Guest Columnist: Where is the context?

Without it, the destruction of Dresden, Hamburg and Hiroshima were acts of cold-blooded mass murder.

Goldstone in Gaza 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Goldstone in Gaza 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
"All you'll get there is justice," said the grizzled character in an old Western movie, warning away a gunslinger from a gallows-prone town. "And lots of it." Israel has received more than its fair share of frontier justice from international bodies since Operation Cast Lead in Gaza five months ago and is now the subject of a new UN investigation led by the distinguished South African jurist Richard Goldstone. Jerusalem says it will not cooperate with the latest probe despite Goldstone's stature. This reaction comes in the wake of a lopsided UN inquiry commission report a month ago and the behavior of UN officials in Gaza during the war itself. The inquiry commission threw the book at Israel for alleged misdeeds during the three weeks of fighting. Entirely missing from the report was context. Without context, the destruction of Dresden and Hamburg by the Allied air forces in World War II, not to mention Hiroshima, were acts of cold-blooded mass murder. The context for any examination of Operation Cast Lead includes the killing of hundreds of Palestinian civilians but also the thousands of rockets fired into Israel; the repeated warnings by Israel that it would strike if rocketing continued; Hamas's decision to fight the war from civilian areas; and preparation by Hamas leaders of shelters for themselves while leaving the civilian population unsheltered against the furies of a war the leaders had provoked. Context also includes the steps taken by Israel, unprecedented in warfare, to warn the Palestinian population of danger during the fighting, including thousands of telephoned warnings to Gaza families before air strikes on their buildings, and the firing of small rockets at the corners of roofs to spur evacuations before the bombs hit. THE CENTRAL INCIDENT examined by the inquiry commission concerned an UNRWA school in Jabalya. On January 6, IDF mortar shells were reported by Palestinian organizations to have struck the clearly marked school, killing more than 40 civilians sheltering there and wounding scores more. The claim was supported by a UN entity in Gaza, the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Headlines around the world duly trumpeted a "massacre." It seemed for a while that Israel might have to call off its incursion because of international outrage. Presuming the report true, Israeli spokesmen initially said the shells were directed at Hamas mortarmen firing from inside the school grounds. The IDF spokesman tried to fob off a year-old video clip of Palestinians firing from the school as fresh, a foolish "error" which was soon exposed. A few days after the war, journalist Patrick Martin of the Toronto Globe and Mail visited the area and learned that no one had been killed in the school and that no shells had hit the school. Three shells had hit an adjacent road where fatalities occurred. Only after Martin's revelation, three weeks after the incident itself, did OCHA acknowledge that the school had not been hit. John Ging, director of Gaza operations for UNRWA, the main UN agency in the strip, never claimed that shells struck the school. However, in numerous media interviews during the fighting he neglected to refute the charge and sometimes left the distinct impression that it was correct. In an interview with IslamiContent shown on YouTube, for example, Ging spoke of "42 Palestinians killed and over 100 injured at the UN school being used as a shelter for 1,600 people driven out of their homes." Not "near the school" but "at" the school. In an interview with journalist Martin after the war, Ging said, "I know that no one was killed in the school, but 41 innocent people were killed in the street outside the school. The State of Israel has to answer for that." Ging was undoubtedly well-intentioned but he was compromising the credibility of UN officials everywhere. UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness resorted to similar disingenuousness. In an interview with Democracy Now, an American radio/television news program, a day after the incident, Gunness said that the fatality figure in the Jabalya attack had grown to 40. "The people in the compound... had been told by the Israeli army to leave their houses and move to a safe place... They were coming to what they thought was a neutral United Nations shelter, and then the rest is history - 40 people killed." He did not actually say that shells hit the school but the viewer is left with that clear understanding. In its own investigation after the war, the IDF, basing itself on Palestinian sources, concluded that 12 Palestinians had been killed outside the school, not 40 or more, when mortars responded to Palestinian mortar fire. Nine of the 12, it said, were militants known by name and Palestinian identity number. The inquiry commission rebuked Israel for not expressing "adequate" regret over its initial false allegation about Palestinians firing from the school. But the commission had nothing to say about the incendiary claims that Israel deliberately shelled a school filled with refugees, claims to which UN officials in Gaza lent credence. The commission faulted Israel for firing too close to the school but did not rebuke Hamas for positioning mortars there, saying "it was unable to reach any conclusion" about whether there were mortars. The commission repeatedly faults Israel for damage caused to UN facilities by direct hits or near misses. It voices no criticism of Hamas for storing its armaments in civilian areas, including the proximity of UN facilities, triggering those attacks. The commission makes reference to the "traumatization" of Palestinian children during the incursion, but there is no mention of the trauma caused Israeli children during eight years of rocketing. There may be room for exploring whether Israel used excessive firepower in the Gaza operation - there was a lively debate over this within Israel at the war's conclusion - as long as there is context, which in this case should include a look at other wars such as the allied operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In examining with a magnifying glass every nick and casualty on UN premises that Israel was allegedly responsible for, while ignoring Palestinian responsibility for igniting the war, the inquiry commission was acting not like a dispenser of justice, even frontier justice, but like a dodgy ambulance chaser trying to make a case. It was only the maturity of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who effectively pigeonholed the report, that permitted the UN to emerge from this sorry affair with a measure of its dignity intact.