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Let’s Stay With The Report

By Nicole Fritz

(source:Daily News October 27, 2009 Edition 1)

In the weeks since the publication of the report of the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict, headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, a firestorm of controversy has broken. Goldstone, in particular, has come in for vicious criticism – individuals like RW Johnson have used the occasion to peddle bitter distortions of Goldstone’s past for public consumption (as evidenced last week in the London Sunday Times).

But that South Africa’s Chief Rabbi, Warren Goldstein, writing in South African and Israeli newspapers last week, would use his position as spiritual leader of South Africa’s Jewish community – a community in which Goldstone counts himself – to allege that Goldstone’s work represents a disgrace to justice, equality and the rule of law, represents a new level in the attack.

The arguments made by Goldstein against the Goldstone report are to be found in almost every attack on the report: that the UN's Human Rights Council is biased and that the inclusion of Christine Chinkin in the mission indicates that the mission was biased.

Goldstein does add his own unique perspective: telling us that a judicial inquiry would have required a far greater time-period, ignoring that this was explicitly a fact-finding mission, of the type most recently conducted in Darfur. These central criticisms have been addressed countless times over. We have no intention of repeating them here because to do so diverts attention from the substance of the report, which would appear the very object of the attacks. We want to be clear: the report documents and condemns in unequivocal terms the rocket-fire by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups into Israel, and no sensible reader of the report can honestly believe that its authors make common cause with entities they so categorically denounce.

But the report also makes undeniably plain, and thus elicits so much spurious and distracting criticism, that Israel, with its almost unparalleled fire-power, waging war in built-up, civilian areas of Gaza, conducted its operations in a way that can only be understood as a "deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terror-ise a civilian population".

How else to explain the destruction of water treatment facilities, the only flour-mill in Gaza, egg-producing chicken farms? How to fathom Israeli soldiers threatening to shoot a wife and her children as they sought to help her husband, who lay, hand-cuffed and bleeding to death from gunshot wounds already inflicted by Israeli soldiers? How to make sense of the death of 22 people of one family in a house precision-targeted by Israel, which Israel explained it had mistaken for a munitions factory next door?

Yet in the remaining 12 days of the siege Israel never sought to target what it claimed was the real munitions depot. The outrage of Israeli officials, and their supporters, such as Goldstein, is disingenuous when Israel's own military officials have gone on record declaring their strategy of disproportionate force. One general defended the decision to inflict great damage and destruction on villages on the grounds that "from our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases".

The real outrage should be ours – ordinary civilians the world over. When a state, with such fire-power consciously blurs the line between soldier and civilian, none of us is safe. And it is that development, and not as Rabbi Goldstein alleges of the Goldstone report, which is the real "disgrace to basic notions of justice, equality and the rule of law".

We wouldn't presume to tell Goldstein about the Jewish faith and its law, but he would do well to ask that Israel heed the words of that esteemed Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, writing together with Michael Walzer: "Conduct your war in the presence of non-combatants on the other side with the same care as if your citizens were the non-combatants. A guideline like that should not seem strange to people who are guided by the counterfactual line from the Passover Haggadah, 'In every generation, a man must regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt'."

•  Fritz is executive director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre Max du Plessis Associate Professor, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban; Senior Research Associate, Institute for Security Studies.