UN vote to endorse Goldstone report increases pressure on Israel

Israel's refusal to investigate allegations of war crimes in Gaza is increasingly putting it at odds with the international community – including allies such as the US.

Hatem Moussa/AP
In Jebaliya, Palestinian girls walk by a building destroyed by Israel in the Gaza war. UN investigator Richard Goldstone, who documented evidence of Israeli war crimes, denies that his 575-page report was politically motivated.

The United Nations Human Rights Council's decision Friday to adopt the controversial Goldstone report on the Gaza war increases the pressure on Israel to conduct its own investigation into alleged war crimes.

The council voted 25-to-6, with 11 abstentions, to endorse the report, which calls for both Israel and Hamas to investigate its allegations within the next few months. If either side fails to comply – and Israel has so far refused to do so – the report calls for the UN Security Council to take up the matter and consider referring it to the UN's International Criminal Court.

The US is expected to exercise its veto to block such accusations from mushrooming into a full-fledged war-crimes trial. But Israelis are still likely to feel a chill abroad. Just a few weeks ago, human rights groups in the United Kingdom appealed to a British judge to arrest Defense Minister Ehud Barak on war-crimes accusations.

"Israel is on a collision course with the rest of the world, including Israel's friends," says Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. "There's just no way when there's a global consensus to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that Israel can dig in its heels."

Palestinians welcome the report

Headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, the UN inquiry accused Israel of targeting Palestinian noncombatants and systematically going after civilian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip. It also condemns Hamas for firing some 8,000 rockets and mortars at southern Israeli towns in the eight years leading up to the war.

But the bulk of the criticism is aimed Israel, which refused to cooperate with the inquiry on the grounds that it would be biased and denied entry to investigators. Israel has consistently insisted that it did its utmost to avoid civilian casualties while fighting an enemy embedded in urban areas.

Palestinians welcomed the vote Friday.

"The Palestinian government welcomes the endorsement on the Goldstone report and thanks the friendly countries which voted in favor of the report," said Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nono, promising that his organization's government in Gaza would investigate the allegations. "We hope that the vote may be the beginning of the prosecution of the leaders of the occupation."

'Disproportionate diplomacy' against Israel

Despite a brewing debate in Israel over the merits of commissioning an investigation, which human rights activists here have long pushed for, no political leaders have yet endorsed such an idea. The report is widely considered by Israelis to be one-sided and politically loaded, putting a militant organization, Hamas, and the Middle East's only democracy, Israel, on equal footing.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued that pursuing international legal action ignores Israel's right to self-defense against militant groups that fight from behind the shield of civilian populations. In his view, this oversight undermines a key pillar of the Middle East peace process. Behind the specific accusations about the report is a widespread impression that the UN is fundamentally biased against Israel.

"Since the inception of the Human Rights Council, it has viewed Israel in a distorted fashion, just as the report itself does," said opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who has harshly criticized Mr. Netanyahu on other matters, in a statement responding to the vote.

"It's a warning sign that the UN system has yet again been politicized beyond recognition," agrees Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN. "Israel's accusers like to complain about the disproportional use of force, but what you have here is a disproportional use of diplomacy in which Israel gets singled out."

'Palestinians have nothing to lose'

Some here are concerned that the long-term diplomatic fallout from the Gaza war may be eroding whatever peace of mind Israel may have gained by shutting down rocket attacks on its civilians.

"Especially because there is no progress on the peace process, the Goldstone report is going to snowball," says Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel's foreign ministry. "If [Israel] ignores it, it will just get worse."

With the Israel-Palestinian peace process already frozen for months and no sign of movement, Netanyahu has little leverage with the international community.

"The Palestinians have nothing to lose," says Ghassan Khatib, head of the Palestinian Government Media Center in Ramallah, who called the decision a victory. "This time, the Palestinian Authority is going to pursue due process in the Security Council, and all the way to The Hague."

After initially bowing to US pressure to delay action on the Goldstone report, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was forced into an embarrassing about-face in response to domestic outrage. The vote wins back some of the credibility PA President Mahmoud Abbas had lost.

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