August 25, 2009

A series of detailed human rights reports about serious Israeli abuses during the recent Gaza conflict has given rise to an intense campaign by the Israeli government and some of its uncritical supporters to smear the messengers and change the subject.

Irwin Cotler's attack in these pages on Judge Richard Goldstone's UN-mandated investigation of the conflict is of a piece with these efforts ("The Goldstone Mission - Tainted to the core," August 17 and 19). Rather than addressing the sad reality in Gaza, he effectively offers an apology for Israeli abuse.

Cotler makes the obligatory concession that Israel should not be "above the law," but he never admits any validity to the many reports of Israeli abuses in Gaza. Instead, he tries to discount Goldstone's likely findings of such abuse before he has even seen them.

For example, Cotler tries to shift the conversation from the question of how the war was conducted to the separate issue of who started the war. Even if one accepts Cotler's assertion that Hamas's indiscriminate rocket attacks were "the root cause of the Gaza conflict" (and many Palestinians would have a different view), that is irrelevant to the question of how Israel chose to fight the war.

Israel could have conducted the war by targeting only combatants and taking all feasible precautions to spare civilians, as required by international humanitarian law. That is mandated even though Hamas often violated these rules, because violations by one side do not justify violations by the other.

Instead, as Human Rights Watch has shown through detailed, on-the-ground investigations, Israeli forces fired white phosphorous munitions indiscriminately over civilian areas, shot and killed Palestinian civilians waving white flags, attacked children playing on rooftops with precision missiles fired from aerial drones and needlessly destroyed civilian property.

COTLER CONCENTRATES his fire on the UN Human Rights Council, which has certainly been biased against Israel. It originally established a one-sided mandate for the Gaza investigation, but at Goldstone's insistence, the council's president broadened the investigation before Goldstone agreed to take it on, stating before the full council that the investigation would address "all human rights and humanitarian law violations committed in the context of the conflict." The council, in turn, acquiesced.

Goldstone then confirmed that "all sides [will] be investigated." The original mandate thus is irrelevant. Cotler should be applauding this fairer treatment of Israel rather than harping on the superseded past.

Cotler further suggests that the Goldstone investigation will be unreliable because "witness testimony and documentary evidence [was] controlled by the Hamas terrorist government."

But he makes that claim apparently without having conducted research in Gaza. Human Rights Watch researchers in Gaza have found that ordinary Palestinians interviewed in private are quite willing to speak independently of Hamas, including in describing serious abuses committed by Hamas forces. The Israeli government loves highlighting Human Rights Watch's reporting on Hamas abuses, as described by Gazan civilians, but when it comes to describing Israeli abuses, Cotler and the Israeli government suggest that these same Gazans can never speak the truth.

Cotler tries to blame Hamas for the civilian casualties among Palestinians. Hamas did sometimes endanger civilians by firing from densely populated areas, but that does not excuse Israel's repeated failure to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants when it returned fire, as international humanitarian law requires.

Moreover, as HRW has shown, there were too many instances in which IDF soldiers killed Palestinian civilians when there was no Hamas military activity or presence in the vicinity.

Finally, Cotler asserts that there is a major difference in intentionality between Hamas and Israel. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

HAMAS ROCKET attacks were systematically launched with the aim of killing and terrorizing Israeli civilians. But Israeli forces, in the cases noted above, also at times fired indiscriminately or deliberately at civilians. All Israeli troops did not operate in this fashion, but some did, and the government's failure to acknowledge this reality and punish the offenders suggests at least a cover-up if not an endorsement.

Cotler, like other uncritical defenders of Israel's military campaign in Gaza, undoubtedly feels that he is doing Israel a service by deflecting criticism of the serious abuses committed.

But it cannot possibly be in Israel's interest. Quite apart from being illegal and possibly criminal, abusive action by Israeli forces builds hatred against Israel. One wonders at a conception of Israel's long-term security that would treat such animosity with indifference.

The problem is not the messenger carrying news of that misconduct, whether Judge Goldstone or the human rights groups that have been the target of a disinformation campaign launched by the Israeli government and some supporters. The problem is the conduct of the Israeli military.

The government does great harm to the security of its people if it uses the kind of diversionary public-relations techniques favored by Cotler rather than acknowledging, and correcting, that disturbing reality.

The writer is the executive director of Human Rights Watch.