By George S. Hishmeh – Washington
It was definitely coincidental – but harboring many unclear scenarios – that Richard Goldstone’s infamous volte face came on April Fool’s day as when it appeared on the Web site of The Washington Post.
In his wishy-washy column, published in that paper two days later, the esteemed South African judge backtracked on some of his original sharp findings which appeared in an earlier UN Human Rights Council (HRC) report about the 2008-09 Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip. Then, around 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 11 Israeli soldiers lost their lives in the three-week invasion.
His justification: “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report (named in his honor) would have been a different document.”
Goldstone had originally said that his committee had “found evidence of potential war crimes and ‘possibly crimes against humanity’” committed during that war by both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that still controls the Gaza Strip, home to about 1.5 million Palestinians.
But a final report to HRC by another U.N. committee, run by a former New York judge, argued that in that war “civilians were not intentionally targeted (by Israel) as a matter of policy, ” basing its conclusions in part on “investigations published by the Israeli military.” Hamas, in turn, had failed to conduct its investigation of the brutal clashes between the two sides – a decision that harmed the group’s standing.
Although a Jew and a Zionist – (one wonders how he was tasked with this mission) – Goldstone was severely denounced by Israel and its supporters. This time around his backtracking encouraged Netanyahu to call for “the shelving of (Goldstone’s) report once and for all.” But the South African judge had refrained from echoing Netanyahu’s call in his just-published column, contributing to the mystery of his back-pedaling and raising concerns that he may do so in the future.
To his credit, however, Goldstone had documented unchallenged numerous examples of mistreatment of Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers, and highlighted, as well, an Israeli air strike on a house in the Gaza Strip where 29 Palestinian members of the Samouni family were killed, one of 4,000 homes demolished.
But what has been shocking has been the fact that the Goldstone column had two “significantly different” versions, one sent much earlier to The New York Times, and when this was not published, a second version appeared several days later in The Washington Post. The first version, according to an unidentified source close to the Politico Web site and published in Haaretz, did not include the “crucial repudiation of the (Goldstone) report’s central thrust,” namely the allegations of war crimes and the intentional targeting of civilian non-combatants.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, believes that the significance of Goldstone’s Op-Ed column “is being overblown.” Challenging Goldstone’s claim that new information discounts claims that Israel was targeting civilians, Roth writes:
“Human Right Watch’s investigation in Gaza found some cases of apparently deliberate killing of civilians by Israeli soldiers, such as the killing of 11 civilians holding white flags, but no evidence that these resulted from a policy to target civilians.”
After noting that only four Israel soldiers had been indicted and only one had served jail time (7-1/2 months). Israel, Roth concluded, “has yet to investigate the policies behind the indiscriminate attacks that caused so much civilian harm.”
Richard Cohen, a Washington Post columnist, believes that Goldstone’s harassment “was a symptom of something larger.” In other words, he continued, Goldstone’s report “was accepted in much of the world testified to how much Israel’s moral standing has plummeted.”
Moreover, a member of the four-member panel that authored the Goldstone Report, Desmond Travers, a former officer in the Irish Armed forces and an expert on international criminal investigations, was reported saying that “the tenor of the report in its entirety, in my opinion, stands.”
It was interesting that this brouhaha over the Goldstone Report coincided with the visit of Israeli President Shimon Peres to the White House last Tuesday and came as a State Department statement chastised Israel for plans to add about a thousand houses in occupied East Jerusalem.
President Obama hit the nail on the head when he told an Israeli rally marking the assassination of Israeli Prime Yitzhak Rabin more than a year ago that “Israelis will not find true security while the Palestinians are gripped by hopelessness and despair.”
Whether the climate will be better when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes here in May remains to be seen.
– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. Contact him at: Hishmehg@aol.com.