War crimes the result of "mistakes": former Israeli official

UNITED NATIONS — A retired Israeli brigadier general said Israeli troops committed what amounted to war crimes in Gaza during an offensive earlier this year, but disputed the conclusions of a controversial report by a U.N. commission that Israel deliberately planned to terrorize the Gazan people.

Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, former director of the Strategic Planning Division in the Israel Defense Forces' General Staff, said that some actions of the troops were "mistakes." Israel had committed even worse actions in earlier wars, he added, that went undetected because media and international scrutiny was not as intense as it is today.

“I believe there were some ... war crimes or violations of the laws of war made by Israeli forces in the war in Gaza,” Brom said in an interview on Wednesday in New York at the Israel Policy Forum, an independent U.S. group that promotes a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.

“War is an ugly event,” said Brom, who is currently a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “When people are fighting in a situation of uncertainty and stress, they tend to make mistakes.”

Brom, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, said such mistakes happen in every war and if you “look for this kind of violation, you will always find them.” In this case, he said there were “political elements in the U.N. and elsewhere that were looking for reasons to attack Israel.” The four-month U.N. probe led by South African judge Richard Goldstone concluded this week that: “Israeli operations were carefully planned in all their phases as a disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize the civilian population" — an assertion that Brom said is "simply untrue."

"When you say that our plan of war was to terrorize the civilian population, there was no such thing," Brom said. "The planning was to attack only military targets." Since Hamas operated from densely urban areas international law permitted hitting civilian targets that were being used for military purposes, he said.

According to the Goldstone report, both sides in the conflict — the Israeli Defense Forces and the forces of the Hamas government — committed what amount to war crimes.

“Unlawful and wanton destruction which is not justified by military necessity amounts to a war crime,” the report said.

Israeli forces damaged agricultural land with the destruction of a sewage treatment plant, hit the only flourmill still operating in Gaza City and its soldiers left behind “racist” graffiti in Gazan homes. As many as 1,400 Gazans were killed, the report said.

Gazan authorities were accused of firing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians. Israel says it launched Operation Cast Lead to stop the rocket fire, which killed a handful of Israeli civilians.

As a retired general, Brom was giving his personal views not the official view of the Israeli military. The Israeli government, which refused to cooperate with the U.N. inquiry, harshly rejected the report. A government spokesman said Israel’s own investigations were a “thousand times” more serious than Goldstone’s. Israeli President Shimon Peres called the report “a mockery of history.”

Goldstone’s report recommends that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon send the findings to the U.N. Security Council, which should give Israel and Gazan authorities six months to “genuinely” investigate the war crimes charges his team unearthed or have both their cases sent to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Goldstone dismissed Israeli military investigations into the allegations as not credible because the military probes were held in secret and only questioned Israeli soldiers.

On Thursday, Ban refused to commit to sending the report to the council. He said: "I have directed our staff to have a detailed review of this report and we will discuss this matter
when we have fully reviewed this report."

The U.S. would be in a difficult position if Ban transmits the report to the council. Washington might feel obliged to block a resolution demanding an Israeli domestic probe.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said Thursday that the U.S. was still studying the report and indicated it was Washington’s view it should not come to the Security Council.

“We have very serious concerns about many of the recommendations in the report,” Rice told reporters. “We will expect and believe that the appropriate venue for this report to be considered is the [U.N.] Human Rights Council and that is our strong view.”

She also said Washington considered that Goldstone’s mandate from the Human Rights Council was “unbalanced, one sided and basically unacceptable.” Goldstone said he was optimistic that the Security Council would act on his recommendations: “I would be disappointed if any permanent member of the Security Council would object to a resolution requiring Israel to have appropriate domestic investigations organized by itself with international monitoring.”

Human rights groups hailed the report as the beginning of the end of what they see as Israeli impunity in its conflict with the Palestinians.

“The fact-finding mission’s findings of serious violations by both Israel and Hamas are a significant step toward justice and redress for the victims on both sides,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “Now the UN, and the Security Council in particular, need to act on these recommendations and ensure that justice is done.”

Whitson said the U.S. should “welcome this opportunity for the Security Council to address the actions of both sides in this conflict.”

Goldstone said the negative reaction to his report reminded him of the withering criticism he faced from both sides of the racial divide for some of his investigations into violence in the dying days of apartheid when he was a judge on the South African Constitutional Court.

He is again being attacked from both sides, this time from pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups. One Arab journalist wanted to know from Goldstone why the press release accompanying the report said armed Gazan groups “committed war crimes” while only saying Israel “committed actions amounting to war crimes.”

Pro-Israel groups around the world have for weeks hounded Goldstone. He has weathered a press barrage that portrayed the former respected jurist as the judge of a kangaroo court.

“In hindsight it was inevitable but nevertheless disappointing that from some quarters the mission was attacked even before the report came out,” Goldstone said. “This was a case of trying to shoot the messenger even before the message was delivered.” “This is inevitable in a politically charged situation,” Goldstone said. “It’s not the first time it has happened to me. I must confess that when I investigated violence in South Africa during the early 1990s I incurred the tremendous wrath of both the government for some reports and incurred the wrath of freedom groups, in particular the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party for others."

The Gaza report is important for “objective people, particularly in the region,” Goldstone said.

As a Jew whose mother was active in Zionist circles in South Africa when he was a boy, Goldstone said it is “obviously a great disappointment to me, putting it mildly, that Israelis have behaved in the way described in the report.”

But he said it is “grossly wrong” to label a report critical of Israel “as anti-Israel.” Goldstone said: “To accuse me of being anti-Israel is ridiculous and it seems to me it is in the interests of Israel and the Palestinians that the truth be established credibly and officially.”

Goldstone was the chief U.N. prosecutor in the Yugoslav and Rwanda war crimes courts in the 1990s before serving on the U.N.’s independent investigation into the food-for-oil scandal. He was appointed early this year by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council to head a team looking into allegations of war crimes in Gaza.

The 574-page report is based on 10,000 pages of documents, video and photographs, 188 interviews and 38 public testimonies. It accuses Israel of “collective punishment” against Gaza, carried out through a blockade and the bombing of houses, schools, wells and hospitals in the three-week military operation.

Israel barred Goldstone and his team from the country and the West Bank, forcing him to take testimony from Israelis and Palestinians in Geneva and Amman. His mission held two public hearings in Gaza.

Brom said Israel made a mistake not cooperating with Goldstone’s investigation.

“There was great debate in Israel a few years ago about whether to submit to a U.N. probe on Jenin on the West Bank, where it was alleged a massacre had taken part,” Brom said. “Ultimately Israel agreed to take part and no evidence of a massacre was found.”

Brom said that the effect of the Goldstone report and increased media scrutiny would serve ultimately to make it more difficult for Israel to wage future wars.

Joe Lauria is a freelance correspondent covering the United Nations for the Wall Street Journal and other publications. He wrote this piece for GlobalPost.