Hundreds of people joined a sit-in at London Liverpool Street station on Tuesday against the Israeli murder of Palestinians in Gaza (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Israel wants to get away with war crimes—just like the last time it invaded Gaza. Its forces swept into the Gaza Strip on 3 January 2009 following a week of sustained air strikes.

The land offensive, Operation Cast Lead, continued until 18 January when the Israeli government of Ehud Olmert, under US pressure, called a ceasefire.

By the time the attack ended, Israel had murdered over 1.400 Palestinians and injured over 5,000. The bombing and shelling had left 100,000 people homeless.

Gaza had been devastated with many homes, schools and hospitals damaged or destroyed. Among the hospitals bombed was that regular Israeli target, the Al Quds hospital.

The Israelis used white phosphorous munitions indiscriminately. Israeli casualties during the assault were 10 soldiers and three civilians killed.

Throughout the Arab world, this onslaught was known at the time as the “Gaza Massacre”. The Israeli assault was a murderous exercise in collective punishment, clearly illegal under international law. Civilians had been ruthlessly targeted without any compunction. The Palestinians had to be taught their place and if that involved a bloodbath then so be it.

The scale of the suffering inflicted on the people of Gaza shocked the world. Indeed, such was the outcry, the United Nations Human Rights Council actually took steps to investigate Israeli crimes.

A fact-finding mission was set up headed by Richard Goldstone, an eminent South African jurist with liberal Zionist sympathies, in April 2009. Other members were Pakistani human rights lawyer Hina Jilani, London School of Economics law professor Christine Chinkin and Desmond Travers of the Institute for International Criminal Investigations at the Hague court.

From the very beginning the Israelis attacked the mission and absolutely refused to cooperate in any way.

Its members were refused access to Gaza from Israel. The four members of the mission spent four days in Gaza where they were shocked by the scale of the destruction and the testimony of Israel’s victims. A number of the Palestinians who gave evidence to them were later arrested.

The mission issued a 574 page report on 15 September 2009 that described the Israeli offensive as an attempt to terrorise the Palestinian population. It reported on the deliberate targeting of civilians and destruction of the social and economic infrastructure.

The report made clear that during the attack Israeli soldiers had used Palestinian civilians as human shields and had tortured prisoners.

Even though the report said Hamas fighters broke international law too, the Israeli response was furious. US president Barack Obama gave Israel its full backing. The Israelis had carried out their own “investigations”—which somewhat predictably found that their troops had behaved humanely at all times and never deliberately targeted civilians.

When the UN report went to the UN Commission on Human Rights, it was nevertheless carried by 25 votes to 6 with 11 abstentions. The British delegate declined to register a vote. A subsequent UN General Assembly meeting voted by 114 votes to 18, with 44 abstentions, for further investigation into the war crime findings.

By now, Binyamin Netanyahu had become Israeli prime minister. He had been a welcomed guest at 10 Downing Street, greeted by then Labour prime minister Gordon Brown. Brown praised him as “a leader of immense courage” and promised that Britain would “always remain a strong friend of Israel”.

When the British failed to vote against the Goldstone report, however, British supporters of Israel attacked Brown and foreign secretary David Miliband. Nevertheless, in his memoirs, published in 2017, Brown still referred to Netanyahu as “an old friend and colleague”. Keir Starmer has, of course, learned a lesson from all this—never get out of step with the US when it comes to Israel and the Middle East.

What of Richard Goldstone? His actions in exposing Israeli war crimes provoked a massive campaign of abuse and slander with him labelled a “self-hating Jew” and a “quisling”. He was even prevented from attending his grandson’s bar mitzvah in Johannesburg.

In the end, Goldstone broke—effectively repudiating his own report and endorsing the Israeli position. He never discussed this with the other members of the fact-finding mission who made absolutely clear that they stood by the original findings.

Let us leave the last word with the late journalist Robert Fisk. He had initially seen Goldstone as a hero “who finally spoke truth to power in the Middle East”. Now, as far as Fisk was concerned, he had betrayed all those Palestinians victims who had trusted him.

They were men such as Wa’el al-Samouni, who lost 23 family members in the attack. Goldstone had him embraced during his visit to Gaza. But he had “recanted with protestations of love for the nation whose crimes he so courageously exposed”. The Israelis must not be allowed to get away with these crimes yet again.

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