Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 October 2009
Issue No. 969
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

James Zogby

Contested but not read

Amid the furore and controversy over the Goldstone Report what is lost is the point of it all: the bare and harsh facts of what really happened in Gaza, writes James Zogby*

The Goldstone Report is back, taking centre stage in a raging international debate. What is most troubling is not the circuitous route the report took on its way to the UN Security Council. Rather, it is the fact that those making the most noise about the report have, I fear, either not read it or are deliberately distorting its contents for political advantage. In fact, it may well be that, by now, the Goldstone Report has eclipsed the Iraq Study Group Report as the most discussed but least read document of the decade.

When it was first released by the UN Human Rights Council reactions were predictable. Some US officials dismissed it as "flawed" and "unbalanced", while members of Congress went further, using shameful language to attack both the report and its principle author. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also reacted, as expected, alternating between bullying ultimatums to end the "peace process" and dire warnings that the report posed an existential threat to the state of Israel.

Since they, too, stood accused by the findings of the report, Hamas also initially denounced it, issuing a vile anti-Semitic diatribe directed at Goldstone himself.

For its part, the Obama administration, not wanting the report's findings to become an obstacle to restarting Middle East peace negotiations, pressed the Palestinians and other parties on the Human Rights Council to postpone its consideration. At that, Netanyahu declared victory, and the Palestinian side was thrown into convulsions with serious charges of betrayal directed at its leadership.

It is distressing that the US did not anticipate the impact that their pressure on the Palestinians would have. But miscalculations of this type are frequent since, although the US keeps a watchful eye on internal Israeli politics, they rarely consider the internal Arab political dynamic -- often with tragic consequences.

In any case, to calm troubled seas, the Palestinian president reconsidered and, in concert with allies, brought the Goldstone Report back to the Human Rights Council and then on to the Security Council.

Now that it is back, not much has changed. Netanyahu, speaking in the Knesset last week, referred to the Goldstone Report as a "distorted report written by a distorted committee [that] undermines Israel's right to defend itself. This report defends terrorism and threatens peace." His defence minister, Ehud Barak, chimed in describing the report as "false, distorted, tenacious, and encouraging terrorism". Enlarging on all this, AIPAC (the American Israel Political Affairs Committee) sent out talking points to their congressional supporters calling Goldstone "biased and one-sided", criticising the report's "findings and methodologies". And a US spokesperson dismissively said that the Palestinians had a choice to make between statehood and vindication, implying that they had made the wrong choice.

Still discussed, but not read.

I had the distinct honour to have lunch a few weeks back with Justice Richard Goldstone. I say honour because not only was he the first justice appointed by president Nelson Mandela to South Africa's Constitutional Court, but he is a legend in the human rights community for his work investigating and prosecuting war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Despite being in the centre of a storm, he is a remarkably composed man. As a jurist, his words are weighed, his observations are precise, and his judgements informed.

As he has made clear in interviews, he expanded on the Human Rights Council's limited mandate to include, in his investigations, not only the Gaza War, but the events leading up to that war, holding all parties involved accountable for their behaviour.

In order to prepare the report, Goldstone's team spent considerable time in Gaza conducting several hundred interviews, reading thousands of pages of reports, and conducting public hearings in the Middle East and in Geneva. In all, they investigated 36 specific events, providing an exhaustive narrative report on their findings, and then a review of applicable human rights law and conventions.

Many of the incidents covered in the report will be familiar to those who followed the December/January Gaza War. It examines, for example, the attacks on hospitals and mosques, and the widely reported killings of Gazan civilians. The report also looks at incidents that are not so well known, several of which are covered in a section entitled "Attacks on the foundation of civilian life in Gaza: Destruction of industrial infrastructure, food production, water installations, sewage treatment, and housing". These include: the total destruction of Al-Bader flour mill, the bulldozing and "systematic flattening" of the Sawafaery chicken farm (killing all 31,000 chickens), and the bombing of the raw sewage lagoons of the Gaza Water Sewage Treatment Plant causing 200,000 cubic metres of raw sewage to contaminate neighbouring farmlands. These sites, the report concludes, were not military targets but were instead evidence of "unlawful and wanton destruction, not justified by military necessity," and hence war crimes.

Not only Israeli behaviour was investigated. Hamas was also called to account for its violations of law, specifically with regards to the detention and treatment of Gilad Shalit, the indiscriminate bombing of Israeli citizens, and the repressive and deadly targeting of political rivals in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority was also found responsible for a range of human rights abuses, most especially repression and violence against their political rivals in the West Bank.

Now that the report has been confirmed by the Human Rights Council and forwarded to the Security Council the gamesmanship continues. The Israelis will throw another temper tantrum, the US will attempt to dismiss the entire discussion as a false choice between human rights and peace, and the US Congress will no doubt get into the mix in some unhelpful way. Doubtless, competing Palestinian parties will continue to see the report as a club to use against one another.

I dare say that while its authors believed that the Goldstone Report would create debate, they did not anticipate this firestorm. That it is back at centre stage is a good thing. But the problem remains: with all the political posturing and the heated debate, sadly, in all probability, the report will not be acted upon, nor will it be read. It should be, for there is much in it from which all sides can learn.

* The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.

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