One might have expected that Richard Goldstone’s belated confession that he had mistakenly accused Israel of intentionally targeting civilians in its Gaza military operation would spur some reflection on the part of his report’s staunchest advocates. But while the South African judge now admits “the Goldstone Report would have been a different document” if he knew at the time of its writing what he knows today, Human Rights Watch insists nothing has changed. Instead, its Executive Director, Kenneth Roth, saw fit to reaffirm the report’s discredited charges against Israel in an op-ed piece in the Guardian on April 5, 2011.
Rather than candidly address the substance of Goldstone’s reassessment, Roth instead changes the subject, portraying it as a sneaky attempt by Israel to evade justice. Roth writes,
The Netanyahu government’s eagerness to bury the Goldstone report is understandable, but the report will live on. Even after Goldstone’s article, the report still represents a serious indictment of the way Israel and Hamas chose to fight the war in Gaza.
Roth claims Goldstone simply “backed away from a particularly controversial charge in the report,”as if Goldstone’s reassessment was a minor adjustment.
In fact, Goldstone’s admissions undermine the three central charges leveled against Israel. They are:
1) Israel cannot be trusted to conduct impartial investigations into any alleged misconduct.
2) Israel deliberately targeted civilians.
3) The vast majority of the fatalities were non-combatants.
Goldstone affirms the findings of a follow-up UN inquiry chaired by Judge Mary McGowan Davis which determined that “Israel has dedicated significant resources to investigate over 400 allegations of operational misconduct in Gaza.”
Recanting a central accusation against Israel, Goldstone cites evidence from investigations that “indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.”
He also appears to reject the widely reported claim that most Palestinian fatalities were civilians. Israel has all along contended that a majority of the fatalities were combatants, and there was plenty of circumstantial evidence to validate this claim. But the Goldstone Report gave credence to claims by various pro-Palestinian human rights groups, including the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and B’Tselem, that the overwhelming majority of the fatalities were civilians. As CAMERA previously reported, Hamas’s Interior Minister, Fathi Hamad, exploded this myth when he provided an estimate of Hamas fatalities that matched those provided by Israel. Goldstone confirmed this, stating, “The Israeli military’s numbers have turned out to be similar to those recently furnished by Hamas.”
Rather than address these admissions in a thoughtful manner, Roth resorts to attacking Israel. In his twisted view, Israeli government efforts to correct what it views as a defamatory report is nothing more than “theatrics.” Roth charges,
The Netanyahu government is doing everything it can to interpret a recent Washington Post op-ed article by Justice Richard Goldstone as vindication of Israel’s conduct in the 2008-09 Gaza conflict. It is nothing of the sort.
He then rehashes the same charges, none of which have been demonstrably proven, that his organizations has made in the past.
To grasp Roth’s refusal to back down even in the face of Goldstone’s own retraction, it is important to understand that Human Rights Watch has conducted a longstanding campaign to portray Israel as an outlaw and constrain it from vigorously defending itself. The group played a key role advocating for the validity of the Report’s findings and was particularly vociferous in threatening legal action against Israel if the Jewish state did not abide by it.
In the days leading up to its consideration by the UN General Assembly in November 2009, HRW released several reports urging endorsement. It lobbied the Obama Administration and Congress to endorse the report as well and reacted bitterly when this effort failed, implying this was due to Israel’s influence over Congress. After Congress passed by a vote of 344 to 36 an amendment (HR 867) condemning the report as biased and recommending no further consideration of it, Fred Abrahams, a senior HRW staffer, sarcastically commented that “the 344 supporters have apparently not read the report.”
Human Rights Watch published at least fifteen separate reports and advocacy pieces promoting the Goldstone Report and its findings. One piece titled “Endorse Goldstone Report on Gaza,” published two days before the public release of the Goldstone Report states,
The Obama administration should fully endorse the report of the United Nations fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict led by Justice Richard Goldstone and demand justice for the victims of serious laws-of-war violations in the conflict…
Dismissal of all or parts of the Goldstone report would contradict President Barack Obama’s stated commitment to human rights in the Middle East and reveal an ill-timed double-standard in Washington’s approach to international justice.
The organization’s Middle East Director, Sarah Leah Whitson, is quoted in the report as warning,
Failure to demand justice for attacks on civilians in Gaza and southern Israel will reveal hypocrisy in US policy … The Obama administration cannot demand accountability for serious violations in places like Sudan and Congo but let allies like Israel go free.
Even after Congress and the Obama administration had dismissed the Report as biased and blocked quick UN action,Whitson declared on Oct. 2, 2009, “The United States won Israel a reprieve on the Goldstone report, so now it must ensure that Israel genuinely investigates allegations of abuse.” She further warned, “If this doesn’t happen by March, then the US should endorse the Goldstone report’s call for international mechanisms of accountability.” Whitson also commented that “Israel has repeatedly shown that it lacks the poli tical will to investigate itself impartially.”
Whitson’s sentiments are shared by Joe Stork, HRW’s Senior Middle East Analyst, who wrote on Nov. 9, 2009, that “The US claim that Israel can be relied upon to investigate itself ignores the well-documented pattern of impunity for past violations of international humanitarian law…”
Roth’s op-ed returns to this theme, stating “Israel’s reluctance to confront that reality finds a parallel in its refusal to date to conduct credible investigations into the serious violations of the laws of war that it committed in Gaza.” Roth and his organization once vouched for the sacrosanctity of Goldstone’s judgement when he was condemning Israel. But now that Goldstone has revised his view, Roth finds Goldstone’s judgement lacking:
As for Israel, a recent UN report mentioned in Goldstone’s article found that the Israeli military has examined the conduct of individual soldiers in about 400 cases of alleged operational misconduct in Gaza. But the report raised serious questions about the thoroughness of these investigations.
The report actually summarizes the Israeli response as follows,
That said, the Committee finds that Israel has dedicated significant resources to investigate over 400 allegations of operational misconduct in Gaza reported by the FFM and others. Given the scale of this undertaking, it is unsurprising that in 2011, much remains to be accomplished.
Curiously, Roth does not address a particular incident that Goldstone discusses: the shelling of the Samouni home, which killed 29 people. This incident was specifically discussed in the Goldstone Report and by Human Rights Watch, in its report “Turning a Blind Eye,” published on April 10, 2010. Goldstone credits an Israeli investigation that found the tragic incident was an error, not a case of intentional targeting of civilians. Human Rights Watch has been silent, failing to update its own reporting on this event.
Human Rights Watch has climbed so far up the tree of condemning Israel that it seems unwilling to climb down. Instead of reconsidering the accusations against Israel in the same spirit Goldstone has, Kenneth Roth and his organization have dug in their heels and used the controversy as an opportunity to resume their assault on Israel’s legitimacy and right to defend itself.