/ 19 September 2009

‘Israel guilty of crimes against humanity’

The United Nations investigation of the January war in Gaza, led by former South African judge Richard Goldstone, amounts to the most damning indictment yet of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians and its conduct of the three-week war.

However, Goldstone’s report, released this week, does not spare the Palestinian organisation Hamas, finding that its rocket attacks did not distinguish between civilian and military targets and constituted war crimes.

The 575-page report of Goldstone and his three colleagues follows the most serious international inquiry into the war, in which 1 400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died and which triggered world outrage.

The inquiry looks not only at the war but at the months before and after the conflict and accuses Israel of many violations of international law. It says Israel may be guilty of the crime of persecution, a crime against humanity, in its policies towards the Palestinian people.

It said the International Criminal Court has jurisdiction to investigate and that individuals responsible for violating the laws of war should face prosecution. Each country that has ratified the Geneva conventions had a duty to search for and prosecute those responsible.

Israel refused to cooperate with the team, saying the UN human rights council in Geneva, which commissioned the report, is biased against it.

Goldstone and his colleagues were therefore prevented from working in Israel or the occupied West Bank, but they held rare public hearings in Gaza, talking to Palestinians, and in Geneva, talking to Israelis. They interviewed 188 people and read 300 reports.
Their key findings are:

  • Israel’s incursion was ”a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself and to force upon it an ever-increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability”.
  • Israeli forces committed ”grave breaches of the fourth Geneva convention”, which gave rise to ”individual criminal responsibility”, meaning soldiers could face prosecution.
  • Israeli troops used Palestinian civilians as human shields, a war crime.
  • Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza in the years before the war amounted to ”collective punishment intentionally inflicted by the government of Israel on the people of the Gaza Strip”.
  • Israeli actions depriving Gazans of means of subsistence, employment, housing and water, and denying their freedom of movement, ”could lead a competent court to find that the crime of persecution, a crime against humanity, had been committed”.

On the actions of Hamas and the Palestinians, it found:

  • That Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli territory constituted a war crime and could constitute a crime against humanity.
  • Gaza’s security forces, controlled by Hamas, carried out extrajudicial executions and the arbitrary arrest, detention and ill-treatment of people, especially political opponents.
  • Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza for more than three years, is a prisoner of war and should be released on humanitarian grounds.

The report called on the UN Security Council to require Israel to launch ”appropriate investigations” into the violations detailed in the report within three months. If no investigation is launched within six months, it said the Security Council should pass the case to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

It made a similar demand on the Gaza authorities, also saying that if they failed to investigate, their case should pass to the court. Before that can happen, the report will be discussed by the UN human rights council in Geneva.

Many human rights groups, which have produced evidence supporting similar allegations, hope that individuals may face responsibility for their actions in such Middle East conflicts, though to date this has proved impossible.

The Israeli military has a team of lawyers working hard to defend their officers and prevent such an outcome. In 2005, an Israeli general, Doron Almog, was nearly arrested by police at London’s Heathrow airport for a private prosecution based on an earlier military operation in Gaza. However, he was tipped off, stayed in the plane and flew out of the country, avoiding arrest.

Goldstone called on Israel to halt immediately its closure of the crossings into Gaza and said the Israeli military needed to review its rules of engagement to avoid future Palestinian civilian deaths.

For their part, Palestinian armed groups should immediately renounce attacks on Israeli civilians and property, it said.
Israel reacted quickly, saying the report only legitimised Hamas.

The foreign ministry said: ”Both the mandate of the mission and the resolution establishing it prejudged the outcome of any investigation, gave legitimacy to the Hamas terrorist organisation and disregarded the deliberate Hamas strategy of using Palestinian civilians as cover for launching terrorist attacks.”

But Israeli officials would ”read the report carefully”, it said.

Israel’s military says it is still carrying out 23 criminal investigations into the war, but in July the foreign ministry published a lengthy report saying Israel had a ”right and obligation” to take military action against Hamas and that even though civilians died, the military did not violate international law.

Even the death toll is disputed. B’Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights group, has found that 1 387 Palestinians died, among them 773 people not taking part in hostilities.

That figure is broadly in line with research from Palestinian human rights groups. Israel, however, says only 295 civilians were killed out of a total of 1 166 deaths. On the Israeli side three civilians and 10 soldiers died. —