U.N.'s Gaza Probe Becomes the New Battleground

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Anwar Amro / AFP / Getty

Palestinian children hold posters showing scenes from Israel's war on the Gaza Strip during a demonstration in Sidon, Lebanon, against a U.N. decision to delay a vote on a war-crimes report

Rarely does a human-rights investigation cause the kind of geopolitical ruckus that has been generated by the U.N. probe into last winter's fighting in Gaza that left more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. Israel is mounting an 11th hour diplomatic blitz to scupper U.N. discussion of the Human Rights Council investigation led by South African judge Richard Goldstone, which accuses the Israeli army and Palestinian Hamas militants of committing war crimes. Israel insists the probe is biased and, in the words of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, "twisted, fraudulent and tendentious." At a Security Council meeting of the issue on Wednesday, Israeli ambassador Gabriela Shalev said the report "favors and legitimizes terrorism" and that even discussing it distracted from more pressing issues, like the peace process.

On the Palestinian side, furor over the report battered the already weak government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, after he initially heeded pressure from the U.S. to squelch U.N. discussion of the report. The Obama Administration was mindful of Israel's concerns and reluctant to allow the Goldstone probe to distract from its efforts to restart the peace process. Under a firestorm of criticism, not least from within his own Fatah party, Abbas reversed himself and pressed for U.N. discussion of Goldstone.

That discussion will begin in earnest on Thursday, when the Human Rights Council meets in Geneva to consider whether to bury the report in the international body's labyrinthine archives, as Israel would prefer, or forward it for action by the Security Council. The latter course would trigger a process in which Israel and Hamas are both given six months to carry out their own independent investigations into the charges raised by the Goldstone report. If they fail to do so, the issue could be referred for prosecution by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, which could result in Israeli military commanders and Hamas fighters being charged for war crimes. The report accuses both the Israelis and Hamas of deliberately targeting civilians during the conflict. Hamas, which supports the U.N.'s taking up the report, has brushed off the allegations against its own fighters.

The U.N. had tapped Goldstone to head the probe in the hope that his impeccable credentials at the head of tribunals investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda — as well as the fact that he is Jewish, is said by those close to him to be a friend of Israel, and is a trustee of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem — would make him acceptable to the Israeli side. Goldstone only agreed to head the inquiry after the U.N. heeded his insistence on expanding the probe to include not only allegations of Israeli war crimes, but also the actions of Palestinian militants shelling Israeli civilians.

But from the start, Israel refused to cooperate with the inquiry, accusing the panel, and Goldstone in particular, of bias. In the right-wing Israeli press, he was portrayed as a prejudiced South African liberal, misguidedly equating the Palestinians with his own country's black population during the fight against apartheid.

This week, top Israeli leaders including Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres have worked the phones, hoping to convince world leaders that giving credence to the Goldstone report would "handcuff" and "cripple" the West in its war on terrorism. Adopting the Goldstone report, Barak warned, might pave the way for U.S. troops and their Western allies to be held liable for war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But that line is proving a tough sell. Britain is one of Israel's staunchest allies, yet the British ambassador to the U.N., John Sawers, described Goldstone on Israeli Army Radio as "unbiased." The ambassador added that the probe contains "serious information" giving rise to suspicions that both sides in the conflict committed war crimes. And the U.S., Britain and France on Wednesday all urged Israel to launch a credible investigation into Goldstone's findings.

Whatever happens to the Goldstone report, Israeli officials are under a growing shadow of possible prosecution by advocacy groups using the courts in a number of Western countries to press for legal action over the Gaza war — so much so that some senior Israeli figures have reportedly had to factor the prospect of facing arrest into their travel plans. Some reports suggest that nearly 1,000 such lawsuits are pending, making it dangerous for prominent Israelis to travel abroad. Two weeks ago, Barak narrowly avoided arrest on a trip to the U.K. after a court ruled that he was protected by diplomatic immunity.  

The White House had been swayed by Israel's position that taking the Goldstone report forward could pose an obstacle to reviving the peace process. Netanyahu, who assured the Knesset that no Israeli soldiers would ever be prosecuted for war crimes, anywhere, told U.S. officials that with the Goldstone report looming over him, it will be nearly impossible to sell his right-wing government on the idea of making concessions to the Palestinians.

That argument appeared to have initially persuaded the Obama Administration to press Abbas to shelve the matter at the U.N. for six months, hoping to allow for the renewal of peace negotiations. But Abbas was forced to switch positions in response to the Palestinian outcry that saw protests in Gaza and the West Bank and opposition from top officials of his Fatah party. (Many in Fatah have lost faith in President Obama and won't be much swayed by the argument of dropping Goldstone to give the peace process a chance, as they believe a credible agreement is not possible with the current Israeli government.)

If the Human Rights Council chooses to act on the Goldstone report, the easiest choice for Netanyahu would be to follow the advice of his key Western allies and appoint an independent Israeli panel of jurists to re-examine the events of the Gaza war. But Netanyahu and most Israelis — who feel that, yet again, they are being unjustly singled out by the U.N. — are in no mood to let that happen.

With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Jerusalem