Until the last minute, it was not clear how South Africa’s Justice Richard Goldstone would arrive in the region this weekend with a mandate from the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to begin an inquiry into the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead against Gaza (27 December – 18 January), or whetherIsrael will or will not let him enter the country, if he tries to come here.
Israel — which often prefers ambiguity — apparently did not reply to Goldstone’s request for a visa.
The mission’s mandate is to “investigate all violations of International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law that might have been committed at any time in the context of the military operations that were conducted in Gaza during the period from 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, whether before, during or after.”
Goldstone himself told a UN press conference in Geneva on 3 April that “It is in the interest of all Israelis and Palestinians that the facts relevant to those allegations should be impartially investigated by an independent international mission. The findings of such a mission might be relevant in relation to possible domestic inquiries and domestic criminal or civil proceedings, and international accountability mechanisms”. He added that “this is to be an independent, evenhanded and unbiased investigation”.
In that press conference, Goldstone requested “the cooperation of the relevant authorities to enable the members of the Mission to visit and meet with victims both in Israel and in Gaza and in the Occupied Territories to examine the context and consequences of military actions in Gaza. It is my earnest wish that all relevant parties and administrations assist and cooperate with the Mission. I need hardly add that submissions, whether of fact or law, would be sought by the Mission from all relevant persons and will be taken into account by the Mission in the formulation of its report and its recommendations. It is my hope that such a report will make a meaningful contribution to the peace process in the Middle East and to delivering justice to the victims”.
The mission began work in Geneva on 4 May; it will visit Gaza from 1-5 June; and it is “required to submit its report within three months”, according to a Public Advance Notice it issued — unusually — which is accessible here.
The Public Advance Notice states that “the Mission will focus on relevant violations by all parties in the entire occupied Palestinian territory, including Gaza and the West Bank, and Israel … Pending reply from the Government of Israel, the Mission is relying on the cooperation of the Government of Egypt to facilitate entrance to Gaza through Rafah. Subsequent field visits will be announced in due time”.
Anyone wishing to make contact with the Mission on any matter relevant to its mandate can do so by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, according to the Public Advance Notice. In addition, it also informs us that “Anyone wishing to make contact with the Mission during its visit to Gaza may contact the Mission by telephone at: (+970) 0597 444 158 or (+970) 0597 444 159.
According to the Public Advance Notice, “Measures are being taken to ensure the careful and safe handling, communication and preservation of the Mission’s records and files. The information collected by the Mission is, and will remain, the property of the United Nations. Wherever necessary, the Mission will take precautionary measures necessary to ensure the safety or protection of victims, witnesses, sources and any other persons cooperating with the Mission”.
The mission has its own UN webpage here.
The Israeli media was recently told that the government would not cooperate with this mission, despite their respect for Goldstone (who, like the UN HRC’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, Professor Richard Falk, is Jewish — though Falk may also be a Baha’i).
Goldstone told journalists at the press conference in Geneva in April that “it certainly came to me as quite a shock as a Jew to be invited by the President to head this mission. It is obviously an additional dimension. I’ve taken a deep interest in Israel in what happens in Israel and I have been associated with organizations that have worked in Israel … [L]et me assure you it was not an easy decision. It took many days and some sleepless nights in mulling the invitation, but I decided to accept it because of my deep concern for peace in the Middle East, and my deep concern for victims in all sides in the Middle East. I think it is very important…too often the victims are left off the agenda and in my view they should be on top of the agenda. It’s certainly my hope that I can make a contribution in that regard”.
Israeli human rights organizations have called on Israel “to cooperate with the investigative delegation led by South African judge Richard Goldstone into combat events in Gaza in January”, and have stated that “The very existence of a balanced investigation is in Israel´s best interest”, and that “It is in our best interest to cooperate with an impartial investigation”. The Israeli human rights organizations who signed on to this statement are the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), B´Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Yesh Din, Bimkom, Adalah, Public Committee Against Torture, Hamoked, and Gisha.
But, will Israel deny Goldstone and his team entry to the country, and deport him — as they did to Falk (a U.S. citizen)?
It is unlikely. While Israel has a positive regard for Goldstone, Israel seems by contrast to have had a particular grievance against Falk, and Foreign Ministry officials have accused him of entering the country a few months earlier, though it was after he was appointed Special Rapporteur, by saying that he was coming in his personal capacity. Then, during that visit, somebody apparently introduced him in a seminar in Ramallah as the UN Special Rapporteur. But, was that Falk’s fault?
In any case, Falk was rather badly treated at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, and then deported, in what Israeli human rights groups experts have privately said was a scandalous mismanagement of the situation by the UN, who should have prevented that disastrous outcome.
Goldstone said in the Geneva press conference that “I have no doubt that it is in the interests of all parties to cooperate. As I said, and as the President has said, it is in the interests of victims. It has certainly been my experience in South Africa, in the Balkans and Rwanda that transparent, public investigations are very important; important particularly to the victims because it brings acknowledgment of what happened to them and it can be the beginning of a healing process. So, I have no doubt it is in their interests. I would hope it is in the interests of all the governmental authorities too to really be on the moral high ground in cooperating with what I hope will be seen as a substantial, if not a important, United Nations endeavor to be of assistance. What will happen if there isn’t cooperation from all parties I think is a matter the mission will have to take into account if that happens”.
So, Goldstone is apparently due to arrive in Gaza, somehow, on Monday.
But, to enter Gaza, Goldstone has only a few limited options — the easiest and perhaps most diplomatic (at least vis-a-vis Israel) being (1) to enter Israel after flying to Ben Gurion International Airport. But he can’t do that if Israel didn’t issue visas to him and the other members of the mission.
Other options would be either (2) flying to Amman, Jordan, and then (a) crossing the Allenby Bridge on the Jordan River and passing through the occupied West Bank, or (b) crossing into Israel directly from Jordan via the Sheikh Hussein bridge just to the north of the West Bank, or (c) going from Amman down to the Red Sea and crossing over into the Israeli port city of Eilat, then driving up through the Negev. In all of these cases, Goldstone and the other members of the mission would have to be given Israeli visas. Then, from Israel — but only with Israeli military authorization — Goldstone can enter and leave the Gaza Strip through the imposing and terrible Erez “Passenger” terminal.
Alternatively — and I have just heard this is the more likely scenario, absent a positive Israeli reply in the coming hours to his visa request — Goldstone may enter Gaza via Egypt, then travelling four or five hours across the Sinai to the Rafah crossing which Egypt opens and closes like a water faucet, according to its own calculations. This is the only option that does not require overt Israeli agreement.
UPDATE: The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has issued a statement saying that “the fact-finding mission will travel to the region over the weekend and will be in Gaza as of the 1st of June and will remain there for about one week. The mission … will enter Gaza from Egypt via the Rafah crossing point. Other field visits are being planned”. The mission was established on 3 April 2009, under the terms of the UN Human Rights Council resolution adopted on the Gaza conflict on 12 January, In addition to Justice Richard Goldstone, other mission members include Professor Christine Chinkin, Professor of International Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, who was a member of the High Level Fact Finding Mission to Bit Hanoun (2008); Ms. Hina Jilani, Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and former Special Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, who was a member of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur (2004); and Colonel Desmond Travers, a former officer in the Irish Armed Forces and member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for International Criminal Investigations (IICI).
There is a precedent: South Africa’s Nobel Prize winning Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a life-long anti-Apartheid activist who established the country’s post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, had to enter and leave Gaza last year via Rafah — after being denied entry through Israel to complete his investigation of the deaths of 19 Palestinian civilians, mostly in their sleep, from an “error” in the IDF shelling of their residential compound in Beit Hanoun in November 2006.
However, Israel has said that anyone who enters Gaza via Rafah (or any other place than Erez Terminal) will not be allowed to exit Gaza (and enter Israel) via Erez.
So, if he enters Gaza via Rafah, how would Goldstone be able to visit the Israeli city of Sderot, at the Gaza perimeter, which has perhaps suffered the most from the war crime of being indiscriminately fired upon from Gaza by rockets, mortars and missiles?
Well, it won’t be as easy as dropping by Sderot while on his way in or out of Gaza via nearby Erez, as most official visitors do. But Goldstone could leave Gaza via Rafah, drive to Cairo across the Sinai, fly to Amman, and then go through options (2a or b) — or he could drive from Cairo down a good part of the length of Sinai to Taba, the cross over into the Israeli city of Eilat, and pursue option (2c), driving back up through the Negev …
Another South African legal expert, John Dugard, who preceeded Falk as the UN Human Rights Commission’s Special Rapporteur, used to enter Israel on his national passport, with the full knowledge of the Israeli government, and without any obstruction except their own passive non-cooperation. He even got some kind of assistance, according to a letter written in June 2008 by Itzhak Levanon, then Israel’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva — despite the fact that Dugard harshly criticized Israel’s actions against the Palestinians.
Levanon wrote that Israel had hosted “eight Special Rapporteurs and the High Commissioner in less than three years”, between 2005 and 2008. He then added: “Of course, all of these missions were interspersed with regular, twice-yearly visits from the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, who was always provided with special documentation to facilitate his movements in our region“. Here, Levanon was referring to John Dugard.
When I tried to find out what, exactly, was that “special documentation to facilitate his [Dugard's] movements in our region“, I got no answer, nor explanation — either from Ambassador Levanon’s staff at the Israeli mission in Geneva, or from the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Geneva.
At the time, I asked: What does that mean? What kind of “special documentation”? Was it a simple letter of introduction? Or something more? But, there was no reply.
[Levanon's letter, published here, was written to obtain a correction about something I wrote in one of my articles at the time, UN Says Human Rights Situation in Occupied Palestinian Territory Remains Grave, which is published here. Levanon wrote in complaint that "it is false to state that Israel has 'consistently not replied to visa requests to most UN Special Rapporteurs'." However, that is not exactly what I wrote, which was ,in fact, this: "Israel has consistently not replied to visa requests to most UN Special Rapporteurs, or special investigative missions, whose mandates it does not like [emphasis added here]. So, most of them do not come to the region”. And, in my reply, published here, I noted that Ambassador Levanon’s letter unfortunately, selectively gave only a part of the picture, and that while his letter provided a list of a few visits from UN Human Rights officials that Israel has facilitated, neither his letter nor the UN itself would give any indication of how many visits Israel has blocked — mainly by not replying, rather than by outright saying “No”. I noted that it was also interesting that the Israeli Mission didn’t give any hint about what it will do, exactly, to facilitate the work of the new Special Rapporteur, Richard Falk. And we now know what happened to him…]
The Goldstone mission, according to its Public Advance Notice, “intends to consult with a wide range of interlocutors who will include victims and witnesses, Palestinian, Israeli and international NGOs, United Nations and other international organizations, community organizations, human rights defenders, medical and other professionals, legal and military experts, and other sources of reliable information relevant to its mandate, within and outside Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. The Mission will also seek consultations with relevant authorities. In the course of its work, the Mission will review reports produced by various organizations and institutions, and will be requesting submissions on matters of fact and law relevant to its inquiry … The Mission is also planning to hold public hearings on particular issues of concern related to its mandate”.
A few months ago, Barbara Crossette, a former New York Times correspondent at the UNHQ/NY who now writes for the American publication, The Nation, reported that “Richard Goldstone, the South African judge who was chief prosecutor for war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, was selected by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate allegations that Israel violated international laws in its assault on Gaza. The Human Rights Council is a body of nations not controlled by either the UN secretary general or the UN’s high commissioner for human rights. The secretary general, the first high-ranking international official to visit Gaza after the attacks, has not tried to block what is essentially a war crimes investigation. Israel’s relations with the United Nations have been fraught for more than four decades, as the former Soviet bloc and some major nonaligned nations, including India, promoted the Palestinian cause at Israel’s expense. In 1975 the General Assembly voted to define Zionism as racism; it was not until 1991 that US pressure under President George H.W. Bush managed to reverse the resolution. But Israel was still not able to join any regional group (important for securing places in UN bodies) until Secretary General Kofi Annan later helped persuade the Europeans to let Israel become part of their caucus, which also includes the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. In recent years, a lobby generated by the Organization of the Islamic Conference has revived the practice of trying to insert attacks on Israel into a variety of documents, most of all on human rights”. This can be read in full here,