Goldstone: Perceptions and realities

The retraction of war crimes allegations has led some to believe Goldstone succumbed to pressure from Zionist groups.

    Richard Goldstone, the chair of the UNHCR commission that found Israel and Hamas to be guilty of war crimes, effectively legitimised killing civilians when he recanted his commission's findings, critics say [EPA]

    In the Middle East, perceptions are as important as realities.

    A notable change-of-mind occurred when a newspaper published an article by Richard Goldstone, who was the head of a UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) commission that accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes in Gaza.

    While it will be impossible to know the true nature of what led him to make his feelings public, the perception is very clear.

    Burnt into the soul of Arabs and Muslims as well as supporters of Palestinian rights is the strong view that Goldstone's turnaround was the result a concerted attack by Zionists simply because they were not happy with the findings his committee made.

    The unexpected and sudden about-face by judge Goldstone caught many off guard, despite the fact that pressures on the South African jurist have been widely publicised.

    Some were surprised because Goldstone's public words have absolutely no legal value. After all, the report of the committee that he chaired had been submitted to the UN and therefore no longer accessible to him or anyone else in his committee.

    It was also unusual and rather frightening to see a well respected judge familiar with the basics of judicial process making public claims that were not shared with his colleagues on the committee, and were clearly not discussed from all points of view.

    The Palestinians who cooperated with his commission unlike the Israelis  were never asked to comment or try to rebut the anonymous information that made Goldstone suddenly change his mind.

    In his public reversal, Goldstone gives importance to issues of intentionality, and the fact that the Israeli army investigated its own actions.

    Palestinians and most human rights activists beg to differ on both. The Israeli human rights organisation B'tselem says that the issue of intentionality is "only part of the picture".

    It states in response to the Goldstone u-turn:

    The prohibition on the deliberate targeting of civilians is absolute, but an additional provision of the laws of war is that both sides to a conflict must take all feasible precautions to avoid as much as possible harming civilians.

    Furthermore, the evidence is very extensive regarding the dual legal systems applied to Israelis and Palestinians.

    The slap-on-the-hand punishments that are usually given to Israelis who have killed Palestinians is not comparable to the exaggerated punishment, say, to a Palestinian youth throwing a stone.

    In September 2010, B'tselem issued a 54 page report "Void of Responsibility: Israel Military Policy not to investigate Killings of Palestinians by Soldiers".

    The report gives ample evidence of the Israeli army's general indifference towards the death of Palestinians by its soldiers, by their legal system, and the spurious nature of its "investigations" of itself.

    It is difficult to convince Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims that Goldstone's change of mind was influenced simply by the surfacing of some new facts. Instead, they are bound to believe that it is yet another example of some kind of conspiracy.

    But the widest-circulating Israeli newspaper showed the pressure he was under.

    Speaking to Yediot Ahranot's Aviel Magnezi, the head of the South African Zionist Federation Avrom Krengel detailed the way personal, family and communal influence was systematically applied to the judge. "He suffered greatly, especially in the city he comes from. We took sides against him, and it encourages us to know that our way had an effect."

    Goldstone, who was initially denied the right to attend his grandson's bar mitzva, eventually was allowed to attend.

    According to the English language web site Ynet, "His arrival was made possible, according to Krengel, only after Goldstone agreed to meet with the leaders of the South African Zionist Federation."

    What is scary is how this naive act will negatively influence so many other Jewish personalities who are in a sensitive position vis-a-vis the Middle East conflict.

    For years, the leading US newspaper, the New York Times, chose not to send Jewish reporters to Israel to avoid appearance of bias.

    But once this self-imposed restraint was lifted, almost every reporter and bureau chief in Israel has been Jewish.

    The same situation applies in diplomacy. Both the US ambassador designated to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, and US consul general to Jerusalem, Daniel Rubenstein, are proud Jewish Americans.

    The perception (even if untrue) of being susceptible to ethnic pressure will no doubt influence Arab attitudes.

    The attitude of the Israeli government also adds oil to the fire. By gloating and pumping their chests, the Israeli government has yet again missed the intentions of international justice.

    When 1,500 Palestinians  most of them civilians are killed, and 14 Israelis  most of them soldiers are killed (some by friendly fire) in an uneven war on a people under siege, the cry of justice is not about scoring points and claiming fake righteousness.

    If Goldstone's retraction sends the message that armies can kill civilians with impunity, his words would have made the potential for peace much more difficult to attain.

    This is not to say that Jewish Americans can't serve honourably as neutral, unbiased reporters or diplomats, but what has been published about the pressures laid upon Goldstone (and were not denied), easily fits into a narrative that is not very helpful.

    The Goldstone debacle  including the personal pressures on him and his family – and his public recant, coupled with exaggerated crowing by Israeli leaders, will certainly fuel more anti-Semitism than reduce it.

    Most importantly, it might embolden those carrying out or apologising for  a 44 year-old foreign military occupation of Palestine.

    Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

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

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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