A time for soul-searching

A time for soul-searchin

I spent Yom Kippur at home with my husband and children, reflecting on the past year. Working at the heart of the controversy over the UN report on Operation Cast Lead, I find the need for moral calibration to be more pressing than ever. There is no better time to focus on the leading principle of our work: the basic idea that all humans have a right to dignity and wellbeing. The Gaza Fact-Finding Mission headed by Judge Richard Goldstone found that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes in last winter's military operation in Gaza. Its report calls on both sides to launch criminal investigations into these allegations and to hold accountable anyone found to have committed these crimes. If either side fails to do so, the mission has requested various UN bodies to take measures to ensure such accountability. Israel's response has been a categorical condemnation of the report as biased and one-sided (Hamas has made a similar condemnation). Government spokespeople and major Jewish organizations claim the report is so fundamentally flawed as to be useless, or worse, a blood libel. Yet we know that Justice Goldstone accepted the offer to head the inquiry only on condition that its mandate was explicitly expanded to include all sides. Indeed, while Israel claims the report ignores eight years of Hamas rocket fire at southern Israel, the report firmly denounces these attacks, calling them war crimes. THE GOLDSTONE Report is unsettling. I was disturbed by the framing of Israel's military operation as part of "an overall policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population for its resilience." The facts presented in the report itself would not seem to support such a far-reaching conclusion. In light of the sweeping conclusions regarding Israel, the very careful phrasing regarding Hamas abuses is particularly conspicuous. The mission did not find conclusive evidence regarding Hamas's use of mosques and civilian buildings for military purposes, nor does it criticize Hamas's firing from and shielding themselves within civilian areas. Yet the report contains serious allegations that cannot be explained away by accusations of bias. Twenty one members of the Samouni family were killed after soldiers concentrated them in a single building, which was later bombed. The army used white phosphorous in a densely populated civilian area. At the same time, massive harm was caused to infrastructure, including Gaza's major suppliers of chicken and flour. I shudder to think that our forces may have been instructed to inflict intentional harm on innocent civilians. Yet precisely for this reason, I demand that my own country investigate this matter. Acknowledging that some members of the Human Rights Council have a worse human rights record than Israel can hardly absolve us from responsibility for our own conduct. Contrary to the impression conveyed in Wednesday's Jerusalem Post, B'Tselem views the Goldstone report as the result of serious, professional research that is genuinely concerned with promoting justice. All the tendentious mudslinging and the more grounded criticism cannot delegitimize the report's central recommendation: that Israel must conduct credible investigations into its own conduct. The whole international system is based on the premise that justice should be done at home. Only in cases where there is no possibility of obtaining a domestic remedy does the international community step in to fill the vacuum. FOR MONTHS, Israeli human rights organizations have urged our government to open credible, independent investigations into the hundreds of allegations of military misconduct in Gaza. The authorities have stubbornly refused, largely making do with military debriefings that categorically absolve our forces of any wrongdoing. Only a handful of military police investigations have been opened, and the one criminal investigation to be concluded is the exception that proves the rule. A soldier in the Givati brigade was tried, convicted and sentenced - for stealing a credit card. At last, we have now heard that the government is considering opening an independent Israeli investigation into the operation head by former Chief Justice Aharon Barak. Such a move must be applauded and supported. However, this investigation must not simply be a way to deflect criticism and reach a foregone conclusion that Israel has done no wrong. It must be a tool to promote a search for the truth. As we emerge from a period of personal reflection and reckoning, we must take the next brave step as a society: to stand as our own judges for the acts committed in Gaza. Every Israeli has the right to know what the army does in our name, and it is our duty as a democracy to ensure that the principles of public debate and criticism be upheld. As Jews, it is our moral obligation to ensure that international law, formulated after WWII to protect innocents at time of war, be upheld. So we now have a choice. We can continue to shoot the messenger and bury our heads in the sand, hoping despite all signs to the contrary that this whole controversy will somehow disappear. Or we can initiate a genuine process of truth-telling and taking responsibility. Such a process may well be painful, but we will emerge stronger and healthier for it. This is the time to do it. The writer is Executive Director of B'Tselem: the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. jmontell@btselem.org