B’Tselem questions whether Gaza destruction was ‘systematic’ without military justification

Israel/Palestine
on 15 Comments

Jessica Montell of B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, sent the following note re the Goldstone Report:

In response to your recent post - "War on Goldstone now deploys human-rights orgs and, you guessed it, the Holocaust." I was also struck, indeed horrified by the government’s decision to link its reponse to the Goldstone report with Holocaust Day. But I write now to respond to your remarks about the quote of our Research Director in the New York Times.

We all know the extent of the destruction in Gaza: homes, mosques, schools, as well as infrastructure like chicken coops, flour mill, sewage  treatment. B’Tselem has documented this – as well as the now most urgent problem that the siege still prevents rebuilding all that was destroyed. The more complicated issue is whether this destruction was systematic – i.e. willful, premeditated destruction of civilian targets with no military justification. Building this case depends not only on the extent of the damage and suffering, but on the motivations and objectives of  the Israeli military. This is one of the issues that must be examined by an independent inquiry – and one with the power to cross-examine Israeli military officials and make them provide evidence to back up their claims, which Goldstone was obviously not able to do.

The quote of Ms. Stein was the result of a two-hour conversation with the journalist, most of it focused on the inadequacy of Israel’s investigations to date. While Ms. Stein was quoted accurately, this is a very small part of our views on  the Goldstone report and Cast Lead, and not what we would chose to emphasize at this point.

As I believe you know, B’Tselem has voiced extremely harsh criticism of Israel’s conduct – including grave suspicion of war crimes. It must not be the case that the only yardstick to measure Israeli behavior is whether or not there was a willful, targeted attack on Palestinian civilians and civilian infrastructure. This dramatically lowers the bar and basically plays into the government’s hand, whereas we demand respect for the full spectrum of IHL [international humanitarian law] and human rights obligations.

B’Tselem has invested tremendous resources over the past year to research and publicize the extent of the civilian harm caused during Israel’s military operation in Gaza last winter and to hold Israel accountable. B’Tselem also provided extensive assistance to the UN fact-finding mission headed by Justice Goldstone – escorting them to meet victims in Gaza, providing all of our documentation and correspondence, and meeting the mission in Jordan. Much can be said about the very lengthy, detailed report submitted by the mission, and about the UN process it set in motion. The most important message to promote now – and one on which B’Tselem agrees whole-heartedly with the Goldstone report – is that Israel must conduct a thorough, independent inquiry into all the allegations that have been made.

Sincerely,

Jessica Montell

Executive Director

15 Responses

  1. Donald
    January 26, 2010, 4:36 pm

    “The more complicated issue is whether this destruction was systematic – i.e. willful, premeditated destruction of civilian targets with no military justification. Building this case depends not only on the extent of the damage and suffering, but on the motivations and objectives of the Israeli military.”

    This is silly. There are numerous quotes (cited in the other post) showing the mindset of Israeli officials both civilian and military and there’s the evidence of the blockade itself and the extent of the destruction.. You rarely have more evidence of bad intent with any major human rights violator, unless the government is overthrown, documents are captured, and people are placed on trial under oath. So no, we don’t have that, but then, I don’t think we should conflate the standards used in convicting specific individuals of war crimes (and subsequently jailing them or worse) with the common sense standards we normally use in evaluating the brutal actions of either a government or a terrorist organization.

    By this standard maybe we don’t know that Hamas targets civilians. Sure, they kill civilians in what looks like deliberate attacks or with indiscriminate rocket fire, and sure, maybe some Hamas leaders have said they target civilians (while maybe others deny it), but gee, what does that prove?

    • Dan Kelly
      January 26, 2010, 5:01 pm

      This is silly. There are numerous quotes (cited in the other post) showing the mindset of Israeli officials both civilian and military and there’s the evidence of the blockade itself and the extent of the destruction.. You rarely have more evidence of bad intent with any major human rights violator, unless the government is overthrown, documents are captured, and people are placed on trial under oath.

      The executive director of a human rights organization ought to know that.

  2. Dan Kelly
    January 26, 2010, 5:05 pm

    The most important message to promote now – and one on which B’Tselem agrees whole-heartedly with the Goldstone report – is that Israel must conduct a thorough, independent inquiry into all the allegations that have been made.

    Why would anyone trust anything that comes out of Israel? This needs to be led by the international community, by people who have not even the slightest appearance of fealty to Israel. Make of that statement what you will.

  3. MHughes976
    January 26, 2010, 5:06 pm

    1.To be systematic, you have (says Jessica) to be acting in a wilful and premeditated manner and without military justificaton. Let’s look at this.
    2. ‘Wilful’ surely applies – Israel’s action was not involuntary, inadvertent or based on ignorance of which buildings were which or where they stood.
    ‘Premeditated’ surely applies – it was not on the spur of the moment.
    3. ‘Without military justification’ – this could only mean that we have determined that the attack is the most efficient or (much better for our reputation, but much harder to prove) the only way to engage the enemy armed forces. But at this point the apparently justifying argument collapses anyway – if we have made these determinations the result must be an attack on the civil population that is systematic, ie essential to the system we are operating. That it is essential is exactly what we’ve just determined and decided and committed ourselves to.
    4. So I’d put it to Jessica that the word ‘systematic’ cannot be exploited to let the Israeli government off the moral hook.

  4. James North
    January 26, 2010, 5:44 pm

    Her letter is powerful and B’Tselem is a great organization. What jumped out at me was this section:

    “The quote of Ms. Stein was the result of a two-hour conversation with the journalist, most of it focused on the inadequacy of Israel’s investigations to date. While Ms. Stein was quoted accurately, this is a very small part of our views on the Goldstone report and Cast Lead, and not what we would chose to emphasize at this point.”

    Bronner clearly cherry-picked the one line from the interview that would promote his own agenda.

    • Avi
      January 26, 2010, 7:47 pm

      Bronner clearly cherry-picked the one line from the interview that would promote his own agenda.

      Thanks for mentioning that.

      That’s not the first time media outlets have attempted to tarnish the image of human rights organizations in an attempt to discredit them in the eyes of those who turn regularly to such organizations for reliable information.

      If Bronner keeps on this path, it won’t be that hard to classify him a propagandist instead of giving him the benefit of the doubt.

      • James Bradley
        January 26, 2010, 11:18 pm

        Yea, this isint the first time B’tselems reputation has had someone or some agency attempt to tarnish it.

        I believe the quote was cherry picked.

  5. Richard Witty
    January 26, 2010, 10:39 pm

    Thanks for the clarification Jessica.

    Do you hold the view that Israel is unreformable, or reformable?

  6. lyn117
    January 27, 2010, 2:15 am

    I understand Btselem’s need to be fair, but this is acting more like Israel’s defense lawyer.

    As MHughes says, the attacks on civilian infrastructure were clearly premeditated, intentional.

    Goldstone’s report presented plenty of evidence that there was no military need to attack, e.g., a flour mill in which there were no militants. And he presented a fair amount of evidence that there weren’t any militants in many places Israel destroyed.

    Ms. Montell, are you saying that such an attack is justified if there was a remote possibility of a militant being there? Such a premise would allow every building in Gaza to be bombed. Are you saying that, as “innocent” motivation and objectives of the Israeli military would serve to justify bombing of civilian buildings or killing civilians? Do you mean that any building can be bombed if some Israeli general decides there’s a militant inside it, or any resident of Gaza can be killed if some Israeli soldier thinks he’s a militant?

    Gaza, as you may know, is under military occupation by Israel. The civilians in Gaza are protected persons. I’m sorry, but Btselem has lost its way under your direction.

  7. lyn117
    January 27, 2010, 2:24 am

    Also, any investigation by Israel is sure to be a whitewash. And just look at the investigation into Sabra and Chatilla 30 years ago. Even if there’s a halfway decent “investigation,” all the main war criminals get is a reprimand, maybe a temporary demotion. Then Israel goes around proclaiming what a moral army it has, for investigating itself. A few years later, the perpetrators are in the positions of the highest power in the land.

    That seems to be the most btselem is demanding. A slap on the wrist for mass murder.

  8. Shmuel
    January 27, 2010, 3:11 am

    The quote was obviously cherry-picked. Nevertheless, Stein did not reserve judgement on “the more complicated issue … whether this destruction was systematic – i.e. willful, premeditated destruction of civilian targets with no military justification”, which “is one of the issues that must be examined by an independent inquiry … with the power to cross-examine Israeli military officials.” She said flat out:

    “I do not accept the Goldstone conclusion of a systematic attack on civilian infrastructure,” said Yael Stein, research director of B’Tselem. “It is not convincing.”

    B’tselem is an amazing and courageous organisation, and Bronner was dishonest, but I’m still disappointed.

    • jan_gdyn
      January 27, 2010, 5:27 pm

      Shmuel I agree, what Ms Stein said (bad) is not what’s being communicated above by Ms Montell (good). This was a big mistake on B’tselem’s part, and I wish they could come out with a statement or release clarifying their position on the report.

    • Tuyzentfloot
      January 27, 2010, 6:48 pm

      I tried this track but it doesn’t fit well, I don’t really buy it:
      Interpretations of ‘convincing proof’ vary. Remember the huge discrepancy between Iraq body count statistics and the Lancet’s best estimate for the death toll in Iraq?
      The first number can’t be denied, the second one is a best estimate.
      For most practical purposes you use the second one, but the court tends towards the first one.
      Is “not convincing” used in some legal sense or in some legally safe sense? “Not enough has been done to safeguard civilians” is then the safe fallback position.

  9. Richard Witty
    January 27, 2010, 4:41 am

    And, in Phil’s “report” on the Bronner article, instead of considering that Stein’s quote might have been taken out of context, he slammed her for “joining the enemy”.

    Probably after a conversation with a friend.

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