Push Israel and Hamas to Investigate War Crimes
October 3, 2009
The United States won Israel a reprieve on the Goldstone report, so now it must ensure that Israel genuinely investigates allegations of abuse. If this doesn't happen by March, then the US should endorse the Goldstone report's call for international mechanisms of accountability.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director

(Geneva) – The decision at the UN Human Rights Council to defer a vote on the Goldstone Gaza report until March 2010 obliges the United States and other governments blocking action at the council to press Israel and Hamas to commence credible investigations, Human Rights Watch said today. The fact-finding mission found evidence of violations of the laws of war during the Gaza conflict that should trigger credible investigations of the conduct of both sides.

Given its responsibility for forcing a deferral of the vote and its criticism of the mission led by Justice Richard Goldstone, the United States bears a special responsibility to ensure that Israel commences investigations that are credible, impartial and meet international standards (see the Human Rights Watch fact sheet, “Why no justice for Gaza?”).

 “The United States won Israel a reprieve on the Goldstone report, so now it must ensure that Israel genuinely investigates allegations of abuse,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If this doesn’t happen by March, then the US should endorse the Goldstone report’s call for international mechanisms of accountability.”

The US government called the Goldstone report “deeply flawed,” although it said it took the allegations seriously. Speaking to the Human Rights Council on September 29, 2009, US Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner said the United States was “confident that Israel, as a democracy with a well-established commitment to the rule of law, has the institutions and ability to carry out robust investigations into these allegations.”

To date, however, Israel’s record of conducting investigations into the conduct of its military forces has been extremely poor. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem documented 773 cases where Israeli forces killed civilians not involved in hostilities during the December-January conflict in Gaza, but found that Israel has to date convicted only one soldier of a crime – for stealing a credit card. Human Rights Watch has also repeatedly criticized Hamas for failing to undertake serious investigations into alleged laws-of-war violations by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups.

European Union member states, which failed to express support for a resolution that would have endorsed the Goldstone report in full, should also demand that Israel undertake serious investigations, Human Rights Watch said.

“The failure of the US and European states to endorse the Goldstone report sent a terrible message that serious laws-of-war violations by allied states would be tolerated,” Whitson said.

The 575-page report of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict concluded that both Israel and Hamas were responsible for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. The report recommended that the Israeli government and Hamas authorities conduct independent, impartial investigations within six months. Should the UN Security Council find that they failed to do so, the report urged that it to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that endorsing the Goldstone report would deal a “fatal blow to the peace process.”

“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rejection of the Goldstone report because it would derail the peace process sadly impugns the importance of justice in reaching peace,” said Whitson. “Persistent impunity, not justice, is the greater threat to peace.”