Accounting for War’s Misdeeds

By George Bisharat

Will Israel’s decades-long impunity from international law finally come to an end? That is the question facing the international community in the aftermath of the just-released Goldstone report.

Richard Goldstone, formerly a supreme court justice in South Africa and chief prosecutor in the international tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, headed a four-person United Nations mission investigating both Israel and Hamas for possible war crimes during Israel’s  attack on the Gaza Strip last winter. The mission conducted 188 interviews and reviewed more than 300 reports, 10,000 pages of documents, 30 videos and 1,200 photographs. The Israeli government barred the group from entering Israel or the Gaza Strip (it reached Gaza, ultimately, through Egypt). By contrast, Palestinian authorities, both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, cooperated with the mission. The 575-page report concluded that both sides committed war crimes before, during and after the intense fighting in December-January.

In its findings on Israel’s conduct, the report noted that the ruinous siege on Gaza, imposed long before the invasion, collectively punished its residents in violation of international law. During the attack, Israeli troops killed civilians without justification, wantonly destroyed civilian infrastructure and private homes, and used weapons illegally. Israeli troops targeted and destroyed Gaza’s last functioning flour mill. Israeli armoured bulldozers razed the chicken farm that provided 10 percent of Gaza’s eggs, burying 31,000 chickens in rubble. Israeli gunners bombed a raw sewage lagoon, releasing 200,000 cubic meters of filth into neighbouring farmland. Repeated pinpoint strikes on a water well complex destroyed all of its essential machinery.

These are just some of the facts that led the mission to conclude that Israel’s objective in the attack was “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.”

Since a January cease-fire, Israel has maintained its illegal blockade, keeping relief supplies and construction materials from Gaza, and thus guaranteeing continued Palestinian civilian suffering.

The Goldstone mission found that Hamas, in its indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, also committed war crimes, calling the rockets “a deliberate attack against the civilian population.”

The report recommends that all parties to the fighting conduct credible internal investigations of the abuses it documented. If they fail to do so within six months, the report recommends that the UN Security Council refer the matter to the International Criminal Court for investigation.

Israel clearly anticipated a critical report and has been planning for months to discredit it. Its spokespeople are making preposterous accusations, such as that Goldstone is “anti-Israel” (in fact, he is Jewish and has strong ties to Israel), and its diplomats are working the phones in an attempt to sway Western governments and members of the Security Council. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised the report in discussions with US special envoy George Mitchell, and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is trying to orchestrate condemnation of the report by senior Obama administration officials and members of Congress.

This urging must be resisted, and Israel’s serial violations of international law – whether in pulverizing Lebanon in 2006; illegally detaining, torturing or assassinating Palestinians under its dominion in the occupied Palestinian territories; or building settlements on Palestinian lands for exclusive Jewish occupancy – must come to an end. Israel may not be the worst human rights violator in the world, but it is among those that most consistently evade accountability.

Israeli abuses are deeply resented around the globe. For too long, we in the United States have abetted Israel, bestowing on it roughly $3 billion annually in aid since 1973 and vetoing scores of resolutions in the Security Council that attempted to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law.

To his credit, President Barack Obama has called for a halt to new Israeli settlements, although he has failed to enunciate consequences for Israeli defiance. He should now embrace the Goldstone recommendations strongly, and must also demand an immediate end to Israel’s illegal siege of Gaza.

Israel’s friends, rather than reflexively dismissing Goldstone’s findings, should reflect instead: Are the interests of Israeli citizens genuinely served by continued indulgence of their military’s excesses? Impunity for one state undermines the very legitimacy of international law. Yet international law protects weak and strong alike, and we ignore its continuing abuse at our peril.

Bisharat is a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.

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One Response to “Accounting for War’s Misdeeds”

  1. Maurice Gold Says:

    Mr Bisharat is right to point out the failings and violations of International law of the state of Israel. In doing so he can then smugly lean back and feel contented that he is doing his bit for righting of wrongs ancient and modern in the Middle East. Unfortunately the emotive language and one-sidedness of someone who should know better as a (presumed) academic, leave a bad taste in my mouth. Just because the Palestinians don’t have a state with a rule of law (and that rule of law is a joke in real terms in practically every Muslim country on Earth). Muslim children learn hatred, violence and revenge as a way of life with their mother’s milk in many countries. The so-called Palestinian leadership over the past 40+ years has paid lip service to peace, but soon went down the road to terrorism. That worked out well for Yasser Arafat as he allegedly had a massive 200million dollars in the bank and homes around the world. It can be no surprise that with this sort of income for him and his henchmen from arms deals with Russia, Syria and others coming on stream in the 60’s that the Palestinian leadership had no wish for an accommodation for Israel.
    That could otherwise have been possible then.
    Anwar Sadat and King Hussein of Jordan were honourable statesmen, and lovers of their people. They were also pragmatists, unlike the crazy dreamers who want Emirates and Caliphates instead of the status quo.
    Israel ceded the Sinai with its oil-revenues and the town of Yamit (which I fell in love with when I saw it before it was returned).
    Israel is serious about peace. It will surrender territory for a peace deal. It has happened before. Unfortunately the violent, crazed, fanatic dreamers that manage Palestinian territories are not statesmen, nor are they trustworthy. Massive barrages of rockets being fired at Israel homes from inside Palestinian civilian areas, and Mr Bisharat fails to mention that?

    Perhaps he is one of those people who lives vicariously on the news and disasters elsewhere in the world, and gets righteously angered.
    I have some small credentials to bear on this. I lived in Israel and served in its armed forces, the IDF. I have personal, admittedly a bit partisan, views, but grounded solidly on being there.

    Let’s hear some balanced views.

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