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September 25, 2009

Falk: Goldstone too soft on Israel

Reuel S. Amdur

Reuel S. AmdurRichard Goldstone's report on human rights violations in the Gaza war was too soft on Israel. 

That is the view of Richard Falk, emeritus Professor of International Law and Practice at Princeton and currently UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories. 

Speaking at Ottawa’s Carleton University on September 24, Falk argued that the Goldstone report took for granted that Israel’s attack was a defensive measure against rocket attacks from Gaza, a view that Falk denied. 

The rocket attacks, he said, had virtually ceased at the time of the Israeli invasion. 

As Falk pointed out, the hostilities were preceded by another attack by Israel on Gaza during what was supposed to be a cease-fire. 

Hamas had offered a multi-year truce in exchange for an agreement on the 1967 boundaries as the boundaries between Palestine and Israel. 

One fact that Falk found particularly disturbing is that Gazan civilians did not have the option of fleeing and being refugees.  The borders were closed.  He found this to be a situation that was almost unique.

While he might quibble with shortcomings, Falk found the Goldstone report to be extremely valuable. 

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch had both made some of the same observations about human rights violations in the Gaza conflict, but Goldstone’s important contribution was to call on officials in Israel and Gaza to investigate the violations by perpetrators on their own side. 

If this does not happen in six months, then the matter should be brought forward to the Security Council for referral to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. 

This recommendation, which will not be implemented because of American pressure, is nevertheless important, he said.  It asserts the principle of accountability under international law, where “no leader has impunity,” as he put it.

While the report, according to Falk, will likely have no impact on international governmental diplomacy or the role of the UN, it will help the global mobilization on behalf of Palestinians, using such moves as the BDS (boycott, disinvestment, sanctions) campaign. 

He argued that the day of military victories against people fighting for self-determination is over.  Military power can no longer produce political results.  Vietnam proved that, as Gandhi had shown earlier in taking India from under British domination.

Falk sees the situation in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq as closely analogous to the American experience in Vietnam. 

The Nixon administration talked about the Vietnamization of the war, and now there is talk about Afghanistanization.  This, he retorted, is “a failure to absorb the experience of the last 75 years.”

Those 75 years have meant a growing movement toward support of law, morality, and spirituality, with soft power challenging hard power. 

Now, soft power is consistently winning.  At the end of World War I, Woodrow Wilson called for self-determination, and while he did not intend to have the principle applied to the colonial world and Asia, it was also heard there. 

While Falk did not mention it, it is worth noting that a Vietnamese student in France by the name of Ho Chi Minh wrote to Wilson to call for self-determination of his country.  Wilson did not answer his letter. 

While Nuremberg constituted victors’ justice, it was important in establishing the principle of accountability for crimes against humanity.  It was acknowledged that there is, he said, something higher than the sovereign state and responsibility without territorial constraint. 

Yet, international law continues to be administered to the advantage of the strong.  Saddam Hussein is in the dock but not George W. Bush. 

With specific regard to the Israel-Palestine situation, Falk sees no hope in the current Obama initiative. 

His diplomatic pressure on Israel and the Palestine Authority to enter into peace negotiations will go nowhere, with Israeli President Binyamin Netanyahu not even willing to freeze settlement construction, construction which in any case is a violation of international law.  That law forbids the victor from settling its citizens on conquered territory.  Simply put, the preconditions for a peace settlement do not currently exist.

Israel, he said, is basking in the warmth of the military victory in Gaza, washing away the memory of the defeat in Lebanon. 

It buys into the notion that military superiority will give security. 

As for a settlement of the conflict based on the 1967 boundaries, Israel made it impossible. With 300,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and another 200,000 in East Jerusalem, an attempt to implement such a peace with Palestine would result in a civil war. 

On the Palestinian side, anything less than the 1967 boundaries could not be accepted. 

The Palestinian Authority would be handing Hamas a powerful weapon if it attempted to give Israel more than that. 

Netanyahu wants to see a Palestine with limited powers—“a Bantustan” Falk called it—which would likewise be unacceptable to Palestinians. 

Any accord based on such a concept would lead to revolt.  More generally, no peace agreement between Israel and Palestine can be reached till the Palestinians get their own act together, meaning a resolution of the Gaza-West Bank divide.

Given that the conditions are not ripe for a settlement of the Israel-Palestine situation at this time, at some point the Israeli position will collapse, he predicted, citing the example of South Africa. 

The whites in South Africa had overwhelming military power, but the soft power of international pressure and internal resistance finally brought the government to its knees. 

It is not possible to predict when this will come to pass in Israel but it will, and campaigns such as BDS will have a role to play.

Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer based across the river from Ottawa.

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