The author of a controversial U.N. report on Israel’s 2009 Gaza incursion spoke at U.C. Berkeley last week. But instead of excoriating the Jewish state, Justice Richard Goldstone offered a surprising defense of Israel’s right to self-defense.
Goldstone spoke Feb. 17 under the auspices of the university’s Institute of International Studies.
His 30-minute lecture, “International Law and Human Rights: The Search for Justice,” may have seemed like a red-meat topic to Israel-bashing fans of the Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of war crimes. However, Goldstone, who is Jewish, spoke as much about violations in Bosnia and his native South Africa as he did in Israel.
When he did refer to Israeli culpability, he paired it with equal condemnation of Hamas.
For a man so widely vilified and lionized, Goldstone is unimposing in person: stolid, soft-spoken and sartorially correct in a pinstripe suit. He addressed an audience of around 100, which remained respectful throughout. There were no protests beforehand, either.
He started with a review of anti-colonial, civil and human rights movements of the last century, paired with gradual recognition of universal laws of armed conflict.
“This was the most important legacy of Nuremberg,” he said, referring to the Nazi tribunals after the Holocaust.
After his years as a self-described “liberal” lawyer, judge and Supreme Court justice in apartheid South Africa, Goldstone later moved into international law, serving on U.N. commissions investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
He bemoaned the increase in civilian casualties seen in modern war, and also castigated the U.N. for its erratic approach to human rights violations, citing Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Cambodia’s Pol Pot as tyrants who avoided U.N. scrutiny.
“The powerful don’t like to be looked at and judged,” he said. “There’s an unevenness in democratic principles. Yugoslavia got attention because it was in Europe.”
But what about crimes against Israel? “Victims of thousands of rocket attacks in Israel are entitled to investigations,” he said.
Addressing the Gaza war and the resulting fact-finding mission, Goldstone said, “This was the first time the U.N. looked into illegal acts from Gaza terrorists. It was the first time Hamas was condemned by U.N. bodies.”
That wasn’t good enough for Israel or its supporters, who roundly condemned the Goldstone Report, alleging bias and shoddy investigative work.
Goldstone defended his commission during a nearly one-hour Q&A session (in which a moderator read or paraphrased prescreened questions submitted by audience members), saying he was limited in staff, time and resources. He also expressed dismay that Israeli government and military officials refused to cooperate with him.
“I pleaded with them to meet with me,” he noted, referring to letters he wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others. “I had nurtured the hope that the Israeli government would take this opportunity to have a U.N. platform to put its version into the commission. It didn’t.”
Similarly, Hamas didn’t respond to any inquiries and requests from the commission. Goldstone said he had wanted to meet with the militant group to find out how it justified rocket attacks on civilians.
Though officials refused to cooperate, Goldstone did talk to Israelis and Gazans during his fact-finding. As part of the investigation, he went to Gaza. “I challenge anyone to go there,” he said, “and not be personally moved. It was awful to see the thousands of houses destroyed.”
That said, he added, “Israel has a right of self-defense to protect its citizens against attacks. If more rockets had landed on kindergartens, the consequences would have been quite horrendous.”
On the other hand, he stressed that the evidence strongly suggested that Israel had committed some war crimes. He cited the case of the al-Samouni family, relocated on Jan. 4, 2009 by Israeli soldiers to a safe house, which was bombed the next day, killing 21 men, women and children.
The Goldstone Report caused a firestorm of criticism in pro-Israel circles, some of it ad hominem attacks on Goldstone. He said this attacks were “very hurtful to me and my family.”
He ended his speech by expressing hope that Israel would someday more thoroughly investigate its own actions during Operation Cast Lead.
“I have sufficient confidence in the Israel’s legal system to conduct such an investigation,” he said. “On the other side, groups like Hamas are less likely to do such investigating.”