Just over a year ago, retired South African judge Richard Goldstone agreed to head a U.N. investigation into Israel’s 2009 war in Gaza. It was the first time Goldstone, a world-renowned international law scholar who led tribunals on war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, had waded into the troubled waters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He concluded war crimes had been committed on both sides. Since then, he’s been denounced as a traitor by fellow Jews and has had to take up an armed escort—for the first time since he faced death threats in the 1990s from white Afrikaners. In this interview with NEWSWEEK’s Dan Ephron, Goldstone says he might have decided not to take the job had he known how events would unfold. Excerpts:
It’s been just over a year since you started the investigation. Did you anticipate this much controversy?
Look, I knew it was going to be a controversial thing...But the interesting thing was that the initial response from Gaza was to attack me because I’m Jewish. Then they reversed that. And there’s been criticism on the Palestinian side on two grounds. One, the report clearly recognize Israel’s right of self-defense. And the second thing obviously is that the commission found war crimes were being committed on the Palestinian side...This is the first time that a U.N. organ, including the General Assembly, has adopted a report critical of the Palestinians. And the EU, too.
But there must have been moments since the report came out that you asked yourself, why did I need this?
Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s been a rough year. The criticism started the day I started.
Do you regret it?
It’s a question I’ve been asked so many times. Personally, no. If I’d have known what affect it would have had on my family, yes.
And the grandchildren [Goldstone’s grandson, Sean, celebrated his bar mitzvah this month]?
Well, he started off his bar mitzvah speech saying, “If you want to know anything about my bar mitzvah, have a look at the front page of The New York Times or listen to Christiane Amanpour.” And can I tell you what the 7-year-old said to Noleen [Goldstone’s wife] on the telephone? We were still in Washington. He called us by our first names. He said: “What is Richard going to do for my bar mitzvah?”
Tell me more about that...
Well, it’s not pleasant to read the things that have been said about me in the Jewish community here or in Israel, if you’re living in the Jewish community. And that’s been very tough for them.
Have you visited Israel since the report came out?
No. Quite frankly, I’d been very nervous to go. I certainly hope that I’ll be able to visit like I always have.
You know, part of the controversy is bound up with the fact that the UNHRC [the United Nations Human Rights Council, which launched the Gaza probe] is seen as being so overtly biased against Israel. If we were talking, say, two years ago and I asked you for your view on the UNHRC, what would you have said?
I would have given a very strong anti-HRC view.
Would that have been true even on eve of your appointment to the commission?
Absolutely. But getting an evenhanded mandate [to investigate possible war crimes by both Israelis and Palestinians] had never happened. And I certainly hoped it would be a turning point that could be continued and that I could play a part in that process.
What about UNHRC was not evenhanded?
It’s over-concentration and over-criticism of Israel and it’s under-concentration of other situations.
But you’ve said you felt the UNHRC had been at a turning point.
The other part of turning point was that the U.S. was joining it. The U.S. had never joined.
And you had an exchange of letters with the Israeli ambassador to Geneva. He told you Israel wouldn’t cooperate, but he made reference to the old mandate [the original resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which mandated the fact-finding mission to look only at potential Israeli war crimes], which made you think maybe there was still an opening. What if Israel had said no more quickly? Would that have changed things?
If I’d known that Israel was not going to participate, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job. What would be the point?
At some stage, you found out that a member of your panel, Christine Chinkin, had signed a petition saying the rocket attacks on Israel do not amount to an armed attack. How did you come to know that?
She brought it to me.
Didn’t you think that disqualifies her from serving on the panel?
I regarded this as really highly technical because the International Court of Justice...said Israel had no right of self-defense because Gaza was occupied. If a group in Texas started firing into Alabama, the U.S. doesn’t have the right to self-defense. It’s criminal and they can call out the troops and put it down. That’s the argument that was being made. But it seemed irrelevant to me because it seemed to me that if Israel didn’t have the right of self-defense, it had the right to stop criminality and it could have sent in troops or police to stop it. The same rules would have applied. So we allotted that and simply assumed self-defense.
Contrary to the position of this letter?
But I wonder if you thought when you read the letter that, the technicalities aside, there’s at least a perception of prejudgment if she’s signing a letter that says Israelis don’t have a right to self-defense in this context.
Had I been aware of that letter at the time the mission was set up...I might well have said to them maybe she isn’t the most appropriate person. But this came to my attention for the first time months into it. She was already part of the panel, I trusted her, I knew she had an open mind, and I knew this wasn’t a judicial inquiry. And she’s certainly an open-minded person.
You’ve been criticized for holding open hearings, which seemed to some like a kind of propaganda campaign. If the aim is to uncover facts, why broadcast the testimony? Doesn’t that encourage people to engage in showmanship?
My aim was that I thought it would be a means of helping reconciliation—that people in Israel could empathize with what kind of things are going in the war and see the faces and hear the voices. And similarly, I thought it would be a good idea if Palestinians in Gaza could see some of the damage and human suffering caused by the rockets and mortars. Because it seemed to me none of that was going on. Each side was completely blinkered and in denial.
One of the arguments subsequent to the report revolves around the question of whether you guys basically accepted the version of the Palestinian witnesses. The critics say that Hamas supporters walked in, told you their version, and you guys accepted it. How did you go about establishing the credibility of witnesses?
In many ways. First thing, after being a judge for a quarter century, one develops instincts and one has a feeling for people. It’s by no means infallible, but you and I are talking: we either respect each other and feel we’re being truthful with each other or we don’t. It’s that sort of thing. You’re assessing my credibility...and at the end of it, you go away with a feeling. You may in fact completely accept my credibility, but then you get on Google and you find that I’ve told you something that’s completely untrue. That eats away at my credibility. It’s the same exact process. We interviewed people, but then we went to some length to get corroboration. One way was to get satellite images, to check if the dates they gave us were accurate. And we had a database of information and we checked. If someone told us that his home was blasted by Israeli mortars or something on the 3rd of January, we’d go and check on that. We’d check the satellite photos and talk to others.
But if witnesses appeared on the panel said there was no shooting from mosques, how do you corroborate that?
That wasn’t the basis of what we said. We asked them if there was shooting from a specific mosque. We didn’t ask them to speculate. There were three mosques involved. We investigated one. We couldn’t say whether arms were stored at the other two, but we were satisfied that it wasn’t the case with the one we investigated.
What’s the verification process for that? If the guy who runs the mosque says there were no weapons in my mosque, surely he has a vested interest?
We went around and saw the area. The strange thing is that there is very little area in the mosque to hide weapons. And...we must have had a crowd in there of 15 witnesses who were there when the mortars hit. But even if there were weapons, that still doesn’t justify mortaring. If there were weapons there, you go in the middle of the night and smash it out.
In a situation when you’re trying to establish whether there was shooting at a hospital, for instance, with Palestinian witnesses you have to concede that there is a vested interest in telling you there was no shooting.
Well, absolutely, but one takes that into account. And I mean, some witnesses did tell us there was firing in the area. But we said that in these instances we didn’t find evidence that there was firing from the hospital. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t.
Israelis would say that the terrorists are running the government, so going after the government infrastructure is fair game. That’s why the parliament building was hit.
But I don’t agree. The parliament wasn’t a Hamas parliament. There were non-Hamas people in that parliament. You don’t attack the U.S. capital because you don’t like Republicans. It’s a civilian target. I still don’t understand why the Israelis did it. What was the intent of smashing up the infrastructure of Gaza? To punish the people for supporting Hamas? Is it to help get peace? None of it has been explained.
Well, maybe to make Gazans turn against their leadership, to make it clear this is what happens when terrorists are in power.
And it doesn’t work. And it hasn’t worked. And even if it does, it’s illegal. And that’s what the report is all about.
Well, Israelis would respond that the rocket attacks are illegal.
Absolutely, but one doesn’t justify the other.
But, again, Israelis would say there’s a chronology that gets left behind, which is that the rocket attacks preceded the assault.
That’s important. We assumed that self-defense is justified, but not the way it was executed.
Can you describe an Israeli response that would have been effective but would not have triggered a report like this?
It’s very difficult. I’m not an expert on military planning. It’s easier for me to say what’s illegal than to give advice on how to do it legally. But I would refer people to the Israeli Supreme Court decision on targeted assassination, which said that the main people who have to be targeted, killed, or preferably arrested are the Qassam brigades or others who fire the rockets. The problem is [that doing so] could cause a loss of life on the Israeli side. It’s a lot easier to bomb from gunships or planes than to go in, but that’s what armies have to do. And because you’re not prepared to risk your own troops’ lives doesn’t mean you’re allowed to attack civilians.
There’s some language in the report that I, as a journalist, would be criticized for using in a story. The barrier is referred to as The Wall. Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin are called Israeli-Palestinians while Israelis call them Arab-Israelis. These are very subtle clues that suggest to savvy readers a certain bias.
Well, we debated that, and we decided to follow the International Court of Justice, which calls it a wall.
So that was the standard. But very little of it is a wall.
But parts of it are a very big wall.
So it was not inadvertent?
No. I’m not naive enough to think language isn’t significant.
But in trying to signal to the Israelis that you’re being fair, I imagine little things like that undermine your intention.
But if not, you’re undermining it on the other side. It’s a lose-lose. This is an international report.
Where is this all going to go?
I’m pessimistic about the report having any practical effect legally. But I think on the ground it’s already having an effect. I think it cannot but influence policy with regard to this sort of terrorist attacks in the minds of military people who have done it.
In other words, maybe there won’t be indictments, but Israel will probably never launch another Operation Cast Lead?
I doubt it.
Because Israeli military lawyers will say no?
Yes. They’re on notice more than they were. If it achieves nothing else, I think it’s worth that. And I’m not talking about Israel alone. I think Hamas is on notice as well.