WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Goldstone wars continue, but beneath the shouting a diplomatic track has emerged.
The Israeli government last week published a reply to the U.N. Human Rights Council’s report on the conduct of last winter’s Gaza war with Hamas, insisting that Israel Defense Forces investigations into possible Israeli wrongdoing in Gaza were not principally motivated by last autumn’s U.N. report.
Nonetheless, the reply repeatedly refers to the U.N. report — known as the Goldstone report for its principal author, retired South African judge Richard Goldstone — and was delivered within the six-month deadline that Goldstone recommended to avoid international prosecution.
Moreover, the bulk of Israel’s reply is dedicated to establishing the independence of military investigators and prosecutors, which would satisfy Goldstone’s requirement that any investigation should not be a matter of the alleged perpetrators investigating themselves.
The Israeli document notes that two senior IDF officers were disciplined for firing rocket shells into a populated area of Gaza where the field office of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, the principal group administering relief to Palestinian refugees, was situated.
More striking is the conciliatory tone taken by the Israeli government toward Goldstone and the human rights groups from which he drew in writing his report – acknowledging that Goldstone and the groups played a critical role in helping the IDF examine its actions.
An Israeli army spokesman said that while the army relied primarily on its own resources to identify deviations from policy, the human rights groups helped spur along the process.
"We take a look at ourselves and where we were right and where mistakes were made," Capt. Barak Raz told JTA. "It’s important that a commander can go home at the end of the operation and look his family in the eye, and that the soldiers 20 years from now can look in their children’s eyes."
Nonetheless, he added, "I can’t deny that these reports also contributed to our ability to be made aware."
The civil tone does not mean the rhetorical wars engendered by Goldstone, a human rights icon with a pro-Israel history, are over. Top Israeli officials, up to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, continue to cast the report as inimical to Israel’s interests as Iran and its putative nuclear weapons program.
Non-governmental defenders of Israel continue to demonize Goldstone. Most recently, Alan Dershowitz likened him to a "moser," a Jewish traitor deemed in some interpretations as worthy of a death sentence.
In the meantime, left-wing and pro-Palestinian groups continue to call for war crimes investigations of Israel and have inhibited travel by Israeli officials to Europe lest they face arrest warrants.
Against the noise, the government’s description of the Israeli army’s cooperation with the same groups was telling.
Noting that 150 separate investigations arose from Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s name for the Gaza War, the government reply says that a portion were initiated by the army and "others were opened in response to complaints and reports from Palestinian civilians, local and international non-governmental organizations, and U.N. and media reports."
Of the 150 probes, 36 have resulted in criminal prosecutions — 19 of these involved shooting toward civilians, and 17 involved using civilians as human shields, mistreating detainees and theft.
Between 1,000 and 1,500 Palestinians died in the war. Human rights groups say the majority were civilians, while Israel says the majority were fighters.
Israel launched the operation after Hamas stepped up its rocket attacks on southern Israel. Such attacks had been an almost daily occurrence since the terrorist group took over the strip in 2007, and dated back more than eight years.
Of the 34 incidents outlined in the Goldstone report, the Israeli government says the army was investigating 22 before the report was published — it dmits that Goldstone’s research led to the other 12 inquiries. (The two officers reprimanded for shelling the UNRWA compound are not among them.)
Additionally, the government reply says, the Military Police Criminal Investigation Division "has sought assistance from non-governmental organizations (such as B’Tselem) to help locate Palestinian complainants and witnesses, and to coordinate their arrival at the Erez crossing point to Gaza, to allow interviews and questioning."
B’Tselem is an Israeli human rights group concerned with the mistreatment of Palestinians.
The approach is welcome, said Michael Sfard, the legal counsel for three groups — Yesh Din, Peace Now and Breaking the Silence — that have been targeted by right-wingers and some Israel defenders as antagonistic toward Israel’s interests.
"It’s the first time since Cast Lead that a government body has done something that is purely professional, and this is how it should have been handled," Sfard said.
Goldstone declined a request from JTA for an interview.
Despite its conciliatory tone, the government’s reply said the report reflects "many misunderstandings and fundamental mistakes with regard to the Gaza Operation, its purposes, and Israel’s legal system.”
A researcher for Human Rights Watch, one of the groups that Goldstone drew upon in compiling his report, said the army investigations, while welcome, focused more on the foot soldiers than on orders that might have been illegal.
"We’re concerned that low-level grunts are being investigated for violating orders when in fact the orders themselves may have been illegal," researcher Fred Abrahams said. "We don’t have faith in the military’s willingness to investigate itself."
Sfard agreed, saying he trusted the integrity of the military prosecutors in dealing with the military establishment, but wondered whether the prosecutors were willing to indict their own commanders.
He noted, for instance, that the report said prosecutors cleared Israel of wrongdoing in the use of white phosphorous while acknowledging the use of the chemical during the war. Army commanders likely would have sought the military advocate general’s opinion before using the phosphorous, which burns skin on contact but may also be used to identify targets in areas where there are no civilians.
That puts prosecutors in the unenviable position of saying their commander sanctioned an illegal order.
Moreover, Sfard said, as independent as he believes the military prosecutors are, he doubts that they would take on the military chief of staff himself, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who formulated much of the policy.
"If the chief of staff has approved an attack, it is very difficult to expect that the military police and prosecution would deal with that," he said.
Sfard said there was still a need for an independent Israeli commission to investigate the conduct of the war.
Anne Herzberg, the legal adviser for NGO Monitor, a group that tracks the funding and alleged biases of human rights groups, said she believed Israel may yet set up such a commission — but not because of pressures from human rights groups such as the ones Sfard represents.
"If they feel there’s room for that and there’s enough support, they should do it for internal purposes and because the Israeli public demands it," she said, "not for a certain fringe sector of Israeli society making a lot of noise."