Justice Richard Goldstone, in his first public discussion with a high-level Israeli official regarding his controversial UN report on war crimes during Israel's invasion of Gaza last year, hardly came out reeling.
He began the forum at Brandeis University by confessing a concern about anti-Israel bias in the UN Human Rights Council, and even said the original mandate of his fact-finding mission was unbalanced (until he refocused it to include a look at Hamas attacks), and he repeatedly asserted his belief that Israel should be able to defend itself.
“I’ve publicly stated on many occasions,” he said, “that Israel has the right under international law not only to protect its citizens from rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza, but it has a clear duty to do so.”
Since a UN fact-finding mission issued the report more than a month ago accusing both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes in the Gaza invasion last winter – in which some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed – the media have been abuzz with both vitriol and praise for the document.
Israeli officials have called the report biased, insulting, and even an legitimization of terrorism. On Tuesday, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on President Barack Obama to “oppose unequivocally any endorsement or further consideration” of the document.
But two days later, the UN General Assembly voted to endorse it.
The Brandeis forum, in which Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the UN, presented Israel’s opposition to the report and Goldstone defended it, drew a crowd of several hundred. With police scattered throughout the premises, a moderator called for calm and civility in the audience, and the crowd complied. There were only some silent demonstrators.
The question for the UN fact-finding mission, Goldstone said, was whether the manner in which Israel defended itself was in accord with humanitarian law. “Let me turn now to the substance,” he said in a soft voice, and described the “Dahiya doctrine.” That principle was established after Israeli forces destroyed a Beirut neighborhood in 2006; a military chief suggested the same be done with every village that fires upon Israel – that is, that Israel respond to attacks with "disproportionate force."
“Our investigation, in fact, shows that that doctrine was applied in Operation Cast Lead,” Goldstone said, using the code name for last winter’s attack on Gaza. (According to international law, he said, disproportionate force constitutes a war crime.) Goldstone quoted the Israeli deputy prime minister’s proposal to “destroy Gaza,” and he listed some instances where attacks on civilians and infrastructure seemed to go beyond attempts to target Hamas. Among them was an attack on a mosque during prayer, one on a UN compound, another on the American International School – a bastion of anti-Hamas sentiment – using white phosphorus shells, and others on sources of food and industry. “If that isn’t collective punishment, what is?” he asked.
Mr. Gold asserted that the attack on the mosque was not carried out by Israelis, and that Hamas is to blame for the high civilian toll, because they provoked Israel with rocket attacks and then established themselves in civilian areas. “I think one of the central elements of our disagreement is how to treat the Hamas regime,” he said. “Do you relate and recognize it as the legitimate authority in the Gaza Strip, or do you say, ‘Wait a minute, this organization is an international terrorist organization?’ ”
Though Gold said much of the world also recognizes Hamas as terrorists, he concluded his remarks by describing Israel as a persecuted minority in the UN. “It’s no secret that that UN Human Rights Council and that other bodies of the United Nations mistreat the nation of Israel systematically,” he said. Adding that the UN does not defend Israel, he concluded, to applause, “That is good enough reason for Israel to not cooperate with an investigation of this sort.”
During Goldstone’s fact-finding mission, Israel refused to comply. It declined interview requests and denied access to Israel and the West Bank. Gold insisted that Israel's own military and civilian justice systems are adequate to investigate any reported wrong-doing, but Goldstone said that option lacks transparency.
Goldstone concluded his comments Thursday night by saying, “I still hope, against all the odds, and against the strong objections … that there will be an open investigation, and not, in darkness, the military investigating itself.”
Closing out the event after more than two hours, moderator and Jewish studies professor Ilan Troen told the student audience: “The event is not over; we hope that this event has not resolved everything for you.”
As audience members filed out of the building, many professed strengthened love or hate for the Goldstone report, but also a desire to continue the conversation.