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2011-05-20

U.N. Gaza Inquiry Panelist Desmond Travers Challenges Goldstone’s Recantation of Key Finding

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Last month Judge Richard Goldstone, the chair of the United Nations’ inquiry into Israel’s 2008-2009 assault on the Gaza Strip, retracted his key finding that Israel deliberately targeted Palestinian civilians in its three-week assault. Israel, with backing of the United States, seized on Goldstone’s comments and called for the United Nations to withdraw the report. Goldstone came under criticism from his co-panelists who co-authored the original report. We speak to one of those panelists, Col. Desmond Travers, a retired Irish soldier and peacekeeper. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: As we continue on the Middle East, we turn now to the legacy of Israel’s 2008-2009 assault on the Gaza Strip, which killed about 1,400 Palestinians. Last month, the chair of the United Nations’ inquiry into the assault, Judge Richard Goldstone, retracted his key finding that Israel deliberately targeted Palestinian civilians in its three-week assault.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post Goldstone wrote, quote, "If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document." Israel, with U.S. backing, seized on Goldstone’s comments and called for the United Nations to retract the report.

AMY GOODMAN: Goldstone came under criticism from his co-panelists who co-wrote the original report. In a statement, the three — Hina Jilani of Pakistan, Desmond Travers of Ireland, and Christine Chinkin of Britain — wrote, quote, "[We] find it necessary to dispel any impression that subsequent developments have rendered any part of the mission’s report unsubstantiated, erroneous or inaccurate." They continued, "Had we given in to pressures from any quarter to sanitize our conclusions, we would be doing a serious injustice to the hundreds of innocent civilians killed during the Gaza conflict, the thousands injured, and the hundreds of thousands whose lives continue to be deeply affected by the conflict and the blockade."

Well, we’re joined now by one of those panelists, Desmond Travers. Colonel Travers is also a retired Irish soldier and peacekeeper.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: Thank you. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: For people not familiar with the Goldstone Report, tell us what the report says.

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: Well, the report set out initially to investigate already existing reports of major military events of concern. And I have to say, we relied very heavily on human rights organizations that were on the ground before, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights, and so forth. And we determined that there were about 36 major events that merited serious investigation. So, in a sense, each investigation was an incident in its own right, revealing — or perhaps not revealing — various crimes of war. And the sum of those findings showed a pattern of what might be described as excessive punishment on the population.

My initial impression as an office military soldier was that this was urban warfare in the modern sense, which, as a result, with modern munitions, was designed to take out existing Hamas infrastructure. No more, no less. But in fact, when we arrived on the ground, we began to see massive, massive structural, infrastructural damage. So, the question then about proportionality arose. So, essentially, our finding was one of disproportionate assault on the civilian population for the purpose of exacting a punishment on that population. And that was declared long before the mission started, in a doctrine propounded by senior military officers called the Dahiya doctrine.

There were other theories propounded before Operation Cast Lead, which gave rise to the legitimacy of protecting Israeli soldiers at all cost. Even such protections were going to endanger the lives of noncombatants. And this happened time after time after time. Noncombatants were targeted because they constituted, in somebody’s mind, a threat to military installations occupied by the Israeli soldiers.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you were hampered from the beginning, weren’t you, by the refusal of the Israeli authorities to cooperate with the investigation?

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: Initially, yes, we were. I have to say — and that’s unfortunate, and Richard Goldstone himself has said that — it did limit, if you like, the range of investigations that we could have done. But having said that, his very innovative system of open investigations to the public and his invite to Israeli citizens to come forward and meet him and meet us, both in Amman, Jordan, and in Geneva, was responded to very, very enthusiastically. And we got spokespersons from cities, towns, kibbutz, teachers, psychologists, victims, the mayor of one city and his entourage, lawyers and so forth. And they gave us a very, very thorough exposition of the consequences of the constant threat of rocket fire, which we duly acknowledged and condemned. There’s no doubt about that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Were you surprised when Goldstone issued his statement in the Washington Post? Did he alert the rest of the members of the commission beforehand that he was going to do that?

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: No, he didn’t. But let me just tell you that once we handed over the report, we’re private citizens. I’m here making my comments. He is entitled to make his comments. He’s much more entitled than I am. He’s an eminent person, and he’s entitled to speak. And he’s entitled not to consult with the rest of us.

I think where we really got excited about this was when it became evident that this was going to become a huge political issue. As a result of the innovations about causing the report to be rescinded, now suddenly this was just not more than comment. It became a major issue, and we felt we had to defend the report, if we could defend it.

And we went back to the drawing board, and we looked at the reports, particularly the Justice Mary McGowan Davis report, and we examined it extremely carefully. I had already examined it, and I had already examined Israeli findings into their investigations, because they published two findings, interim findings. And I could find nothing whatsoever in those findings to give me cause for optimism or cause to review what we had already determined in our report.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you say about what Judge Goldstone said, that civilians were not intentionally targeted by Israel as a matter of policy? What exactly does that mean?

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: I would say that there is no doubt, and we have declared it to be that there was no doubt, that it was a deliberate punishment of the population. Now, intentionality is a different thing. And it’s a point of law, and it’s a subtle point of law. And I’m not terribly expert on these distinctions. But we never used the word "intentionality" or "intention" in the Goldstone Report. And so, therefore, I think we could dispute or debate that, the use of that word, from a legal point of view. And that’s, I think, perhaps, one of the causes of concern we had with the interpretation given to Richard Goldstone’s op-ed by others.

AMY GOODMAN: Judge Goldstone also said, "Although the Israeli evidence that has emerged since publication of our report doesn’t negate the tragic loss of civilian life, I regret [that] our fact-finding mission did not have such evidence explaining the circumstances in which we said civilians in Gaza were targeted, because it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes." In fact, Judge Goldstone did not say the report should be just revoked, either.

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: No. In fact, he subsequently issued a clarification — I don’t know if you know about that — in which he absolutely emphasized that he didn’t insist and didn’t want a review of the report or the withdrawal of the report. In any event, there is no mechanism to withdraw a report. The report is the property of the high commissioner for human rights. That’s it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, yet, Israel has been seeking to have the report withdrawn.

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: Yeah, has it recently?

AMY GOODMAN: So, where does this report go from here? And what exactly did you find in this report?

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: In our report?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, in the Goldstone Report.

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: Well, basically, the report is an inquiry. I mean, it has limited legal status. It is an inquiry designed to determine whether events took place of sufficient gravity, which were proven to have occurred, which would justify causing the parties to the conflict to examine the actions of their combatants and their military units. That’s what the purpose was. And that was the limit. It wasn’t a legal document in the absolute sense of the word. It couldn’t generate punishments, for example. And that’s the limit to it. And that’s the intention that was behind its creation, if you like.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And some of the incidents that you documented that you felt were the most grievous or definitely required the most review by authorities?

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: Well, certainly, the one that Richard mentioned, the al-Samouni family one, was outrageous. I mean, that was an assault on an extended family, leaving 24 dead, and that number eventually increased after our report went in to 27, because people died of their wounds. And they were left without their houses. Their houses were bulldozed down. And they were put into camps, tented accommodation, in the winter of 2009, 2010. Floodwaters released, or happened to come, from the state of Israel into the area where their tents were located put the occupants into knee-deep and muddy water. And no mechanism whatsoever to alleviate their circumstance and no recompense that I know of, at that stage, made available to them. So it was a pretty troubling — it’s a very troubling situation. And there was a reference to the al-Samouni incident, I think, but we found in the McGowan Davis finding, like herself, that there was nothing done that suggested that there was an explanation justifying this action.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you received any pressure to recant the report?

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: I’ve been subject to highly selective misrepresentation of my words. I’ll give you an example, if you’ve got time, yeah.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sure.

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: I’ve been criticized for comments I’ve made about the Israeli military, and I felt those comments were merited. But I also lived in Israel, and — as my family did. And my family were subjected to rocket fire from Lebanon. And, in fact, on one occasion, a rocket impacted about 60 meters from where we lived. And my wife and four children had to bear the consequences, because they were not Israeli citizens, so they didn’t have the shelter systems available to them that the Israeli citizens had. And I remember reflecting on the fact that I had signed up as a military officer to take risk, but they hadn’t signed up to take risk; they simply had signed up to accompany their father or their husband. And I made this comment, and I said, “With that experience behind me, I absolutely reject the idea of anybody firing rockets into another country, and in this case, firing into Israel." That has never been referenced by any spokesperson from a particular position. But everything else I’ve said criticizing the actions of certain military elements in Gaza has been repeated ad nauseum, and selectively so. So I’m presumed to be prejudiced.

AMY GOODMAN: The Israeli ambassador to the United States castigated your report, the Goldstone Report, as even worse than Ahmadinejad and the Holocaust deniers.

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: Well, I remember being somewhat concerned — so concerned about a campaign against me within the Irish media that I went to my own Ministry of Foreign Affairs to complain. And I said, you know, "What is being said is untrue. It’s untrue about me. It’s lies." And the answer I got from my diplomatic colleague in Ireland was, “Look, a diplomat must defend his country, period. What he says is what he’s obliged to say.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: You mentioned your own Irish media. Obviously there’s been a lot of news lately that in an address to the Irish nation on Wednesday, that Britain’s Queen Elizabeth expressed regret at the troubled history of England’s relations with Ireland. We want to play a clip of that.

QUEEN ELIZABETH II: To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past, I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all. But it is also true that no one who looked to the future over the past centuries could have imagined the strength of the bonds that are now in place between the governments and people of our two nations.

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Desmond Travers, you’re Irish. Talk about the significance of this trip. Some have called it the most significant trip in — well, no one has been there —- what, is this the first trip of -—

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: In a hundred years.

AMY GOODMAN: — British royalty in a century?

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: Yeah, and it’s the first trip by British royalty into the Republic of Ireland other than her son visiting some years ago. It’s a hugely important event for us in Ireland, and for the Irish and for Britain. There’s no doubt about it. In fact, the day prior to her address there, I’d just like to remind you that she came to our Garden of Remembrance, where the principal monument there is a monument to acknowledge the dead, the fallen Irish, who usually fell fighting Britain or seeking Irish independence. And I must say, many of them made life extremely unpleasant for the British administration.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 20 seconds, I hate to tell you.

COL. DESMOND TRAVERS: Right. So, she presented — put a wreath at that monument, and she bowed. Monarchs don’t bow. And to bow towards your enemies is an extraordinarily magnanimous gesture, and is one that we should take cognizance of when we’re talking about conflicts elsewhere in the world, especially in the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Desmond Travers, I want to thank you for being with us. One of the authors of the U.N. Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, the Goldstone Report. Also a retired Irish soldier and peacekeeper.

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