It was Wednesday afternoon. I was minding my own business on the elliptical machine at the gym, as usual, watching CNN in order to keep myself in the current events loop. When I go to the gym at this time of day, CNN tends to be pretty boring: maybe the story of the hour is the plight of an almost-extinct species, or a new estimate of casualties from the world’s latest natural disaster. So as you can imagine, I certainly wasn’t expecting to see Richard Goldstone‘s press conference at the United Nations about his U.N. fact finding mission on Operation Cast Lead and other relevant events in the Gaza Strip. Below is the entire press conference, but you’ll want to fast forward to 7:05 to get to the newsworthy sound bytes:
Before I launch into my analysis, critiques, and musings in general, a very quick summary of our esteemed Mr. Goldstone: a Jewish South African, he is a former South African Constitutional Court Judge who served as the chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda before leading the Gaza fact finding mission in 2009.
The report comes in at a grand total of 575 pages, and the bottom line is that it’s blatantly biased against Israel and basically ignores the true nature of Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups. It wasn’t hard to find a complete copy, so please have at it if you’re feeling ambitious. After a quick skim, I decided to only bother with the summary and recommendations, whose items seem to be making the most noise at the moment, but once I began to read I found the “Introduction” and “Methodology” sections to be pretty loaded as well.
In the introduction, the Commission thanks Gaza for being so cooperative: “During its visits to the Gaza Strip, the Mission held meetings with senior members of the Gaza authorities and they extended their full cooperation and support to the Mission.” In June, when asked if the team had met with Hamas fighters, Mission team member Hina Jilani, a Pakistani lawyer and human-rights activist, had said Hamas had been “‘very cooperative.’” How nice that the terrorists were so friendly! Apparently it’s ok to write a report based on their testimonials and cooperation that’s biased against Israel, seeing as Israel didn’t cooperate and so of course there can’t be anything more to the big picture.
The report also claims that its “findings do not attempt to identify the individuals responsible for the commission of offences nor do they pretend to reach the standard of proof applicable in criminal trials.” You will find below that this is definitely not the case, and that the report makes gross allegations and does pretend to use “evidence” to reach judicial conclusions. Even though Justice Goldstone “repeatedly insisted that the Mission was was not a judicial inquiry and so ‘could not reach judicial conclusions,’” the report reaches “conclusive judicial determinations of guilt, and including ‘detailed legal findings’ even in the absence of the sensitive intelligence information which Israel did not feel able to provide.” Read the report, and you tell me if it doesn’t seem to find Israel guilty of anything. Below are a few snippets from the summary that I deemed worthy of attention and commentary:
The issue: IDF attacks against Gaza police facilities
33. The Mission examined the attacks against six police facilities…resulting in the death of 99 policemen and nine members of the public…The circumstances of the attacks and the Government of Israel July 2009 report on the military operations clarify that the policemen were deliberately targeted and killed on the ground that the police as an institution, or a large part of the policemen individually, are in the Government of Israel’s view part of the Palestinian military forces in Gaza.
34. …the Mission analysed the institutional development of the Gaza police since Hamas took complete control of Gaza in July 2007 and merged the Gaza police with the “Executive Force” it had created after its election victory. The Mission finds that, while a great number of the Gaza policemen were recruited among Hamas supporters or members of Palestinian armed groups, the Gaza police were a civilian law-enforcement agency…The Mission accepts that there may be individual members of the Gaza police that were at the same time members of Palestinian armed groups and thus combatants. It concludes, however, that the attacks against the police facilities on the first day of the armed operations failed to strike an acceptable balance between the direct military advantage anticipated (i.e. the killing of those policemen who may have been members of Palestinian armed groups) and the loss of civilian life (i.e. the other policemen killed and members of the public who would inevitably have been present or in the vicinity), and therefore violated international humanitarian law.
So Israel should put its own 6 million citizens at risk because the U.N. wants it to “strike an acceptable balance?” Who has the authority to create a scale for determining an acceptable balance? The U.N. complained that the Israeli government refused to aid or participate in the mission, and yet the report answers for Israel’s actions by saying that the “balance between the direct military advantage anticipated…and the loss of civilian life,” when the truth is that the U.N. actually has no idea what the anticipated military advantage of killing those policemen was because the Israeli government would not tell them.
Israel like any other legitimate state, has a right to self-defense, which Goldstone apparently thinks is a violation of international humanitarian law. The report even acknowledges that some of the policemen could have been “combatants,” despite the fact that the Gaza police is considered in this context to be a “civilian law-enforcement agency.” In my opinion, no police force is a civilian law-enforcement agency if there’s any doubt whatsoever as to the activities of even one of its members. The U.N. could neither confirm nor deny the existence of, shall we say, unsavory persons within the Gaza police force, an ambiguity that I think speaks for itself.
I also have a problem with the word “combatant,” and I think my dear philosopher friend Jürgen Habermas would as well. One of the best classes I have ever taken at Vassar is “Terrorism and Political Philosophy.” The last reading of the semester was the post-9/11 Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida by Giovanna Borradori, Professor of Philosophy at Vassar. There is one place in the book where Habermas speaks directly to the Palestinian method when Borradori asks him to define terrorism:
In one respect, Palestinian terrorism still possesses a certain outmoded characteristic in that it revolves around murder, around the indiscriminate annihilation of enemies, women, and children—life against life.
I’d have to say that I agree, and that the only word to use for a Hamas militant is “terrorist.” What Habermas describes as “indiscriminate guerilla warfare,” which is one of his three types of terrorism, is exactly what Hamas aims to do. But even if you aren’t convinced that Hamas’s cause isn’t entirely illegitimate, Habermas says that it’s still terrorism, and that participants are still terrorists. Borradori writes:
For Habermas, linking the political scope of terrorism to the accomplishment of its goals offers the possibility of distinguishing at least three different kinds of terrorism…The model of paramilitary guerilla warfare is proper to the national liberation movements and is retrospectively legitimized by the formation of the state.”
There’s another point in the book that is particularly relevant to the deaths of the Gaza policemen. I could not find a quote because, no matter amazing Google Books is, they don’t upload complete books. But I promise I have an excellent memory. The thing is, you can never tell who is a terrorist and who is not at any given moment. The IDF is tops in weaponry and technology, but it still hasn’t created an effective means for reading minds or for manipulating them. When the safety and security of an entire country is at stake, it becomes necessary to err on the side of caution. In the case of Israel, it’s even more important because in addition to the turmoil in Gaza, neighboring countries have also been known to harbor anti-Israel terrorist entities.
The issue: Protecting Palestinian civilians
35. The Mission examined whether and to what extent the Palestinian armed groups violated
their obligation to exercise care and take feasible precautions to protect the civilian population in
Gaza from the inherent dangers of the military operations…the Mission found that Palestinian
armed groups were present in urban areas during the military operations and launched rockets from urban areas.
36. The Mission did not find any evidence to support the allegations that hospital
facilities were used by the Gaza authorities or by Palestinian armed groups to shield military activities and that ambulances were used to transport combatants or for other military purposes…While the conduct of hostilities in built-up areas does not, of itself, constitute a violation of international law, Palestinian armed groups, where they launched attacks close to civilian or protected buildings, unnecessarily exposed the civilian population of Gaza to danger.
The evidence that Hamas launched rockets in densely populated urban areas is overwhelming, so at least the U.N. acknowledged that, even though it failed to expound on the gravity of the situation and only stated the obvious. However, the report fails to mention something else that “unnecessarily exposed the civilian population of Gaza to danger,” which is the use of private residences as sites for manufacturing weapons. Israel has photographical evidence (p. 21) that, in addition to facilitating the production of rockets, private residences also housed weapons caches. If that isn’t putting civilians in danger, then I don’t know what is.
As for the fact that the U.N. “did not find any evidence to support the allegations that hospital facilities were used by the Gaza authorities or by Palestinian armed groups to shield military activities,” I honestly don’t know how the mission came up with that. It was no secret that Hamas used Gaza’s Shifa Hospital as a headquarters and place of operations in December 2008 and January 2009 during the conflict. On January 12, Public Security Minister and former Shin Bet head (Israel Security Agency) Avi Dichter told the Jerusalem Post that Hamas memebers clustered there to receive their salaries and that “‘you can hear from the Palestinians who visit there – it is somewhat of an open secret – that Hamas commanders walk around the hospital, in some instances wearing doctors’ robes…In some cases the Hamas commanders kick medical teams out of rooms so that they can hold meetings.’” So a bunch of Hamas militants congregate in a hospital full of innocent civilians, and yet the U.N. doesn’t seem to think that this qualifies as either shielding military activities or intentionally endangering civilians. I must admit, I am confused.
Something else the report forgot to mention: Hamas’s use of civilians as human shields. Israel dropped leaflets and made thousands of phone calls to warn Gazans about IDF attacks, but Gazan media outlets like Al-Aqsa TV repeatedly called upon Palestinians to gather at specific private residences to “protect” them from IDF airstrikes. I remember this in particular being something that the international media focused on during Operation Cast Lead, so I was surprised to see that the U.N. paid it no attention at all. What the U.N. did focus on, however, is the IDF’s alleged use of Palestinians as human shields.
The issue: Gilad Shalit
76. The Mission notes the continued detention of Gilad Shalit, a member of the Israeli armed forces, captured in 2006 by a Palestinian armed group…during an enemy incursion into Israel…
78. The Mission is concerned by declarations made by various Israeli officials, who have
indicated the intention of maintaining the blockade of the Gaza Strip until the release of Gilad Shalit. The Mission is of the opinion that this would constitute collective punishment of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip.
Well, it’s really simple. All Hamas has to do is free Gilad Shalit. It’s been over three years, and he wasn’t captured because he knew military secrets. He is of no value to Hamas except as a trade-off for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, but if Hamas truly cares about Gaza citizens, it will release Shalit. Also using “enemy incursion” to classify what exactly happened in 2006 is misleading because it makes it seem like just another casualty of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when indeed it is not. He was captured by terrorists, has been held by them for over three years, and his family has no information about his conditions, as the U.N. report suggests that Hamas release. Numerous diplomatic summits have been convened for the sake of bringing him back. This issue is much more serious than the U.N. implies in its report.
The issue: Restriction of movement in the West Bank
92. In the West Bank, Israel has long imposed a system of movement restrictions. Movement is restricted by a combination of physical obstacles such as roadblocks, checkpoints and the Wall…Palestinians are denied access to areas expropriated for the building of the Wall and its infrastructure, for use by settlements, buffer zones, military bases and military training zones, and the roads built to connect these places. Many of these roads are “Israeli only” and forbidden for Palestinian use.
First, the security barrier is not a wall. It is 95 percent fence and only 5 percent wall, which would make it a fence that has some parts that are wall. Movement may be restricted by what the report calls “the Wall” but, once again, Israel has the right to defend itself against terrorists, and the barrier has significantly decreased these attacks. Second thing, remember my Hebron guide Norman? If so, you might also remember that his wife was murdered when an Arab terrorist attacked their car when they were driving from Rachel’s Tomb in Hebron to Jerusalem. The “Israeli only” roads certainly restrict Palestinian movement, but then again no one wants to get blown up by a roadside sniper.
The issue: Rocket and mortar attacks by “Palestinian armed groups” on southern Israel
103. Palestinian armed groups have launched about 8000 rockets into southern Israel since 2001…the range of rocket fire increased to 40 kilometres from the Gaza border, encompassing towns as far north as Ashdod, during the Israeli military operations in Gaza.
108. …The Mission has further determined that these attacks constitute indiscriminate attacks upon the civilian population of southern Israel and that where there is no intended military target and the rockets and mortars are launched into a civilian population, they constitute a deliberate attack against a civilian population. These acts would constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity.
This is the only part of the summary in which it appears that the U.N. actually understands the definition of “terrorist.” A terrorist is in the business of both indiscriminate and deliberate attacks, and that is what Hamas continues to do. It is true that “Palestinian armed groups” are formally accused of war crimes, but “may amount to crimes against humanity” pales in comparison to the various violations of the right to life, violations of the right to water and sustenance, and crimes against humanity that the report accuses Israel of. Is it not a violation of the right to life to bombard civilian communities with rockets for years and years, creating both physical and psychological trauma? The report’s statement that the rocket and mortar fire “would constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity” is a mere rap on the knuckles compared to the unsubstantiated claims it makes about the conduct of Israel (because remember that no matter how many IDF soldiers and officials appeared at the Commission’s public hearings, the top dogs who know everything refused to participate), for example that “the conduct of the Israeli armed forces constitute grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of wilful killings and wilfully causing great suffering to protected persons and as such gives rise to individual criminal responsibility.”
To wrap up Part 1 (I know, finally), I leave you all with some more food for thought from Habermas:
BORRADORI: Should terrorism be distinguished from ordinary crime and other types of violence?
HABERMAS: Yes and no. From a moral point of view, there is no excuse for terrorist acts, regardless of the motive or the situation under which they are carried out…Historically, however, terrorism falls in a category different from crimes that concern a criminal court judge.
Part 2 (the Mission’s recommendations) coming soon!