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U.N. Finds Evidence of War Crimes in Gaza Fighting

September 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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A U.N. report has concluded that both the Israeli military and armed Palestinian groups committed actions amounting to war crimes during December's three-week war in Gaza. Gwen Ifill speaks with an author of the report and the Israeli ambassador to the U.S.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, a strongly worded U.N. report on the Israeli campaign in Gaza.

The report focuses on last December’s 32-day air and ground campaign in Gaza. The Israeli military offensive followed years of rocket attacks launched into southern Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian militants.

Different accounts place the number of Palestinian casualties at or around 1,400, including an undetermined number of civilians. The Israeli government reported 13 Israelis killed during the three weeks of fighting, 10 of them soldiers.

The report concludes that Israeli deliberately targeted civilians by launching military operations against homes, factories, schools and hospitals in a deliberate policy of disproportionate force.

The 574-page report focuses primarily on what it calls grave breaches by Israeli forces, including willful killing, torture, or inhuman treatment, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, and extensive destruction of property.

The Israeli government did not cooperate with the investigation.

The report also determined that Palestinian militant groups violated international law in part because they failed to distinguish between military targets and the civilian population.

Israeli officials said today the final report is one-sided, a farce of a human rights fact-finding commission. Hamas also criticized the report, saying it was equating the victim and the aggressor.

The report and its recommendations will be presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva later this month.

I spoke with Justice Richard Goldstone, who led the U.N. fact-finding mission, from the United Nations earlier this evening.

Justice Goldstone, welcome. We saw what your report’s conclusions were today, but what was the impetus for it?

Impetus for the report

Richard Goldstone
United Nations
[W]e were in Gaza for a number of days. We were able to see with our own eyes what physical damage was done.

RICHARD GOLDSTONE, U.N. Human Rights Council: Well, the impetus for it was really the resolution in January of the Human Rights Council which became seized of the issue and called for a fact-finding mission to be dispatched urgently to the region to investigate violations, alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, the law of war. And that's where the origin is to be found.

There was then some debate about the terms of the mandate, and eventually I was given a mandate, together with three fellow members of the fact-finding mission, which we considered to be even-handed and which would allow us to look at all relevant facts and circumstances and allegations in the context of the military operations at the beginning of the year.

GWEN IFILL: The term "even-handed" is the problem that Israel has with the conclusions in the report. Your criticism of Israel seems so much harsher than that of the Palestinians. Why is that?

RICHARD GOLDSTONE: Well, you know, the allegations against the Palestinian armed groups relate to the firing of rockets and mortars, and there isn't much dispute -- there isn't any dispute that they fired those rockets and mortars.

What we looked into was the effect on the civilian population of southern Israel, who were at the receiving end of those rockets and mortars. That was the issue.

In respect of alleged war crimes committed by the Israel Defense Force, it was a lot more complicated. There were 36 incidents we had to look into, some of them disputed. Many cannot be disputed.

So, you know, I don't believe that one can sort of count words or count chapters and say, well, the report deals in X number of pages or X number of words with rockets and mortars in comparison into Y or Z number of pages or chapters dealing with Israeli violations.

GWEN IFILL: You say that you investigated 36 separate incidents. Without Israel's cooperation in getting to the bottom of this, how could you reach a fair conclusion?

RICHARD GOLDSTONE: Well, we had a lot of information to go on. Firstly, we were in Gaza for a number of days. We were able to see with our own eyes what physical damage was done. We were able to hear and see many of the victims who were affected by it, and I'm talking about a lot of women and children and men who lost loved ones, who were injured themselves.

They know what happened to them. And we were able to make an assessment of the credibility with which they spoke to us.

And we had a lot of information that came from Israel, both from the government -- there was a long 160-odd page report from the Israeli government giving their version. We took that fully into account in making our finding. And we had wonderful information, both written and, more important, oral. We had witnesses from important Israeli and Palestinian nongovernmental organizations.

So, really, we had a pretty full picture. Obviously, it would have been preferable to have been able to have as interlocutors members, senior members of the Israeli government and defense force, but obviously we had to do the best we could without that. And the ball's now in their court.

If we've got facts wrong, if they want to contradict them, well, that's absolutely their right. But I find disappointing a simple rejection of the report on grounds that don't begin to deal with the merits or the facts.

The next step

Richard Goldstone
United Nations
[W]e've recommended that the Security Council should require domestic investigations, if they're not held in an appropriate manner, to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court.

GWEN IFILL: Did your investigation lead you to conclude that there are individuals who should be held culpable either on the Israeli or the Palestinian side of this?

RICHARD GOLDSTONE: Well, that wasn't part of our mandate. We looked into the question as to whether violations, war crimes, violations of human rights law were committed. It would be up to a criminal investigator, a prosecutor, hopefully in Israel, hopefully in the Gaza, to look into the question of individual guilt. That wasn't part of our agenda.

GWEN IFILL: But you have recommended reparations be paid to people who suffered?

RICHARD GOLDSTONE: That's correct.

GWEN IFILL: Why is that? And who would pay it, if there's no one to point the finger at?

RICHARD GOLDSTONE: Well, it's a question of government responsibility and possibly the international community. But reparations for victims would be relevant even without establishing the guilt of any particular individual.

GWEN IFILL: So what happens with this now? It goes to the U.N. Security Council, it goes to a war crimes tribunal, and what if Israel chooses not to cooperate in the next step?

RICHARD GOLDSTONE: Well, you know, we've done our work. We've established to the best of our ability and, I would suggest, in an even-handed manner. We've established the facts or some of the facts that are relevant.

We didn't look into every incident, obviously. We had three short months to do our work. And we chose 36 incidents in Gaza to look into.

But the recommendation is that the Israeli authorities and the Gaza authorities should themselves have open public investigations, and there have been none today. The Israeli investigations have been by the military. There have been secret inquiries. That doesn't satisfy -- certainly doesn't satisfy any reasonable, objective observer.

So we've recommended that the Security Council should require domestic investigations, if they're not held in an appropriate manner, to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court.

GWEN IFILL: Justice Richard Goldstone of the U.N. fact-finding mission, thank you so much.

RICHARD GOLDSTONE: A pleasure.

Israel's response to the report

Michael Oren
Israel's Ambassador to the United States
It's hardly an impartial body. This is the same Human Rights Commission that completely ignored Hamas rocket fire into Israel over the course of four years.

GWEN IFILL: We get the Israeli response now from Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States.

Welcome, Mr. Ambassador.

MICHAEL OREN, Israeli Ambassador to the United States: Gwen, hello.

GWEN IFILL: Just heard Justice Goldstone say the ball is in your court. What about this report is right, and what about it is wrong?

MICHAEL OREN: Well, let's begin by first expressing Israel's regret for all civilian casualties, whether on the Israeli side or on the Palestinian side. Israel does its utmost to avoid inflicting civilian casualties during military operations. This contrasts us very fundamentally, profoundly with Hamas and Gaza, which does its utmost to maximize civilian casualties on the Israeli side and exults in civilian casualties on its own side, declaring them as martyrs.

The operation in Gaza last winter followed years in which Israel was subjected to rocket fire, over 7,000 rockets fired into southern Israel. At one point, almost a million Israelis were under rocket fire, rockets that were deliberately targeted at our neighborhoods, at our nursery schools, at our hospitals.

And it followed the evacuation of Gaza, in which Israel evacuated 9,000 of its civilians, uprooted its settlements, pulled out its army bases in an attempt to create peaceful conditions along the Gaza border with Israel, and in return it just got this murderous rocket fire.

Ultimately, Israel had no choice but to summon its civilian army and to defend itself. We had appealed to the U.N. for relief. Israeli leaders begged Hamas to extend a cease-fire. All we got was aggression. We had no choice but to defend ourselves here, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Why didn't Israel participate, cooperate, tell its side of the story to this U.N. commission?

MICHAEL OREN: Well, first of all, the Human Rights Commission has condemned Israel more frequently than all other nations in the world combined, more than Libya, more than North Korea, more than Saudi Arabia. It's hardly an impartial body. This is the same Human Rights Commission that completely ignored Hamas rocket fire into Israel over the course of four years.

The mandate of the commission said that Israel was guilty of war crimes, said nothing about Hamas in the actual mandate. Even one of the judges involved in the commission had published a letter accusing Israel of unwarranted aggression.

And then, finally, the commission itself, the report, the investigation took place under the auspices of the Hamas-run government in Gaza. Hamas actually picked the witnesses for this commission. So Israel basically was the equivalent of being summoned to a court in which its guilt was already presumed, in which one of the jurors had already declared Israel guilty, and which the witnesses for the prosecution were, in fact, the murderers.

I can't think of any country in the world which would participate in such a farce of justice.

GWEN IFILL: There were also some Israelis, NGOs, nongovernmental organization representatives, the father of an Israeli soldier who's being held, who were flown to Geneva to testify before this committee. Do you not accept their testimony at all?

MICHAEL OREN: I don't know anything about their testimony. The report just came in this afternoon. It's 570 pages long. Israel is a democracy. Israelis have a right to speak out in any forums that they want to. This was an Israeli government decision not to participate, not to cooperate with an investigation which we thought was deeply, deeply biased against us from the very beginning.

Israel's internal investigations

Michael Oren
Israel's Ambassador to the United States
Israel has deeply investigated its conduct of this operation. We have an open judiciary, a free judiciary. We investigated numerable complaints of irregularities. The army was cleared of virtually all of them.

GWEN IFILL: Even if you felt it was biased, now it's out there and it says things like you're guilty of war crimes, torture, a grave breach of the Geneva Convention, how do you wipe that slate clean?

MICHAEL OREN: I don't think we have to wipe the slate clean. I think you look at the mandate of this investigation. You saw the way it was conducted, under whose auspices it was conducted.

Israel has deeply investigated its conduct of this operation. We have an open judiciary, a free judiciary. We investigated numerable complaints of irregularities. The army was cleared of virtually all of them. In the few cases where it wasn't cleared, they're being thoroughly investigated and even prosecuted.

GWEN IFILL: But Justice...

MICHAEL OREN: There is a clear record established by Israel of the way the campaign was conducted and the immense efforts that were taken to avoid civilian casualties, including leaf-letting civilian areas, making hundreds of thousands of phone calls, sending MSS messages to areas that were about to be attacked to civilians, sort of sacrificing the element of surprise, risking our own soldiers' lives in order to minimize those civilian casualties. All that is a matter of record.

GWEN IFILL: Pardon my earlier interruption. Justice Goldstone said that those internal investigations were not independent and therefore not reliable.

MICHAEL OREN: This is an independent judiciary of a democratic country. I think that, once you start establishing the precedent that democratic countries can't investigate themselves, I think you've got a problem.

I think this report creates a problem not just for Israel, but for all free democracies in the world. It's a victory for terror. It is a major setback for any country, democratic country that is having to face war against an un-uniformed terrorist organization in a densely populated civilian area. I don't think the United States would like to see a similar report mounted against its conduct of its operations in Afghanistan.

GWEN IFILL: Now, Hamas wasn't particularly excited about the contents of this report, either. They felt that it equated the aggressor with the victim. Is there any way that you feel that the two of you might at least agree on this point, that maybe this report is not worth the paper it's printed on? Or do you believe that this is a starting point for a deeper conversation and investigation about the conflict?

MICHAEL OREN: I don't think so. I think that there are discussions going on in Jerusalem tonight between President Obama's special envoy, Senator Mitchell, representatives of the Israeli government, to get peace talks back on track between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the same Palestinian Authority who was overthrown violently by Hamas in Gaza. I think that is where the discussions should take place, not in a one-sided, biased report whose conclusions were foregone.

GWEN IFILL: Do you believe in any way this report could affect those talks?

MICHAEL OREN: I think it can only harm the ability of free democracies in the world to defend themselves.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Michael Oren from the state of Israel, thank you very much.

MICHAEL OREN: Thank you, Gwen.