PARIS – Last January, during the Gaza war, I phoned Mark Garlasco, who was in Israel as a military analyst for Human Rights Watch. My editors and I had seen reports – and video footage – about the possible use of white phosphorus bombs by the Israeli army.
I had never spoken with Mr. Garlasco, and have not since. I did not know that Mr. Garlasco is an avid collector of American and German military paraphernalia from World War II – and now the subject of a blogging campaign against him by what are described as conservative, pro-Israel lobby groups.
But at the time, it seemed more important that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were conducting bombing operations in Gaza, one of the densest civilian areas in the Middle East, in response to Hamas rocket attacks on Israel.
I was researching the type of munitions being used. Military experts and human rights groups, including HRW, were describing evidence of phosphorus use, as in the 2006 war in Lebanon. They gave me Mr. Garlasco’s phone number. I rang.
He was standing literally on the border of Gaza, overlooking a refugee camp. Garlasco offered an eyewitness account of what he described as telltale brilliant bursts of white phosphorus munitions in the distance. He could have been lying. But his descriptions matched abundant TV video clips broadcast in our offices. I am not a military expert, but Garlasco, a Pentagon senior intelligence analyst during the 2003 Iraq war – is.
His analysis of the bombs’ effect matched what he also told the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz: that they contain 116 wafers doused in phosphorus:
“The moment the bomb blows up and the phosphorus comes in contact with oxygen - it ignites. This is what creates the ‘fireworks’ and billows of jellyfish-shaped smoke. The fallout covers a wide area and the danger of fires and harm to civilians is enormous. The phosphorus burns glass … immediately ignites paper, trees, wood - anything that is dry. The burning wafers causes terrible injury to anyone who comes in contact with them.”
So, the Monitor quoted Garlasco’s first-hand account of phosphorus use in a Jan. 14 story.
My article included this statement from IDF spokesman Gabi Ashkenazi the same day: “The IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] acts only in accordance with what is permitted by international law and does not use white phosphorus.”
Days later, Monitor editors received criticism from pro-Israel lobbyists and individuals denouncing the story and Garlasco. Garlasco spoke to many reporters. Months later, IDF officials admitted the use of white phosphorus – but said the manner of its use was not illegal.
That claim is very much disputed by Monday’s UN report on Gaza.
Jurist Richard Goldstone, head of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chief prosecutor for the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal, and himself Jewish – chaired the UN report. The report is clear, unemotional – and shows among many other things, a widespread illegal use of white phosphorus. It echoed findings by a Human Rights Watch "Rain of Fire" report co-authored by Garlasco that was released in March.
More important, the Goldstone report finds that the IDF, far from making careful battlefield decisions when striking near civilians, appears to have had a policy prior to the war not to worry about civilians in targeting – and to hit mosques, egg farms, wells, and sanitation systems that would cause civilian misery.
For a PDF of Goldstone’s UN report, click here.
Much of the specific content and analysis of the report Tuesday seemed almost not to get a news cycle, so quickly did the coverage turn to its impact and denials in and by Tel Aviv.
But in the international legal community, the report is being taken seriously.
“We have, for the first time, an objective and thoroughly vetted report from a jurist with tremendous credibility in the international community, Richard Goldstone,” says Mark Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association in London. “It questions the veracity of Israel’s own insistence that a good faith investigation has already been conducted into Gaza.”
Garlasco, just prior to the Gaza report’s release, was targeted by pro-Israel bloggers and groups questioning inherent bias and credibility. He has been suspended, with pay, from HRW, pending an investigation into his hobby as a military collector who thinks Nazi memorabilia is “cool.”
Those into military history and analysis might think simply that such quirks go with the territory.
But what's not OK, justice advocates say, is to use Garlasco to distract from or obfuscate findings that war crimes and crimes against humanity may have taken place in Gaza. A Guardian commentary employs the phrase “pollute the argument.”
As for Garlasco’s credibility, do hobbies and nonprofessional interests disqualify a source’s credibility, or, in this case, give credence to “anti-Semitism” (not that it doesn’t exist)?
Some people have a fascination with the strangeness of evil, and watch horror movies. It is hard to know what professional disqualifications are involved for those who enjoyed the gore in Quentin Tarantino’s WWII film spoof, “Inglourious Basterds” – juvenile as it might seem.
People from military families may love battle reenactments; there’s an entire Civil War-buff subculture in the US. Does being jazzed about Confederate military canteens, uniforms, knapsacks, and medals, including among noted historians, infer a bias in favor of white supremacy?