Do you remember last January, when the Israeli army was once more blowing up everything they could in the Gaza Strip? At the time, there was a lot of discussion about whether war crimes had been committed. Partly this arose from the Israeli army's indiscriminate shelling and the targeting of Gaza's infrastructure as a way of punishing everyone there for the actions of militants who fired rockets over the border. There were also reports of instances where Gazan civilians were herded into buildings by Israeli soldiers, only for these buildings to then be shelled. It was also suggested that actions by Hamas and other militant groups (firing un-aimed rockets at Israeli towns) were also contrary to the laws of war.
A United Nations fact finding mission, headed by Richard Goldstone, looked into the accusations of war crimes. Goldstone's team found that there had been extensive war crimes committed by Israeli forces, and recommended that the perpetrators be indicted for trial by an international court. The report also mentioned human rights abuses by Hamas and the other militant groups operating in Gaza, but the main thrust dealt with crimes by the Israelis.
Normally, when a UN report identifies people as having committed these kind of crimes, the wheels of international justice start turning, and people who have been accused of doing bad things find themselves on their way to trial in the Hague or before some other international tribunal. That is what happened with previous investigations with which Goldstone was involved. In this case, however, something different happened. The United States of America, and other allies of Israel (notably Germany and the United Kingdom), dismissed the report as flawed and one-sided, and procedural rules were used to prevent the report coming before the UN Security Council.
For many years now it has been the case that whenever some respected body issues a report on human rights abuses have been committed by Israel, the USA leaps in to condemn the report as "flawed" and "one-sided". Only Israel seems to receive this kind of protection, and when the same bodies issue reports on human rights abuses by other actors, the USA is happy to see them trigger an international response. That the new administration of Barack Obama is continuing in this tradition is depressing. It suggests that behind his shiny rhetoric, his government is continuing the same morally bankrupt policies of Bush and Clinton.
One argument that has been expressed for burying the Goldstone report is that it would set back the peace process if Israeli officers (and politicians?) find themselves in danger of arrest for war crimes. The idea here is that it is better to choose peace over justice, and to forget past crimes so that Israelis and Palestinians can move forward to a peaceful and happy future. This kind of argument might have some purchase in other conflict situations. In the Israel-Palestine situation, it is nonsense. There is no credible peace process at the moment. Furthermore, there is unlikely to be one until the USA demonstrates a willingness to rein in Israel. If the USA remains intent on sheltering Israeli criminals then it cannot hope to broker any kind of settlement.
Some more links:
Prospect of war crimes trials in Middle East alarms US diplomats (Irish Times, 30/9/2009)
Goldstone defends UN Gaza report (BBC, 30/9/2009)
Abbas seeks vote on Gaza report (BBC, 12/10/2009) The USA had leaned on Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, getting him to support the shelving of the Goldstone Report. As can be imagined, this played very badly within Palestine. In an effort to not look like a complete pawn of the West, he has now called for the UN Human Rights Council to vote on the report.