ALLISTER SPARKS: At home and abroad
AFTER carrying out its own investigation into last year's Gaza War, the Israeli military has finally confirmed several of the most serious incidents committed by its troops in that 22-day assault, which a United Nations commission of inquiry, headed by our own Judge Richard Goldstone, reported on last September.
In a low-key report released two weeks ago that seems to have escaped the attention of the entire South African media, perhaps because of its preoccupation with the Fifa World Cup at the time, the military has confirmed that three of the most serious findings of Goldstone's egregiously vilified report were true.
It has confirmed the fatal shooting by a marksman of an unarmed man (the Goldstone commission said a man and a woman were killed) walking with a group of Palestinians waving a white "surrender" flag; the shelling of a mosque during a prayer service, causing casualties among the worshippers; and the ordering of a criminal investigation into a fatal air strike on a house where about 100 members of an extended Palestinian family, the Samounis, were sheltering on the advice of the Israeli Defence Force.
The Samouni case caused particular outrage worldwide because Israeli forces prevented Palestinian paramedics from entering the house for days after the strike.
When Red Cross workers eventually got into the house, they found four emaciated Samouni children, who had been trapped there for days with their mothers' corpses. In all, 30 Samounis died.
The Israeli military has also indicted a battalion commander for authorising Israeli troops to use a Palestinian man as a human shield when entering a Gaza house.
The military report gives few details of its findings in these cases and goes to some lengths to minimise the culpability of its soldiers, saying for example that the shelling of the mosque had been aimed at an individual "terror operative" who was standing outside the mosque and that the injuries to the worshippers had been "unintentional and caused by shrapnel that entered the mosque". It gives no casualty figures, but the Goldstone commission said 15 civilians died.
Similarly, the charges and disciplinary action appear mild. Deliberately shooting an unarmed civilian waving a white flag is normally regarded as murder or, in formally declared wartime, a war crime. But the sniper is being charged with "manslaughter" and will be tried by a military court.
A battalion commander who authorised the human shield has been indicted for "inappropriate Israeli Defence Force behaviour" and deviating from authorised procedure. The officer who ordered the shelling of the mosque has been "rebuked" and will not be allowed to serve in a similar position of command again.
But the real importance of this military investigation is that it vindicates the Goldstone commission. It is worth recalling that Israel refused to co-operate with the commission. It also resisted calls by Israeli and international human rights organisations for an independent Israeli investigation outside the military framework.
In the circumstances, the four members of the fact-finding mission, which Goldstone chaired, called on the Israeli government and the Palestinian authorities to use the information they had gathered to carry out serious independent investigations - failing which the matter should be referred to the International Criminal Court. One can only wonder how much of a whitewash there would have been had the Goldstone commission never done this preliminary work.
For Judge Richard Goldstone, particularly, this is a personal vindication, for he was excoriated by leading members of the local Jewish community for chairing the commission. He was told his commission's findings were lies; that he was naive and gullible for accepting the version of events given by terrorists; and that, since he is a Jew, he was a traitor to his people.
His critics were given support by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, who chastised Goldstone for "doing great damage to the state of Israel". He should have recused himself instead, Goldstein said, and taken no part in the investigating mission.
I have had difficulty understanding what the chief rabbi meant by this.
Goldstein is a trained lawyer as well as a rabbi. Did he mean that no Jew, however professionally disciplined - and Judge Goldstone's legal reputation is among the highest in the world - can be objective when it comes to a matter involving Israel?
And if so, does that involve Jews individually or collectively as well, or just the interests of the state of Israel? Or did he mean that it is a Jewish person's inherent duty either to set aside his professional ethics and find in favour of the state of Israel regardless of the merits of a case or, if that is unacceptable, to recuse himself? But that for a Jew to find against Israel is traitorous?
What are the moral priorities being expressed here?
We are not dealing with an ordinary individual in this matter, but with the head of a major religion in a multiracial, multireligious and constitutionally secular state.
We secularists need to know what a religious leader in our community means when he seeks to impose such an ethical dictum on a prominent member of his faith - someone who was a founding father of our Constitutional Court and an interpreter of our infinitely important national constitution in this new democracy.
I am reminded here of the conflict between the Dutch Reformed Church and Beyers Naude over the issue of apartheid.
I attended the Dutch Reformed Church service in Linden, Johannesburg, at which Naude had to respond to the church leaders' demand that he choose between the church's doctrine of support for apartheid and his commitment to the nonracial Christian Institute he had founded.
In other words, Naude was forced to choose between his moral principles and his loyalty to his own people and their church.
I heard Naude announce his decision that memorable day before the glitterati of Afrikaner nationalism in the packed pews before him. Smilingly, boldly, he told them simply: "I choose God before man."
In other words, principles, truth and justice before ethnic or group loyalty. It was the defining moment of that great man's life.
So I ask the chief rabbi that same question today: what is your choice? Then, at the level of plain human decency, don't you think, Chief Rabbi Goldstein and those members of the Orthodox Jewish community and the South African Zionist Federation whom you lead, that you owe Judge Goldstone an apology? A public, abject apology.
Leaders of the federation went to the extremes of cruelty when they took their religious war against Judge Goldstone (dare I call it a fatwa?) into the heart of his family by trying to ban him from his grandson's bar mitzvah. Eventually, but it seemed to me somewhat reluctantly, negotiations enabled the family to celebrate this important event together.
But I'm sorry, that wasn't enough. In this land of ubuntu, this land of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, you must stand up, Chief Rabbi Goldstein, and on behalf of the co-religionists you supported in this calumny, bow your head, apologise and, like the man of God I'm sure you are, beg forgiveness of Judge Richard Goldstone.
- Sparks is a veteran journalist and political analyst.
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