," during Operation Cast Lead from late December to mid-January. The report "concludes there is also evidence that Palestinian armed groups committed war crimes, as well as possibly crimes against humanity," by firing rockets at cities in southern Israel, the UN said. The four-member investigative panel recommended that the UN Security Council require Israel to launch its own investigations, "that are independent and in conformity with international standards," into the Gaza operation and to appoint a committee of experts to oversee the "progress, effectiveness and genuineness" of these investigations. If it failed to do so within three months, the report said, the Security Council should refer Israel's alleged war crimes to the International Criminal Court. It was not clear in the immediate aftermath of the report what the legal and political ramifications would be. Governments worldwide were mum Tuesday as they studied the document. But any filing to the International Criminal Court is problematic, since neither Israel nor the Palestinians are state parties to the ICC treaty. To accept Palestinian appeals for trial to the ICC, the court would have to find the Palestinians to be a state, to have joined the ICC treaty and thus to have standing in the court. American officials would not comment Tuesday about the report, or the possibility that the US would veto any effort in the Security Council to refer Israel to the ICC. According to a US official, "we've received a copy of Judge Goldstone's report regarding the alleged human rights allegations during the Gaza conflict. As the report is lengthy, and the issues it addresses are complex, the findings will take time to digest, and we are reviewing it carefully." The commission expressed concern regarding free expression in Israel, demanding that the government "cease actions aimed at limiting the expression of criticism by civil society and members of the public concerning Israel's policies and conduct." It also targeted the judiciary, calling for "an independent inquiry" to be established "to assess whether the treatment by Israeli judicial authorities of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis expressing dissent in connection with the offensive was discriminatory." The report called for states that are party "to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 [to] start criminal investigations in national courts, using universal jurisdiction, where there is sufficient evidence of the commission of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions... Where so warranted following investigation, alleged perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted in accordance with internationally recognized standards of justice." An initial Foreign Ministry promise to "read the report carefully" transformed quickly into "nausea and fury," in the words of ministry spokesman Yossi Levy. Israeli officials were particularly stunned that the document summarily rejected the legal worth of Israel's own judicial bodies. In a country where the High Court of Justice can stop a battle in mid-stream, as happened in Jenin in 2002 until the facts of the alleged massacre were determined, it was difficult to understand the Goldstone panel's mistrust of the Israeli judiciary, officials said. "Israel has examined itself in the light of day in innumerable investigations and a robust system of independent courts," said Levy. "We have nothing to be ashamed of, and don't need lessons in morality from a committee established by Syria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Somalia." Israel is "nauseated and furious about a report that did not surprise us in its imbalance, but did surprise us in the lack of any real pretense to balance," he said, calling it "one of the most disgraceful documents in the long collection of shameful documents put out by the United Nations." "The immediate message of this report is: Terror pays. It says that terrorists who attack Jews, unlike terrorists who attack Americans, Spaniards, or other Arabs, will earn the protection of the UN," he said. A Foreign Ministry statement noted that the IDF had examined more than 100 allegations regarding the conduct of its forces during the Gaza campaign, resulting in 23 outstanding criminal investigations. Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein said that "it hurts when people without morals pretend to be warriors for human rights. They accuse us of persecuting critics of the government? As someone who was tried and imprisoned in the struggle for human rights [as a Soviet Jewish refusenik], I have to note the [irony] that not only are these critics not persecuted, they enjoy long and happy careers with wonderful salaries because of their criticism of Israel." The 575-page report, which was released ahead of its presentation to the UN Human Rights Council later this month, contained multiple specific instances of alleged war crimes. These included IDF strikes in the Samouni neighborhood of Zeitun, south of Gaza City, including the shelling of a house where soldiers had allegedly forced Palestinian civilians to assemble. The report also found seven incidents where civilians were allegedly shot while leaving their homes trying to run for safety, waving white flags and sometimes even following Israeli instructions, as well as the alleged targeting of a mosque at prayer time, killing 15 people. These were all war crimes, it said. A "direct and intentional attack" on Al-Quds Hospital and an adjacent ambulance depot in Gaza City "may constitute war crimes," the report said. Several Palestinians told the mission they had been used as human shields by the IDF, the report added, citing the case of Majdi Abd Rabbo, a 39-year-old intelligence officer of the Palestinian authority who was forced to walk ahead of the troops as they searched his and his neighbor's house. Rabbo was forced to strip down to his underwear in front of the soldiers, and his sons had to strip naked, the report said. In presenting the report Tuesday, the commission lamented Israel's decision not to cooperate with its investigation. According to Israeli officials, the decision not to cooperate was due to the mid-January founding resolution of the commission, which declared Israel guilty while establishing the commission meant to investigate said guilt. The resolution said Israel had "caused massive violations of human rights," and accused Israel of targeting medical facilities and systematically destroying Palestinian cultural heritage. It was opposed by Canada, Japan, Switzerland and the European Union. In addition, the body in which the resolution was passed, the Human Rights Council, "has devoted more resolutions to condemning Israel than to all the other countries of the world combined," the Foreign Ministry noted in a statement. "Needless to say, no resolution or fact-finding mission was initiated by the council concerning the firing of 12,000 rockets and missiles on Israeli civilians during the years prior to the Gaza operation." On the Palestinian side, the report found that armed groups firing rockets into southern Israel from Gaza failed to distinguish between military targets and the civilian population. "Where there is no intended military target and the rockets and mortars are launched into civilian areas, they constitute a deliberate attack against the civilian population," the report said. "These actions would constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity." The commission also called on Israel to allow people and goods across borders immediately, "for the recovery and reconstruction of housing and essential services and for the resumption of meaningful economic activity in the Gaza Strip." It recommended that Israel ease up on fishing restrictions within 20 nautical miles from shore and allow farming to resume within the Gaza Strip, "including within areas in the vicinity of the borders with Israel." The Palestinian Authority welcomed the findings of the report, saying they "confirmed" allegations that Israel had committed "war crimes" against the Gaza Strip population. The PA said that it would demand that Israeli civilian and security officials responsible for the war be brought to trial before the International Criminal Court. The PA also welcomed the charges against Hamas, saying the movement was also responsible for "atrocities" against Palestinians. Hamas did not issue an official response by late Tuesday. However, a Hamas legislator in the Gaza Strip expressed astonishment because the report had failed to distinguish between the "aggressor and the victim." The American Jewish Committee said the report "grotesquely distorted Israel's defensive operation against the terrorist Hamas regime as a war against Gaza's civilian population." "Most of the Palestinian casualties were Hamas terrorists, not civilians," said AJC executive director David Harris. "Despite this basic fact, the commission reached the astounding conclusion that Israel's defensive operation, which came after literally years of Israel's restraint in the face of relentless rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza aimed at Israeli towns and villages, was a total war on Gaza's civilian population. By the commission's spurious logic, how could any country defend itself against terrorists who deliberately embed themselves in the civilian population?" A coalition of left-wing Israeli rights groups, including B'Tselem, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and Adalah, called on the government "to take the report seriously and to refrain from automatically rejecting its findings or denying its legitimacy." "Human rights organizations in Israel believe that the State of Israel must conduct an independent and impartial investigation into these suspicions [of violations of the laws of combat and human rights law] and to cooperate with an international monitoring mechanism that would guarantee both the independence of that investigation and the implementation of its conclusions," said the statement. The groups said they had written to Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz, "to demand that he establish such an independent body to investigate the military's activities during Cast Lead," but that Mazuz had rejected their request. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, meanwhile, said the findings "show a horrible asymmetry. We never saw the UN rush with such motivation and enthusiasm to form investigative committees, or even simply to protest other states dealing with terror through military means." "No other country in the world would have tolerated ongoing bombardment of its cities and citizens," Rivlin said. Khaled Abu Toameh, E.B. Solomont and Dan Izenberg contributed to this report.