The head of the U.N. commission that investigated the December-January Gaza war Thursday rejected assertions by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that any action to pursue the recommendations of his commission’s report could prove fatal to any renewed peace process with the Palestinians.
"For the life of me, I don’t understand the reason for that [Netanyahu’s assertion]," Richard Goldstone, a former South African supreme court judge who also served as chief prosecutor for war-crime tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, told reporters at the National Press Club here.
"Without some form of truth-telling, there cannot be an enduring peace," he said, citing his experiences in South Africa, as well as in the trials on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
"Truth-telling and acknowledgement to victims can be a very important assistance to peace," he added.
In his remarks, Goldstone also expressed disappointment with the reaction to the report by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, which has indicated it will oppose any effort by the U.N. Security Council to refer the report’s findings to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for investigation and possible prosecution.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York City that Washington considered the "mandate" for the commission and its subsequent report to be "one-sided" and that its recommendations "are appropriately deal with by the institutions within Israel".
"Therefore, we believe that the appropriate venue within the international system is the Human Rights Council," she said, adding that Washington "has grave concerns about the recommendations".
These included referring the matter to the Security Council if Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza fail to undertake serious investigations of their respective responsibilities for war crimes documented in the report within six months.
"The… referral back to the original mandate [of the commission] is tiresome and inept," said Goldstone, noting that he had successfully insisted as a condition of his agreement to chair the commission that the original mandate by the Human Rights Council, which focused exclusively on Israel’s military actions, be expanded to investigate alleged war crimes committed by both sides in the conflict.
Goldstone also complained that Washington has failed to back up its charges that the report was not "even-handed". "No details were given [for that criticism]," he noted.
The latest comments came as the Human Rights Council convened in Geneva, in part to determine whether to formally forward the report, which was released Sep. 15, to the Security Council and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The 575-page report compiled by the commission found extensive evidence of war crimes committed by both sides during Israel’s 22-day Operation Cast Lead during which as many as 1,444 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
The report, which has been repeatedly and vehemently denounced by Israel and several major Jewish organizations here, called Israel’s military campaign "a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate, and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability."
It also called Israel’s longstanding economic blockade of Gaza a form of "collective punishment" against the population and cited a number of attacks on civilian targets during the operation for which there was "no justifiable military objective".
The findings were based on two on-site visits to Gaza, nearly 200 interviews and the review of thousands of documents, photos, and videos.
Israel’s government, however, refused to cooperate with the commission and refused it permission to enter the country, even to interview Israeli victims of Palestinian rocket attacks who instead were flown at the commission’s expense to Geneva to provide their testimony.
"I accepted [to chair the commission] in the belief that Israel would cooperate," Goldstone noted Thursday. "That turned out to be a naïve expectation."
The Israeli government has waged a fierce campaign against the report, with its president, Nobel Peace laureate Shimon Peres, calling it a "mockery of history" for failing to "distinguish between the aggressor and a state exercising its right for self-defense".
But Goldstone’s chairmanship of the commission has made the attack more difficult. Not only one of the world’s most prominent international jurists, he is Jewish and a Zionist; his daughter lives in Israel; and he is a trustee of the Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. He has also been outspoken in his defense of the report and its recommendations.
Indeed, his stature in Israel itself appears to have set off a growing domestic debate about whether the government should indeed appoint an independent panel – as it did after the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres in Beirut – to investigate alleged war crimes and determine responsibility for them.
Netanyahu rejected such a course immediately after the report was released, but some Labor Party members in the government, reportedly including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have argued that an investigation may indeed be desirable, if only to avoid the possibility of further international action.
With the Human Rights Council due to vote as early as Friday on whether to refer the report to the Security Council and Ban, Netanyahu warned that any action to advance the report would, in his words, "strike a fatal blow to the peace process, because Israel will no longer be able to take additional steps and take risks for peace if its right to self-defense is denied."
But Goldstone rejected Netanyahu’s reasoning. "The prime minister is a politician, and he made a political statement," he said. "I think he got wrong what the international-fact-finding mission was all about. It wasn’t looking into the right of self-defense What we were looking at was the manner in which [military] force was used."
He stressed that the report’s fate, especially in the international arena, depends "to a large extent on the attitude of the United States" whose dismissal of the report was denounced Wednesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as "downright shameful for an administration that claims to promote the rule of law and accountability for war crimes".
The failure of both the U.S. and key European governments to endorse the commission’s work, according to the New York-based group, sends "a message that serious laws-of-war violations will be treated with kid gloves when committed by an ally".
Earlier this week, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner, the founder and long-time director of Human Rights First, called the report "deeply flawed" and noted that Israel had "the institutions and ability to carry out robust investigations into these allegations."
Posner and U.S. officials are reportedly quietly urging the Netanyahu government to carry out an independent inquiry.
(Inter Press Service)