As UN weighs Goldstone report, Israel debates next step

Worried that Israeli soldiers and politicians could face charges of war crimes in the Gaza war, some say Israel should preempt international action with its own inquiry.

Dan Balilty/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks during the opening of the winter session at the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, in Jerusalem Monday. In his keynote address to the legislature, Mr. Netanyahu vowed never to allow Israeli leaders or soldiers to stand trial for war crimes over their actions during last winter's military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

As the Goldstone report on the Gaza war circulates through United Nations bodies, Israelis who are increasingly worried that soldiers and politicians could face war-crimes charges are suggesting that Israel defend itself – with an inquiry of its own.

The 575-page report taken up in Geneva by the UN Human Rights Council on Thursday has been condemned by most Israeli politicians as slanted and libelous. But legal figures and commentators here say that Israel must appoint a credible panel of jurists to address charges the army targeted Gazan noncombatants and civilian infrastructure.

A local inquiry would help neutralize appeals for foreign courts to assert universal jurisdiction over the three-week war, says former Israeli Justice Minister Amnon Rubinstein. It would also help the US justify a veto of an expected Security Council vote on whether to refer the matter to the UN's judicial body, the International Criminal Court.

The report of South African judge Richard Goldstone is "riddled with half-truths and contradiction," says Mr. Rubinstein, but "we need to make doubly sure" there was no inappropriate behavior. "An international atmosphere has been created against Israel which cannot be disregarded."

Israel, which has long accused the UN of bias and points out that the Human Rights Council is comprised of countries with poor track records such as Sudan, refused to cooperate with Goldstone's team. Saying the commission had a political agenda, it did not allow investigators to visit southern Israeli towns that had for years been hit by Palestinian rocket fire, which Israel said its three-week offensive last winter was designed to halt. When the report emerged, Israel denounced it for setting up a false equivalency between a militant organization and a democracy.

US urges investigation

While Israeli officials and politicians argue that ratifying the report would grant a victory for Hamas and weaken its ability to defend itself against attacks on its population, allies such as the US have called on Israel to conduct serious investigations of the allegations.

So far, the allegations have only been taken up in an internal review of battlefield actions by Israel's military, which rejected the claims of human rights groups of war crimes. The review was conducted shortly after the end of the war.

Addressing Israel's parliament Wednesday, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon rejected calls for Israel to commission an independent inquiry in response to the UN. "In-depth investigations are conducted when there is reliable reporting, when there are things that need to be investigated," he said.

Officials may tap former chief justice

Israeli human rights groups called on the government to appoint an independent review of the army's behavior immediately after the war, suggesting that the military broke international law.

"If Israel thinks the report got it wrong, let it investigate publicly and independently the allegations," says Sari Bashi, the director of Gisha, a legal group that advocates removing movement restrictions on the Palestinians. "Any commission that meets internationally accepted standards for independence, competence, and scope would be acceptable."

To be sure, such a view represents a small minority of Israelis, who still largely support the war. In 1982, Israel appointed a commission to investigate the Sabra and Shatila massacre during the Lebanon War, but it was only after a mass demonstration and public criticism.

And yet, Israeli officials are quietly wondering whether a commission headed by retired Israeli chief justice Aharon Barak would help offset the criticism from the Goldstone report, says Ben Dror Yemini, opinion editor at the Maariv newspaper. But the thought has been that Mr. Barak might be too critical of the army, he adds.

"We need to fight them on their battlefield. Even if the rules are hypocritical we have to play this game," Mr. Yemini says. "If we want to save our soldiers and politicians from the international court, we have to do it."

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