x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Goldstone report keeps Israel on tenterhooks

Two of the country's biggest fears are subpoenas and detention of its generals and officials under global arrest warrants when abroad.

From Israel's point of view, the UN report accusing its military of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity during its invasion last winter of the Gaza Strip might be subtitled "The Report That Won't Go Away".

After the release of the Goldstone report in September, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called it a "travesty", a "farce", a "perversion". He said a UN endorsement of the report, named after the former South African judge, Richard Goldstone, who led the investigating team, would strike a mortal blow to the stature of the world body, to the war against terrorism and most astonishingly given its condition, to the peace process.

Mr Netanyahu even coined the phrase "Goldstone effect" - "Goldstone" being, he said, a "code word for an attempt to delegitimise Israel's right to self-defence". When this failed to discredit the report, the Israeli premier raised the ante, declaring last month to an audience of international reporters in Jerusalem that the "three most important challenges" Israel faced were Iran's nuclear programme, rockets aimed at Israeli civilians and Goldstone.

Still, the report will not go away. In Israel's latest attempt to achieve its stated goal of consigning the report to a slow death inside the Byzantine UN bureaucracy, the Israeli government was expected to inform the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, this week - perhaps as early as last night - that the internal investigations of the 22-day military operation carried out by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) were sufficient.

The UN investigating team headed by Mr Goldstone, who was also the former chief prosecutor for the international criminal tribunals for former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, is demanding that Israel conduct an independent inquiry of its military's actions during Operation Cast Lead and take "appropriate action to ensure justice for the victims and accountability for the perpetrators". Such an inquiry had reportedly been urged by the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, and the IDF chief of staff, Lt Gen Gabi Ashkenazi. Earlier this week, however, another top Israeli official signalled his government's intentions after conferring with Mr Ban in New York.

"We have investigated enough," Yuli Edelstein, the minister of information and diaspora affairs, told the newspaper The Jewish Week. "I'm not sure it leads anywhere. It's not necessary". The UN General Assembly has given Israel and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, until February 3 to reply to the Goldstone team's findings. A floor debate in the UN General Assembly is set for two days later. In the absence of what the Goldstone report terms "independent" and "good-faith investigations" by both sides, the findings could be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for possible action.

For Israel, in particular, that could realise two of its biggest fears: the issuing of subpoenas and indictments against its political officials and generals, and their detention under international arrest warrants when they travel abroad. On Wednesday, Hamas officials signalled their intent to the UN, too. They disclosed to the Associated Press a copy of the report they intend to hand the world body. It says Hamas fighters did not target civilians while firing rockets into Israeli towns bordering the Strip. Just as Israeli appears set to, Hamas also rejects the world body's demand for an independent inquiry.

"Palestinian armed groups have repeatedly confirmed that they are abiding by international humanitarian law, through broadcasting in different media that they intended to hit military targets and to avoid targeting civilians," the Hamas report said, citing casualties from "incorrect [or imprecise] fire". Hamas's defiance of the UN is unlikely to be well received by some Palestinians. Last week, 11 Palestinian human rights groups demanded that both Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank investigate allegations of Palestinian violations outlined in the Goldstone report.

The groups asked Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to launch investigations into the conduct of various Palestinian forces during the war. The clamour by Palestinians for more action on the human rights front places Mr Abbas in an especially difficult position. Last fall, he asked the UN Human Rights Council to postpone a vote that, if approved, would have transferred the findings of the Goldstone report immediately to the UN Security Council for action.

Explaining the move, aides to the Palestinian president said that he deferred to the US and Israel, which insisted that an immediate vote would jeopardise the peace process. Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip reacted with outrage. The Israeli media added an additional wrinkle this month when it reported that Mr Abbas's request for a postponement followed a meeting with Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency.

During the October meeting, Mr Diskin allegedly warned the Palestinian president that if he did not request a delay in the vote, Israel would turn the West Bank into a "second Gaza", the Israeli daily Haaretz reported. Despite the pressure on Mr Abbas and Hamas, it is still Israel that is under the most strain. Operation Cast Lead, which began December 27, 2008, was one week of aerial bombing by Israeli war planes followed by a two-week land and air assault. The onslaught resulted in the deaths of 1,393 Palestinians, including 290 children, and the destruction of 3,535 homes. Thirteen Israelis were killed in the fighting. Nine of them were soldiers, four of whom died as the result of friendly fire.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, declared the report "one-sided". Michael Posner, the US assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, described it as "deeply flawed". Israel-friendly members of the US Congress proposed resolutions also condemning it. As next week's debate nears, the drumbeat is likely to escalate. Mr Edelstein, Israel's diaspora minister, said that he told the UN secretary general this week that the report had created what he called a "dangerous" atmosphere in which "anti-Semites now find a platform for their views".

Alongside that tack, last fall's denunciation by Israel's ambassador to the UN, Gabriela Shaleva, seems downright tame. Ms Shaleva turned to Shakespeare and quoted Macbeth. A Security Council debate on the report, she said, would be "full of sound and fury signifying nothing". @Email:cnelson@thenational.ae