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The Goldstone Report: Fierce but Toothless


udge Richard Goldstone of the UN Human Rights Council has issued a devastating report on war crimes during the latest campaign in Gaza, arousing much ire in Israel. During his investigation, the government refused to cooperate. In fact the Goldstone Committee had to enter Gaza via Egypt. On seeing the destruction, the members concluded, as had most European officials who visited there, that Israel's use of force was entirely out of proportion to any real danger. This disproportionate force left behind much more than ruined buildings. It wiped out entire families. The deaths of more than a hundred children testify that Israel waged war in disdain of civilian life, caring only to make Hamas pay as much as possible while safeguarding its own soldiers.

This is nothing new. The war of 1973 was the last in which Israel combated regular armies. Since then this country has fought against armed militias, Lebanese and Palestinian, among whom the civilian population has been considered a legitimate target. In the first Lebanon War against the PLO (1982), a new pattern was created: there was the siege on Beirut, the massacre in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, and the bombing of the Ein Khilweh camp, leaving thousands of dead and wounded civilians. That same war got the backing of the international community. The UN never investigated. The difference this time, however, is that the pictures coming out of Gaza aroused tremendous international anger. The Goldstone Report reflects the will to prevent Israel from emerging spotless from its Operation Cast Lead.

Conflicting views in Israel

As ever, opinions in Israel differ. Most people condemn Goldstone, accuse the Rights Council of political leanings, and describe the report as a prize for terror. Haaretz, on the liberal side, called in its editorial of September 17 for a national committee of inquiry into the war, as Goldstone had urged. The op-eds in the same edition split. One by Ari Shavit opposed the very formation of the Goldstone Committee, claiming that Israel's deeds were no different from those of the Americans and Europeans in Iraq and Afghanistan. His call "to put President Obama on trial" was intended to show the absurdity of Goldstone's demand to put Israel's then prime minister, defense minister and army chief of staff on trial at The Hague. In a contrary vein, Gideon Levi defended the findings of the Report and joined the editor in calling for a national inquiry.

Ari Shavit is right in one respect: the war crimes of the Americans, British and Germans are no less severe than Israel's. The Occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq are as cruel as the Israeli version. Without American and European backing, Israel could not have committed its crimes against the Lebanese and Palestinian peoples. In the first Gulf War (1991), when America did want to prevent an Israeli response to Iraqi scuds on Tel Aviv, it knew how to get its way. But does the fact that the West kills civilians make it right for Israel to do so?

On the other side, Gideon Levi urges a committee of national inquiry. This is absurd, when we consider our past experience with such committees. The one that studied the massacre at Sabra and Shatila found the defense minister of that time, Ariel Sharon, to be guilty. This didn't stop him from becoming Prime Minister 20 years later. He engineered the disengagement from Gaza and inaugurated the blockade that lies at the root of the latest conflict.

It's all politics

In Operation Cast Lead, Israel used massive force not in order to defend itself, but in order to achieve a political result: subdue Hamas and get it to give up armed struggle. The method was the same as in Lebanon: you cause such enormous suffering that the population pressures the leadership to yield. This has clearly succeeded. Hamas no longer fires rockets on Israel, despite the fact that the latter's blockade against Gaza continues in full. Not only that. Hamas had walked out on the Cairo talks with Fatah, aimed at reaching a political accommodation and creating a basis for new elections; after Cast Lead it went back to the table.

The Goldstone Report is political too. The Human Rights Council cannot oblige the Security Council to bring Israeli leaders to justice. It can, however, create broad international public opinion against the ongoing Occupation, now in its 42nd year. That's enough time, one would think, to end a conflict whose solution is clear and acceptable to everyone except Israel. Indeed, "Two states for two peoples" was Obama's slogan in his Cairo speech, but since then nothing has happened.

Goldstone surely knows that Israel did not act alone in Operation Cast Lead. It got direct or indirect support from the Palestinian Authority itself. Egypt too was sympathetic. We recall the words of its Minister of Secret Services, Omar Suleiman, to the Hamas government shortly before Cast Lead: that if Hamas keeps insisting on its position, "Israel will know how to give them a slap in the face." The Goldstone Report, therefore, though indeed an indictment against Israel, is more a warning shot than an attempt at interception. Israel is not Yugoslavia; there is no international interest in dismembering it; and Palestine is far from being Kosovo, where Goldstone investigated Serbian war crimes. Milosevic became a leper, easy prey. Not so the Prime Minister of Israel.

On September 22, therefore, in the framework of the convocation of the UN General Assembly, Obama, Netanyahu and Abu Mazen met, despite Israel's refusal to fulfill the minimal condition set by the US itself: freezing construction in the settlements. The Goldstone Report could have been a lever for pressuring Israel and isolating Netanyahu. It could have threatened him that his recalcitrance will bring him too in the end before the international court of The Hague. What has happened, however, points the opposite way. After innumerable meetings with Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell, Netanyahu held the line and emerged on top. In order to bring about a meeting, Obama had to pressure Abu Mazen to join, despite the fact that settlement construction continues. Out of such a summit nothing good can come.

As things look now, the Goldstone Report will go to the shelf, the Occupation will continue, and so will Palestinian suffering. To cope with the present reality is more complex than putting people on the stand for war crimes. The reality is that Israel is ruled by the Right, which is nowadays attracting part of the Left. On the Palestinian side, the reality is a war between two rival factions that care more for power than for their people. The hope in Obama diminishes as he runs into troubles at home: to pass health reform, regulate Wall Street, and allow more freedom for unions. That is why he was weak when facing Netanyahu, and that is why the Goldstone Report will remain a toothless indictment. The end of the Occupation will have to wait until real change occurs in the United States. Only then can change come to Israel and the PA. Until that time, the facts in this damning report will amount to no more than a reprimand.

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