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GAZA: ONE YEAR ON
What Goldstone says about the US
Are self-interests or support for Israel behind US condemnation of Goldstone report?
Last Modified: 26 Dec 2009 12:58

Richard Goldstone, centre, walks through Gaza City after Israel's war on the territory [EPA]

Opponents of the Goldstone report might well be hoping that after its lopsided condemnation in the US House of Representatives and successful relegation back to the UN's Human Rights Commission, the report will become little more than an historical footnote in a decades-long conflict.

This might in fact occur, given the imbalance of power between the contending sides. But historians can do a great deal with footnotes.

When the glare of history is finally shone upon the whole affair, it might well turn out that the reasons for such vehement opposition from US politicians, and only tepid (at best) support for it among other major powers, have far more to do with their own geostrategic interests than with protecting Israel.

Back story

The report, written by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, has caused uproar in Israel and the US for its alleged bias against Israel and avoidance of serious criticism of Hamas. The condemnation, House Resolution 867, passed by a 344-36 vote.

Before the vote on the resolution, Goldstone sent a letter to members of Congress refuting most of the allegations contained in it. But his rebuttal did not lead to substantive changes in the report's accusations and apparently had no effect on the vote.

Given the way in which opposition to the report unfolded it would be easy to conclude that this is merely another case of the vaunted Israel lobby shutting down any debate over Israel's actions in the Occupied Territories.

Yet while Israel's supporters no doubt took the lead in pushing the resolution, there is a back story to this drama that has likely played an equally, if not more important, role in the firestorm it has generated.

Why would the House go so far out of its way to stamp out even the consideration of war crimes accusations against Israel? And why would Barack Obama, the US president, have pressured Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, not to push the report in the UN when he had to know that such actions would cost Abbas most of his little remaining credibility among Palestinians?

Accessory to war crimes

There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, if Israel is guilty of committing systematic war crimes across Gaza and the West Bank, then the US, which supported, funded and armed Israel during the war, is an accessory to those crimes.

Goldstone explains in no uncertain terms that Gaza was not an aberration in terms of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

Rather, it marked not only a continuation of Israel's behaviour during the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, but "highlights a common thread of the interaction between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians which emerged clearly also in many cases discussed in other parts of the report".

It referenced "continuous and systematic abuse, outrages on personal dignity, humiliating and degrading treatment contrary to fundamental principles of international humanitarian law and human rights law".

"The Mission concludes that the treatment of these civilians constitutes the infliction of a collective penalty on those persons and amounts to measures of intimidation and terror. Such acts are grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and constitute a war crime," the report says.

Put simply, if there is blood on Israel's hands, than it is has dripped all over America's shirt.

Israel could not and would not have engaged in the level of wholesale destruction of Gaza painstakingly catalogued in the report without the support of the outgoing Bush administration, and acquiescence of the incoming Obama administration.

Israeli narrative challenged

Not only that, but on the same day the report was released the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israel's military leadership is preparing the country for yet another invasion of Gaza in the near future.

Goldstone's report accuses Israel of using collective punishment in Gaza [EPA]
It is not clear how much of Gaza is left to be destroyed, but the report's detailed discussion of Israel's attacks on innumerable homes, mosques, schools, hospitals and other civilian facilities show what lengths Israel will go to to punish Gazans, and Palestinians more broadly.

There is also the larger context of the peace negotiations. If Israel can be guilty of humanitarian crimes at this level, then it puts the entire Israeli narrative about the occupation - that it is ultimately about preserving the country's security - into question.

In fact, the report declares precisely this, in paragraph 1674, when it argues that the Gaza invasion "cannot be understood and assessed in isolation from developments prior and subsequent to it. The operation fits into a continuum of policies aimed at pursuing Israel's political objectives with regard to Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territory as a whole".

Almost everyone outside the US, including in Israel, understands that the occupation has always been about settlement, not security, since Israel could have militarily occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 indefinitely without establishing a single settlement, and could withdraw from all its settlements tomorrow and maintain a military occupation until it felt secure enough to turn the territory over to Palestinians.

As famed general Moshe Dayan once put it, the settlements in the Occupied Territories are essential "not because they can ensure security better than the army, but because without them we cannot keep the army in those territories. Without them the IDF would be a foreign army ruling a foreign population".

But the US remains heavily invested in maintaining this security narrative; both because it is the core of the strategic alliance between the two countries with all the military, strategic and financial implications that come with it, and because, as with the Gaza invasion, the settlement enterprise could never have proceeded without US support, or at least acquiescence.

This dynamic continues to operate today, as the same day House Resolution 867 was passed, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, explained that the US preferred to return to peace talks even without a settlement freeze, despite the fact that not stopping settlement construction during negotiations has been deemed by former senior Israeli negotiators such as Moshe Ben Ami and Yossi Beilin as among the single biggest factors dooming the Oslo peace process.

The Obama administration refuses even to push the parameters painstakingly set by his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, before leaving office, to which both Israelis and Palestinians were very close to agreeing.

Alarming precedent

One has to wonder whether the US Middle East policy-making establishment, which is dominated by defence and security interests, is even interested in bringing about a speedy resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Beyond what the Goldstone report says about America's role in Israel's actions, the report holds a mirror up to US actions in its 'war on terror'. In so doing it paints for US policy-makers and politicians a more frightening picture of a future in which all countries are held accountable for their actions.

Here it becomes clear that, as it has been for four decades, Israel is both the spear and the shield for the projection - and protection - of US power in the Middle East. It engages in activities the US cannot do openly, and it acts as the first line of defence when US interests might be attacked diplomatically.

In going after Israel, the report, however unintended, is going after the US, which has committed many of the same crimes (of which Israel is accused) in its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and perhaps through its drone attacks, in Pakistan and other countries. This is the report's true danger, and why - from the US perspective - its accusations against Israel cannot stand.

Specifically, the idea of treating a Western-allied state, Israel, and a resistance movement, Hamas, as equally capable of committing war crimes and being held accountable for them, sets an alarming precedent for the US as its engagement in Iraq stretches on indefinitely and deepens in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Why not hold the US (or Pakistan, China, Russia, or India for that matter) to the same standards as we hold the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or opposition movements in Kashmir, Chechnya or Tibet? None of these powers would allow this to happen.

Universal jurisdiction

Moreover, the report condemns the "Dahiya doctrine," which involved the application of disproportionate force and the causing of great damage and destruction to civilian property and infrastructure, and suffering to civilian populations.

Although claiming to work hard to protect civilians in the countries it is occupying, one of the primary complaints against the US by citizens of Afghanistan or Iraq is the frequent killing of civilians and destruction of infrastructure, particularly if it could be deemed to be "supporting infrastructure" for "terrorists".

And when such abuses are committed, paragraph 121 of the report reminds the world that "international human rights law and humanitarian law require states to investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute allegations of serious violations by military personnel".

This is an indirect stab at the US judicial system, which has so far failed to hold anyone but a few low-level soldiers accountable for the numerous abuses committed by the US in Iraq and the 'war on terror' more broadly.

Perhaps the most dangerous suggestion in this regard is the report's call for applying "universal jurisdiction" to the conflict.

As paragraph 127 states: "In the context of increasing unwillingness on the part of Israel to open criminal investigations that comply with international standards, the mission supports the reliance on universal jurisdiction as an avenue for states to investigate violations of the grave breach [of the] provisions of the Geneva Conventions."

There is no power that wants its officials or military and security personnel subject to prosecution by other countries.

Uncritical victimology

In this regard, it is not coincidental that the same day resolution 867 was passed an Italian court convicted 23 former CIA agents of participating in the illegal rendition of an Italian imam, who claims he was subsequently tortured in captivity.

Have US policy interests in the Middle East impacted their rejection of the report? [AFP]
In June, the Italian newspaper il Giornale published an interview with Robert Seldon Lady, the CIA's Milan station chief, in which he admitted, "Of course it was an illegal operation. But that's our job. We're at war against terrorism".

This is a crucial statement, for it reveals that the US establishment believes that in a 'war on terror', there are no legal limits to what it can do. And if Israel is condemned for the same attitude, this would vitiate America's ability to take whatever actions it desires, however illegal, to pursue its interests.

Obama might not take such actions, but his successors might. And if another major terrorist attack were to occur on US soil, there is little doubt that the gloves would once again come off, whether Obama wanted to keep them on or not.

In such a situation, the psychology of uncritical victimology that characterised post-9/11 America will be crucial to enabling such policies to be (re)put in place.

As the report quotes an Israeli professor (paragraph 1703): "Israeli society's problem is that because of the conflict, Israeli society feels itself to be a victim and to a large extent that's justified and it's very difficult for Israeli society to move and to feel that it can also see the other side and to understand that the other side is also a victim." This problem is equally difficult for Americans to overcome.

Report's historical imprint

Among the final coincidences accompanying the passage of resolution 867 was its release the day after Clinton held a high-profile meeting in Morocco to champion the country's recent official promotion of democracy.

But in her celebration of the Moroccan example she neglected to mention that press freedoms, the core of any democratic system, are suffering increasing restrictions in the country. Freedom of speech or challenging the country's political-economic elite remains heavily circumscribed, especially when it comes from the country's principal Islamically motivated opposition movement.

Of course, Clinton cannot push too hard for democracy in the Muslim world; democratically-elected governments would not tolerate many of the US' core policies in the region, from uncritical support for Israel to its own military and economic alliances and activities.

The day after her Morocco meeting, Clinton was in Egypt, meeting once again with the Egypt's autocratic leader, Hosni Mubarak, with not a word about democracy.

Against such policy interests, it might well be that the Goldstone report will be relegated to history without being acted upon.

What few of its opponents understand is just how big an imprint this most exhaustive study of the Israeli occupation will leave.

It might not help Palestinians and Israelis achieve peace today, but future historians will likely look upon it as a crucial document in exposing the realities of the American dominated Middle Eastern system for the world to see.

Mark LeVine is currently Visiting Professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, Sweden. His most recent books include Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009) and Reapproaching Borders: New Perspectives on the Study of Israel-Palestine (Rowman Littlefield, 2008).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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