They Died in Gaza

Lizzy Ratner said she was in “triage mode” finishing up an article, and could she answer my question in “two or three days?” The question was, what prompted her to co-edit THE GOLDSTONE REPORT: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict? It was just published by Nation Books.

She hasn’t got back to me yet. But she doesn’t have to. She already answered the question in her article, “Two Years After Gaza.” It’s a stunner:

In January 2009, during a lull in the bombing of Israel’s “Cast Lead” operation against Gaza, I spoke by telephone with an old family friend, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, from his home on Gaza’s Salah al-Din Street. In a voice etched with panic, he told me about his family’s dwindling water supply, his children’s terror, his dream of escaping. He asked if I could help find a way for him and his family to leave the Gaza Strip. I made some genuine efforts to solicit help from friends with more connections than I, people who might actually be able to do something, but it pains me to this day that I did not do more. The next time we spoke, it was about the death of his three daughters.

The article continues:

On January 16, 2009, three of Dr. Abuelaish’s eight children–Bessan, 21, Mayar, 15, and Aya, 14–were killed when Israeli soldiers trained the nozzle of their tank on the Abuelaish house and fired. Twice. The blasts killed all three girls immediately, as well as their cousin Noor, and it wounded their sister, Shatha, another cousin and an uncle. Dr. Abuelaish himself was unharmed, but in a harrowing turn of events that is now well and painfully known, he phoned Israeli newscaster Shlomi Eldar and, in a frantic tangle of Hebrew and Arabic, begged for help on Israel’s nightly news. “Oh God, oh my God, my daughters have been killed. They’ve killed my children,” he cried. “Could somebody please come to us?” The phone call, which was broadcast live throughout Israel, sounds like a shriek out of hell. It is almost impossible to listen to.

In the wake of this tragedy, Dr. Abuelaish, a well-known peace activist, remained resolutely, even stubbornly, committed to reconciliation and understanding. He did not want revenge. He just wanted accountability. “They were my beloved girls, very beautiful, very kind. Why were they killed?” he asked in a phone conversation shortly after his daughters’ deaths. “I don’t ask for anything, just [for the Israeli military] to admit and say sorry.”

“Take responsibility,” he begged.

One of the beautiful things about Lizzy Ratner, apart from her terrific writing and reporting, is her own sense of responsibility. Despite what Alan Dershowitz claims, she and her co-editors — Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz — have made a huge effort to contextualize the Goldstone Report in their edited version as, in the publisher’s words, “a corrective to the relentless attacks” on the original.
The book includes essays by Archbishop Desmond Tutu; human rights activist Raji Sourani; legal expert Jules Lobel; Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal; historians Rashid Khalidi and Jerome Slater; congressman Brian Baird; policy analyst Henry Siegman; authors Ali Abunimah, Naomi Klein, and Letty Cottin Pogrebin; and journalists Noam Sheizaf and Leila El-Haddad.
The original U.N. mission, headed by Richard Goldstone, caused enormous controversy — and still does — because it emphasized atrocities by the Israeli military in a bombing campaign, which had the stated aim of ending rocket attacks into Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian factions, but which was described in the report as a “deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate, and terrorize a civilian population.”
Although both sides — the Palestinians, mainly Hamas fighters, and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) — violated international humanitarian law, it was the Israelis who were culpable of massively greater crimes, according to the report. The IDF deliberately targeted unarmed civilians; purposely destroyed critical infrastructure in Gaza, razing large areas to the ground; and used weapons, such as incendiary white phosphorous in highly populated areas, that were beyond reprehensible.
Amnesty International issued its own detailed report in 2009 (available for free download as a pdf). Here, according to that report, is an example of what happened when “three white phosphorous artillery shells crashed through the roof of Sabah Abu Halima’s home”:

“Everything caught fire. My husband and four of my children burned alive in front of my eyes; my baby girl, Shahed, my only girl, melted in my arms. How can a mother have to see her children burn alive? I couldn’t save them, I couldn’t help them. I was on fire. Now I am still burning all over, I am in pain day and night; I am suffering terribly.” [Italics in the original.]

Postscript: Just discovered this — Lizzy Ratner talks about the book in a video interview. (The video report, which also includes an interview with Palestinian journalist and author Laila El-Haddad, begins at 10:38 on the track).
PPS: Jan. 26 — In re the leaked documents of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, a new truth dawns on the Arab world.

April 4 — The Goldstone Bombshell
In a column in The Washington Post, Goldstone has withdrawn the report’s most-damning conclusion about the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. He writes that, contrary to the allegations of Israeli war crimes, it was not the policy of the IDF to deliberately target unarmed civilians.

The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion. While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy. [boldface added — JH]

Goldstone’s reversal is more nuanced than critics like Jeffrey Goldberg are claiming. And it is not the blanket moral vindication that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says it is, despite its praise for Israel’s examination of the alleged atrocities.
But there is no denying that it’s a huge boost for Israel especially in the propaganda war with Hamas, which came in for sharp criticism in Goldstone’s column:

The final report by the U.N. committee of independent experts — chaired by former New York judge Mary McGowan Davis — that followed up on the recommendations of the Goldstone Report has found that “Israel has dedicated significant resources to investigate over 400 allegations of operational misconduct in Gaza” while “the de facto authorities (i.e., Hamas) have not conducted any investigations into the launching of rocket and mortar attacks against Israel.”

. . .

Some have charged that the process we followed did not live up to judicial standards. To be clear: Our mission was in no way a judicial or even quasi-judicial proceeding. We did not investigate criminal conduct on the part of any individual in Israel, Gaza or the West Bank. We made our recommendations based on the record before us, which unfortunately did not include any evidence provided by the Israeli government. Indeed, our main recommendation was for each party to investigate, transparently and in good faith, the incidents referred to in our report. McGowan Davis has found that Israel has done this to a significant degree; Hamas has done nothing.

Goldstone adds further that while it might have been “absurd to expect Hamas, an organization that has a policy to destroy the state of Israel, to investigate what we said were serious war crimes. It was my hope, even if unrealistic, that Hamas would do so, especially if Israel conducted its own investigations.”

At minimum I hoped that in the face of a clear finding that its members were committing serious war crimes, Hamas would curtail its attacks. Sadly, that has not been the case. Hundreds more rockets and mortar rounds have been directed at civilian targets in southern Israel. That comparatively few Israelis have been killed by the unlawful rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza in no way minimizes the criminality. The U.N. Human Rights Council should condemn these heinous acts in the strongest terms.

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  1. sonny says

    As a Jew (technically and culturally), I am proud of Jews who carry on the great tradition of speaking truth to power.
    Thank you Jan and props to Lizzy, et al.

  2. Joseph says

    Something is missing here–Hamas fires hundreds of missles into Israel–causing terror to hundreds of thousands of people. I know, my wife was with me in Ashdod last summer during one such attack and she still has not recovered–and that was after a “mere” 4 attacks. Israeli’s have been subjected to thousands of these attacks. Then Israel’s response is “disproportionate”. On the contrary, let me remind you that England firebombed Dresden and killed 150,000 people in one night and the US killed an equal number at Hiromshima and Nagasaki. In reality, the Israeli reponse was too little too late, as the rocket fire continues. Israel faced a similar dilemna in the 1950s with attacks from Jordan. One mission in which Israel wiped out an entire Jordanian military base and magic–no attacks for the next 10 years. Israel needs to wake up and respond with massive attack.