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2009-09-16

UN Inquiry Finds Israel "Punished and Terrorized" Palestinian Civilians, Committed War Crimes During Gaza Assault

Guests

Norman Finkelstein, author of several books, including The Holocaust Industry, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and Beyond Chutzpah. His forthcoming book about Israel’s assault on Gaza is due out on December 27th, the first anniversary of the attack.

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A United Nations fact-finding mission has found Israel "punished and terrorized" civilians in its three-week assault on Gaza earlier this year and cited strong evidence that Israeli forces committed "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions. More than 1,400 Palestinians — about a third of them women and children — were killed in the assault. We get analysis from author and Israel-Palestine scholar Norman Finkelstein. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A United Nations fact-finding mission has found Israel, quote, "punished and terrorized" civilians in its three-week assault on Gaza earlier this year and cited strong evidence that Israeli forces committed "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions. More than 1,400 Palestinians, about a third of them women and children, were killed in the assault. Thirteen Israelis died.

The 575-page report came at the end of a six-month inquiry and was based on dozens of interviews and investigations. The inquiry was led by Judge Richard Goldstone, the former chief prosecutor of the international courts for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Judge Goldstone said Israel deliberately attacked civilians and failed to take precautions to minimize loss of civilian life.

    JUDGE RICHARD GOLDSTONE: We came to the conclusion, on the basis of the facts we found, that there is strong evidence to establish that numerous serious violations of international law, both humanitarian law and human rights law, were committed by Israel during the military operations in Gaza. The mission concluded that actions amounting to war crimes and possibly, in some respects, crimes against humanity were committed by the Israel Defense Force.

AMY GOODMAN: Judge Goldstone also said there was evidence that Palestinian armed groups committed war crimes by firing rockets into southern Israel.

    JUDGE RICHARD GOLDSTONE: Turning to the Palestinian armed groups, there is no question that the firing of rockets and mortars was deliberate and calculated to cause loss of life and injury to civilians and damage to civilian structures. The mission found that these actions also amount to serious war crimes and also possibly crimes against humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: Judge Goldstone’s report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council later this month. The investigators recommended that the UN Security Council should call on Israel and the Palestinian authorities to launch their own investigations into the conflict within three months. If either side failed to do that, the council should refer the matter to the International Criminal Court prosecutor in The Hague within six months.

Israel, which had refused to cooperate with the investigation, claimed Goldstone’s investigation was biased against Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held consultations with top government officials last night. A senior Israeli staffer told Ha’aretz newspaper, quote, "The goal is to avoid a slippery slope which would lead Israel to the International Criminal Court in The Hague."

Well, Norman Finkelstein joins us here in our firehouse studio, the author of a number of books, including The Holocaust Industry, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and Beyond Chutzpah. His forthcoming book about Israel’s assault on Gaza is due out at the end of the year, on the first anniversary of the attack.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Now, this report has just really come out hours ago. Perhaps you’re among the few people outside those who have written the report who have actually read the majority of its contents. Talk about the significance of this.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, the report is the last in a large number of reports that have been issued on the Gaza massacre. There were two significant reports issued by Amnesty International, five reports issued by Human Rights Watch, and a whole slew of Israeli-based human rights organizations have issued reports. But this was the most awaited report of all of them. It was commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council. And Richard Goldstone, as you mentioned in your own introductory remarks, is a significant international figure, legal figure.

So the report basically is consistent with the findings of the other human rights organizations, that Israel targeted civilians, Israel targeted civilians who were carrying white flags, Israel systematically targeted the Palestinian infrastructure. The findings were consistent with those of the other human rights organizations: Israel is guilty of a very significant number of war crimes. And also, the findings which were — other reports, the same conclusions, that the Palestinians were not using hospitals to hide Hamas officials. There’s no evidence that the ambulances Israel targeted were carrying Hamas militants or ammunition. And most significantly, in terms of the coverage during the Gaza massacre, the report found, as did Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, there’s no evidence whatsoever — and I would want to underline that — there’s no evidence whatsoever that Hamas was guilty of human shielding. But on the other hand, there is significant evidence, actually copious evidence, that Israel was guilty of human shielding.

AMY GOODMAN: But on other issues, of Palestinian militants committing crimes against humanity.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: The report found that the Palestinians were guilty of war crimes because of its indiscriminate and intentional firing on civilians in Israel. I’m not trying to make any apologies, but I want to get the facts right. The Goldstone report, like the Amnesty report and the others, you have to look carefully at the proportions. About nine-tenths — literally, about nine-tenths of the Goldstone report, like the Dugard report, like the Amnesty report, about nine-tenths was devoted to Israeli war crimes; about one-tenth was devoted to Palestinian war crimes. And you have to understand why, because you have to look at the comparable damage. The ratio of killings was about a hundred to one: about — exactly thirteen on the Israeli side, about fourteen hundred on the Palestinian side. If you look at the damage, the damage is actually quite astonishing. Israel just systematically blasted everything in sight and reduced it to rubble, whereas on the Israeli side they say that several houses were damaged and one was almost completely destroyed. So if you look at the facts, the facts on the ground, the proportions in the reports, including the Goldstone report, are correct. It’s about ten to one.

And that’s why yesterday’s — or today’s headline in the New York Times is so misleading. It’s like a Pravda headline. It says the Goldstone report finds both sides guilty of war crimes. Well, that’s technically true, but an accurate headline would have read, “Goldstone reports Israel guilty of massive war crimes and also faults Hamas.” That’s what a true headline would have read.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Israel refused to cooperate with the investigation and has claimed the UN Human Rights Council that ordered it was biased against Israel. This is some of what the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor had to say about the inquiry.

    YIGAL PALMOR: This fact-finding mission was established in sin. This is why Israel was unable to cooperate with it. The resolution, in virtue of which the commission was established, was so extreme in its phrasing and in its prejudging of any conclusion that all European countries and other democratic countries did not support it. It was adopted with the support of human rights models such as Libya, Bangladesh, Cuba. This, of course, has no moral value whatsoever. So we didn’t feel that this was binding in any way.

    In spite of everything I’ve just said, Israel is going to study this report and to examine it very carefully, as we have with all the national and international human rights reports. We are taking this seriously, and we are committed, as always, to abide by international law.

AMY GOODMAN: Israel’s response to the Goldstone report. Your response, Norman Finkelstein?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, Richard Goldstone is a very respected jurist, and he also has a long record of being very supportive of Israel. If I’m not mistaken, he sits on the Hebrew University of Jerusalem board of directors.

Now, when the UN Human Rights Council asked Goldstone to chair the mission, originally his mandate was just to investigate Israeli crimes. He himself said he couldn’t fulfill that mandate, unless it was modified and included crimes on all sides. The Human Rights Council said, “Fine. We’ll modify the mandate, and we’ll accept your terms.” At that point, Richard Goldstone accepted to head the mission.

So you have to ask yourself the question: if what the gentleman said were true, why did Goldstone accept? If it were so biased, he always had the option of saying no. Why would a well-known supporter of Israel have accepted that mandate if it were biased against Israel?

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think, Norman Finkelstein, are the limitations of the report?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: The main limitation of the report is it’s all cast in the language of violations of the laws of war. And the fundamental fact about what happened in Gaza is it wasn’t a war. There was no war in Gaza. That’s the main misunderstanding about what happened there. In fact, one of Israel’s leading strategic analysts, he said — after what happened in Gaza, he said the one mistake Israelis are making is that there was a war there. He said there was no war. There were no battles in Gaza.

The picture is fairly clear. Israel flew about 3,000 sorties over Gaza. Every plane came back. None was damaged. None was downed. There was no fighting in Gaza. If you read the reports that were issued by the — the testimonies of the Israeli soldiers, the one consistent theme in all of the testimonies was they never met any Hamas militants, they never engaged in any battles. Some of the Israeli soldiers expressed exasperation: “We came here to fight. We’re not fighting anyone.” There was no — there were no battles. There were no Hamas militants in the field. The basic fact was, as a couple of Israeli soldiers said — one of them said, “This was like PlayStation, a computer game.” Another Israeli soldier said, literally — I’m quoting exactly, almost word for word — he said, “It was like a child with a magnifying glass burning ants.” That’s what Gaza was like.

One soldier after another, literally — I wish listeners would just bring up the report. It’s called “Breaking the Silence.” And then, under — enter under the search mechanism, just enter the word “insane.” One soldier after another after another after another said Israel used insane amounts of firepower. Insane amounts of firepower. There were no soldiers, no battles, but they’re using insane amounts of firepower. One soldier said — two soldiers, actually, talked about how the ground was trembling because of all the bombing and all of the missiles and all of the rockets. Another said that “We were told — even though we were firing in the distance, we were told to evacuate the houses we were in, because the shaking from the distance was going to cause the house to collapse over our heads.”

It was a massacre in Gaza. And you don’t really see that, because they’re measuring everything against what they call the laws of war. But you’re applying laws of war to a massacre. There was no war there.

AMY GOODMAN: Israel called the attack Operation Cast Lead. It’s interesting, Judge Goldstone’s daughter was interviewed on Israeli army radio. She spoke in Hebrew. And she responded about her father. She described him as a Zionist who loves Israel. She said that “My father took on this job, because he thought he’s doing the best thing for peace for everyone and also for Israel.” The significance of this report now? The UN Human Rights Council will meet the day after Yom Kippur —-

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: —- in about two weeks, to meet specifically in a special session on this report.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does this mean for Israel? The quote of the Israeli official to Ha’aretz, saying, “We don’t want to be put into the International Criminal Court.”

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I personally don’t think that’s yet going to go very far, because the US has effective power to block it.

What’s significant about the report, in my opinion, and what’s significant about what happened in Gaza, I think it marks a major turning point. It’s like the Sharpville massacre in South Africa. Now, Sharpville is not Soweto, but Sharpville was a turning point. Richard Goldstone is a liberal. Richard Goldstone is very supportive of Israel. And it’s now marking the breakup of liberal Jewish support for Israel. And as we both know and as all of your listeners know, Jews are overwhelmingly liberal in their sentiment. Seventy-nine percent of Jews in the last election voted for Obama. And what you’re seeing now is the breakup of Jewish support for Israel.

You saw during the Gaza massacre you had some of the old-timers like Alan Dershowitz, Michael Walzer, characters — Martin Peretz, characters like that, you know, kind of comical figures coming out supporting Israel. But if you looked at the younger Jewish — the younger Jewish constituency — bloggers like Matt Yglesias, Glenn Greenwald and so forth — they all opposed the Gaza massacre from almost like day one or day two. And then you had significant defections, like Andrew Sullivan, who — not Jewish, but still a significant figure, who also came out against the Gaza massacre.

So I think now what you’re seeing, especially with the Goldstone report, especially with his stature, especially because he’s Jewish, especially because he’s a liberal, what it’s signaling now, is the breakup of Jewish support and liberal support — and those are basically the same thing — the breakup of liberal Jewish support for Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: Norman Finkelstein, I want to thank you for being with us, just recently back from Gaza, visited in June. Norman Finkelstein has written a number of books — among them, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and Beyond Chutzpah. His forthcoming book about Israel’s assault on Gaza is due out on the first anniversary of the attack, on December 27th.

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