Israel's Campaign to Avoid Accountability for War Crimes Must be Rejected

Justice Richard Goldstone’s opinion piece (April 1, 2011) in the Washington Post ‘Reconsidering the Goldstone Report on Israel and War Crimes’ does not ‘vindicate’ the State of Israel as the government of Israel would have us believe, nor was the Op-Ed piece a ‘retraction’ of the report in its entirety as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal would have had us believe.

Goldstone’s opinion piece simply stated that in light of evidence presented by Israel through military investigations, he does not believe Israeli forces intentionally targeted civilians “as a matter of policy” during Operation ‘Cast Lead,’ Dec. 27, 2008 – Jan. 18, 2009.  The original report initially asserted that in certain cases, Israeli forces carried out “direct intentional strikes against civilians.”

Assessing whether specific Israeli attacks on civilians during the conflict were deliberate is extremely difficult because the Israeli military has not released the evidence that would allow independent parties to evaluate its conclusions.  Amnesty has not argued that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) targeted Palestinian civilians “as a matter of policy”, but that IDF rules of engagement and actions during the conflict failed to take sufficient precautions to minimize civilian casualties.  Justice Goldstone’s recent comments do not dispute this assessment.

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A message from Sting

We sent this moving message from Sting earlier today to our email list.  In light of the recent startling developments in Iran, we’re also sharing it with you here on our blog:

Dear Supporter,

I was shocked to hear reports that Iranian security forces arrested 29 mothers and their supporters who were silently mourning children killed in post-election violence this summer.

These Mourning Mothers gather peacefully each week to call for an end to widespread human rights abuses and justice for their dead children.

The disturbing news of their arrest brought to mind profound memories of the Mothers of the Disappeared in Chile and Argentina. Like the courageous mothers in Iran, the Mothers of the Disappeared faced threats and harassment for seeking justice for their children kidnapped during the Dirty Wars in Chile and Argentina.

My song “They Dance Alone” is dedicated to the Mothers of the Disappeared. I had the honor of performing it with them in 1988 during Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! Tour.

Sting dances 3

Sting dances with the Mothers of the Disappeared during Amnesty's 1988 Human Rights Now! Tour.

Dancing on stage with the Mothers of the Disappeared in Chile and Argentina was one of the most moving moments of my career.

I am heartbroken to see that once again others have to face the anguish that the Mothers of the Disappeared endured. I am compelled to speak out again. I hope you will too.

What gives me hope is knowing that Amnesty International is fighting on behalf of the Mourning Mothers and others threatened with abuse in Iran and around the world.

As you read this, Amnesty International is investigating and reporting on the human rights situation in Iran. It’s publishing the names of prisoners of conscience and documenting the use of brutal force to crush dissent — even as it continues to respond to human rights emergencies across the globe.

The people of Iran deserve to speak peacefully without fear. Show them they are not alone. Donate to Amnesty International today.

Sincerely,

Sting

Heavy Criticism Emerges after Jerusalem Evictions

Yesterday, approximately 55 Arabs, including 14 children, were evicted from their houses in east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jewish families that claimed ownerships of the property. Soon after the evictions, these families moved in under the protection of Jerusalem police.

 

However, the US, UN, and UK have all come out strongly against these evictions. “Unilateral actions taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations and will not be recognized by the international community,” the State Department said in a released statement. Chris Gunness, spokesman for the U.N. agency in charge of Palestinian refugees, said that the Arab families had been living there for more than 50 years.

Evictions, settlements, and the greater question of Jerusalem remain among the most contentious obstacles to a sustainable peace. Actions such as this are contrary to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions related to occupied territory.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

The Wanton Destruction of Gaza

A new Amnesty International report about the recent conflict in Gaza concludes that Israel wantonly destroyed civilian infrastructure in Gaza, which could not be justified on grounds of “military necessity”. More than 3,000 homes were destroyed and some 20,000 damaged in Israeli attacks which reduced entire neighbourhoods of Gaza to rubble and left an already dire economic situation in ruins.

Israeli forces killed hundreds of unarmed Palestinian civilians and destroyed thousands of homes in Gaza in attacks which violate international law.

Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups fired hundreds of rockets into southern Israel, killing three Israeli civilians, injuring scores and driving thousands from their homes. These kind of attacks are indiscriminate and are thus clearly in violation of international law.

Another key finding of the report is that there is no evidence that Palestinian armed groups used civilians as “human shields”.

Israeli Naval Force Blocks Humanitarian Aid from Entering Gaza

The Israeli navy intercepted, boarded, and took control of a Greek cargo ship carrying foreign peace activists, including former US congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and Nobel prize winner Mairead Maguire. Their ship was carrying humanitarian aid cargo for the residents of Gaza.

The Israeli military instilled a blockade June 2007 in Gaza; a response to the rise in power of Hamas. Since then, the sanctions have made it incredibly difficult to get the bare essentials to the population, such as food, fuel, and medicine.

This is not the first time Israel has blocked humanitarian aid—similar ships have been turned back after attempting to deliver basic goods like food and medicine.

This is an outrageous violation of international law against us. Our boat was not in Israeli waters, and we were on a human rights mission to the Gaza Strip,” said Cynthia McKinney in a statement shortly after she and the other activists were turned over to immigration authorities in Ashdod.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Israel Offers a Temporary Settlement Freeze

Israeli senior officials yesterday said that Israel is open to a 3-6 month complete settlement freeze (including natural growth) in order to allow for Palestinian negotiations to take place. Officials asked they not be named, as the issue is so “explosive” within Israel that they do not wish to be associated with the idea yet.

Despite the officials’ claims, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who meets with US envoy George Mitchell this week, has shied away from the subject, saying “the matter mentioned in the headlines has not been finalized.”

This freeze, however, would allow for existing settlement construction to continue. Currently, over 2000 new buildings are under construction across the Palestinian West Bank.  While not meeting US calls for a complete freeze, a brief halt to new settlements is indicative of the Israeli desire to move on from the current tension between the two countries.

Settlements are illegal under International Law. Last month, President Obama and Secretary Clinton made vocal requests for Israel to completely end its creation of new settlements in the West Bank.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Obama's Speech and the Arab Reaction

In the immediate aftermath of President Obama’s speech today in Cairo, the heavy web traffic of discussion among Arab activists was divided essentially into two camps.  One person claimed that the speech could have been given by George W. Bush.  Another compared it to Sadat’s historic trip to Jerusalem.

It’s not that either opinion is wrong – either may be proved right – but it was the nature of this talk from the very beginning that its meaning won’t be known for years down the road.  For what will make it historic (or not) is not the rhetoric of the speech but the policies that follow it (or don’t).

For one, I don’t believe this was a talk that George W. could have given, although it did share much of the same language on democracy that Bush stubbornly adhered to long after his own policies made shreds of any hope for it.

Midway through Obama’s speech, he digressed to condemn the belief in “a world order that elevates one nation or group of people.”  That is something that the worldview of American exceptionalism held by Bush and many of his presidential predecessors would never agree to.  I hope that this radically different worldview may result in a new path of policies.

And it was promising that Obama addressed a broad range of issues – democracy, women’s rights, Israel and Palestine and economic development – with an understanding that they all affect the human rights situation and all have to be addressed.

One thing that stood out was when it came to economic development, Obama announced a long line of initiatives that hold promise.  But in each of the other areas, particularly on Israel and on democracy, the rhetoric wasn’t matched by specifics.  I hope that doesn’t imply that he thinks that action on economic development is more important than in the other areas.

Amnesty International welcomes Obama’s comments, but we now expect him to follow up with policies to match the rhetoric.  He should begin with ending all practices that make the U.S. complicit in the various abuses that he denounced, such as extraordinary renditions and secret detention.  He should insist that Israel and the PNA to cooperate with the UN’s fact-finding mission looking into violations of international law during the recent Gaza war.  And he provide a public and independent report of America’s war on terror practices, a step he has opposed to date.

These would be just a first step, but an important step.  It would start us on a path that could turn his speech today from a remarkable moment into an historic event.

Going Beyond Headlines

IFC Films

IFC Films

The Lemon Tree is a 2008 Israeli film follows a Palestinian woman’s fight to keep her lemon grove to the Israeli High Court. Released internationally on April 17th, this film has already garnered widespread acclaim for its emotional and nuanced storytelling, focusing on the Palestinian struggle to hold onto livelihood and identity—in short, their human rights.

Actress Hiam Abbass stars as Salma, a widowed Palestinian whose only source of income is the lemonade from her lemon grove. At the film’s start, the Israeli Defense Minister moves into the mansion next door. His security forces zero in on Salma’s lemon grove as a potential security threat (providing terrorists with perfect cover) and order it to be taken down. She decides to fight the decision, and with the help of a young Palestinian lawyer, takes the case to the Israeli Supreme Court.

What’s great about this film is its desire to blur the lines and truly cultivate its characters. Too often, human rights violations become a matter of numbers and statistics, so it’s certainly refreshing to be able to put a face and a story to the headline. “I think people want to see into the psyche of the people,” said Eran Riklis, the film’s director, to Haaretz. “It’s about people trapped in a deadlock. It tells a story, shows you emotions and glides through a complex, delicate situation in an explosive setting.”

Check out a trailer for the film:

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Mahmoud Abbas to Meet With Obama Today

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

President Barack Obama is slated to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today, to discuss what Press Secretary Robert Gibbs calls “ways the United States can strengthen and deepen our partnerships.”

Abbas has already stated that he plans to focus his discussion with Obama on continuous settlement expansion in the West Bank, but has also noted he believes there is a real chance at comprehensive peace in the region.

Amnesty International USA has sent a letter to President Obama asking that he raise some concerns of his own—namely human rights violations by members of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in areas under PA control.  Arbitrary detentions, disregard for due process and ill-treatment and torture of detainees in PA detention centers continue to be reported.  Additionally, the Al Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Gaza, the armed wing of the Fatah party led by President Abbas, have also been linked to indiscriminate rocket fire into southern Israel which violates the rules of war.

President Obama should raise these concerns as the atmosphere of impunity and continued human rights violations by the PA reflects badly on U.S. personnel and resources assigned to train PA security forces, undermines confidence in rule of law and hinders any progress in peace negotiations.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Dear President Obama, When you meet with President Peres …

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, speaking to AIPAC at annual conference today.

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, speaking to AIPAC at annual conference today.

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, flew to the United States to give a speech at the 2009 AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) annual conference in Washington DC Monday and to meet with President Obama Tuesday at the White House.  YouTube already has a video of his speech.

Although George Mitchell, Special Envoy to the Middle East who was appointed by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has met with Israeli officials, this will be the first meeting between President Obama and a high ranking official from the newly established Israeli government under Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu which is considered ’right-wing’.

 AIUSA asked President Obama to raise the issues of increasing settlement expansion in the West Bank and the eviction of Palestinian families and demolition of homes in east Jerusalem.  Despite repeated U.S. statements condemning the demolitions and settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories, settlement expansion and demolitions continue.  Settlement building/expansion, evictions and demolitions in occupied territory are also illegal under international law.

Demolitions in east Jerusalem have increased dramatically in the last two years with wide swathes of land slated for demolitions.  Settlement expansion which has been in the works for some time is now being given the green light by newly elected government officials. 

Obama has also been asked to follow up on recent events in Gaza.  Despite statements by Sec’y Clinton that goods and humanitarian aid is getting into the Gaza Strip, other sources such as the U.N. and other monitors on the ground continue to report excessive restrictions which continue to keep out spare parts for medical equipment or equipment needed to rebuild, such as bulldozers.

We’ve also asked that Obama urge Israel to cooperate with the investigation being conducted by the team created by the United Nations Human Rights Council and under the leadership of Justice Richard Goldstone, a highly respected war crimes prosecutor.  Justice Goldstone has stated that he will be investigating the allegations of human rights abuses by all parties involved in the conflict.  The team is currently meeting in Geneva to organize and outline their investigation into war crimes committed during the Gaza crisis.  The government of Israel has publicly stated that they do not plan to cooperate with the team.

Even though the two leaders will be focused on the peace process, human rights are directly linked to any workable resolution.  Both parties must respect the basic human rights of each other and the United States must play a key role in getting all the  parties involved to recognize this basic tenet.

UPDATE May 6, 2009: Video covering comments made at AIPAC conference and responses.