By Shafiq Morton – Cape Town
When the most recent Goldstone Commission, appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council, announced its intentions to probe human rights violations and the possibility of war crimes during Israel’s 22-day invasion of Gaza, it did not exactly set the media on fire.
Nor did its lukewarm response in Israeli and Palestinian circles help much either, with Goldstone being described as a “passing cloud” by an Israeli spokesman, and Israel predictably refusing to recognize the commission.
Then there was the fact that Israel had already officially exonerated its forces in the invasion. It had contended there were no deliberate attacks on Palestinian civilians, and that there were only isolated mistakes leading to the deaths of 21 unarmed combatants.
How this fits in with the internationally-agreed death tally of about 1,400 Palestinians (with over 900 being unarmed civilians) is difficult to say. The BBC reports that ten Israeli soldiers (four by friendly fire) and three civilians died in the conflict.
In Gaza, the idea of the Goldstone Commission was received with resignation. Too many international commissions had come and gone in Gaza without promise, so was there really any reason to get excited about this one?
However, in the corridors of Israeli officialdom and the United States there was just enough edginess to hint that Goldstone was an influential enough figure to make the truth embarrassing. Indeed, if any legal figure had the prerequisite gravitas on Gaza, it had to be Justice Richard Goldstone.
He had not only played a pivotal role in the South African peace process via his commission on political violence in KwaZulu Natal (it had claimed thousands of lives) and his role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but also as a Constitutional Court judge.
His progression to chief prosecutor at the UN International Criminal Tribunals in the Rwanda and Yugoslavia conflicts was seen by many as a natural step in his already illustrious career.
For Zionists he represents an even more exasperating – if not inscrutable – figure than former ANC Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, who harshly and unapologetically criticizes Israel. Goldstone is also a South African Jew, but he is a much more subtly layered and secretive persona than Kasrils.
The original UN brief had been to investigate whether Israel had committed war crimes in Gaza, but significantly after Goldstone’s appointment it had been changed. The commission would have to focus on all protagonists – including Palestinian ones.
Whilst perhaps not being appreciated by Hamas, it certainly did not alter Israeli antagonism to his commission which was then officially described as a “masquerade”.
Already operating under difficult conditions, Goldstone’s commission did have Israelis and Palestinians testifying to it – though there were allusions (admittedly not by the commission) to the close presence of Hamas security officials when Gazan civilians testified.
Nonetheless, Goldstone’s four-man team is an interesting, if not formidable one worldly-wise enough to see through any possible intimidation, play-acting or foul play on any side.
It comprises Desmond Travers, a former Irish army colonel and veteran of several UN and EU peace-keeping missions; Hina Jilani, a prominent Pakistani jurist and former UN human-rights envoy and Christine Chinkin, professor of international law at the London School of Economics, who is also a specialist in conflict resolution and gender-rights issues.
Chinkin has already come under Zionist lobby fire, it accusing her of “bias” for signing a petition in January this year that Israel had committed war crimes. What the lobby has conveniently forgotten to mention is that the petition Chinkin signed included Hamas too, for not ceasing its Al-Qassem rocket attacks.
Whether Israel’s intransigence in allowing the Goldstone Commission access to Israel will hamper the commission, remains to be seen.
Goldstone’s approach, to listen to witnesses from both sides as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission did, is regarded as a more cathartic approach.
According to a UN spokesperson, Doune Porter, Judge Goldstone was keen to give victims – who could get lost behind the stats and figures – a face in the crowd.
With Goldstone’s report scheduled to be tabled in September this year, optimism is not rife that the UN will ever act on it. Even Goldstone himself is said to be in doubt whether the commission would lead to international criminal prosecutions should he find evidence of war crimes.
The only hope, say human-rights sources, is the prohibitively expensive route of private prosecution.
In the meantime, other human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International – and even the Red Crescent – have pointed accusing fingers especially, but not altogether exclusively, at Israel.
An international fact-finding mission sent by the Arab League visited Gaza earlier this year under the auspices of the Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, the Palestinian Medical Relief Society and Gaza’s Al-Mizan society.
Comprising a team of medical experts, including Prof Shabir Ahmad Wadee from the Department of Forensic Pathology at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town, the mission has compiled a damning dossier of human-rights abuse – and potential war crimes – from a medical perspective.
In its report, the mission shows evidence of white phosphorous wounds to civilians, DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosives) injuries as well as an unusual amount of civilian limbs being amputated in bomb blasts.
On one page, the report shows the photograph of a metal disk, resembling that of a circular saw, found in an explosive device triggered by the Israelis. Prof Wadee told me that the disk, which could be the reason for the amputations, had been sent to Brussels for independent forensic investigation.
Again, whether the findings will lead to further investigation or prosecution is debatable.
In the meantime, fact-finding missions and commissions – given the current situation in Israel and Palestine – are going to find themselves stuck between a rock and a cynical place, despite the august presence of people such Justice Richard Goldstone heading them.
-Shafiq Morton is a Cape Town based photo-journalist, author and radio show host. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.