It is time for Israel to face the Music

I find it a bit eerie that the Goldstone Commission Report’s release coincided with the 27th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps. Even while the latter massacre, where 2,000 or more unarmed Palestinian men, women and children were killed in cold blood, remains an open wound for all Palestinians, unfortunately it was not the last. Today, Palestinians are still reeling from the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip that left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead –” the overwhelming majority unarmed civilians –”along with a devastating path of destruction in its wake.

It is almost impossible not to juxtapose the two, given the coincidental timing of events. In September of 1982, when the PLO was exiled from Beirut and then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s army besieged the Lebanese capital, the poor souls of Sabra and Shatila were left to the evil machinations of the Israeli military and its proxy henchmen, the Phalange militia. What ensued was horror at its worst –” for two days, Phalangist soldiers under the vigilant guard of the Israeli army –” killed old men, women, children and babies who were left unprotected and vulnerable after the PLO withdrew from the camps. Estimates oscillate between 1,000 –” 3,000 people killed in 30 hours, all Palestinian refugees, all innocent.

Fast forward to last winter and Israel’s Cast Lead Operation into the Gaza Strip comes to mind. For twenty-two days missiles, tank shells and phosphorous bombs rained down on the people of Gaza, sweeping away not only lives but homes, infrastructure and agricultural land. When the final toll was tallied, almost 1,500 Palestinians had lost their lives.

When Sabra and Shatila occurred, the world took notice, perhaps because of the gruesome pictures taken in the aftermath. When Israel came under increasing criticism for its obvious role in the massacre, it launched the Kahan Commission to pinpoint responsibility for the killings. Ariel Sharon was found "indirectly responsible" in that he did not prevent the bloodshed or protect the civilians in the camp. While he did eventually resign as defense minister, he stayed on in the cabinet and was later reelected as Prime Minister of Israel.

Years later, a group of Palestinians and Lebanese filed a lawsuit in a Belgium court against Sharon, charging him with war crimes. The suit was dismissed years later because of some legal mumbo-jumbo about Sharon having to be on Belgian soil to be tried.

Today we are before another crossroads in this bloodstained history. The Goldstone Commission outlining the atrocities carried out in Gaza (and which also touches on Israeli practices in the West Bank) could either be tucked neatly away in the dusty annals of history, or the world can choose to do something about it for once. The Commission concluded, "there is evidence indicating serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law were committed by Israel during the Gaza conflict, and that Israel committed actions amounting to war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity." If within six months there are no good faith independent proceedings by Israel into the report’s findings conforming to international standards in place, the report recommends that the UN Security Council should refer the situation to the ICC Prosecutor.

Israel, which did not cooperate with the Goldstone Commission when it investigated in the Strip, is now up in arms about its findings. Needless to say, the report also accuses Hamas of similar crimes for firing rockets into Israel. However, the bulk of the criticism is against Israel for imposing collective punishment on the Palestinians, indiscriminately firing at civilian locations, destroying homes and land, firing at Palestinians raising white flags and using Palestinians at human shields.

If you ask me, that sounds like more than enough to try Israel’s army and government in an international court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. If there were any justice in the world, accountability would be assigned retrospectively. Survivors of massacres in Sabra and Shatila, Qibya, Deir Yassin, Kufr Qassem and Jenin would all be recognized and compensated for their losses while their dead would be properly honored and remembered. If anyone knows the emotional (and financial) closure this provides, it is Israel.

But for now, there is a window of opportunity for the world –” the United Nations in particular –” to make something right. Israel is frantically preparing ways to defend itself should the claims go to the ICC and its officers and politicians are put on trial. Army officers and soldiers are being advised not to leave the country or at least not to travel to countries where they risk arrest.

My biggest hope is really Israel’s biggest fear –” that those responsible for the killing of innocents in Gaza will stand before an international court of justice on charges of war crimes. Perhaps, it is too late for the victims of Sabra and Shatila and all the other Palestinian civilians Israel cut down with impunity. However, now that Judge Richard Goldstone has put concrete evidence into the hands of those who count, proving that just as everyone expected, Israel carries out the most heinous of crimes, it should not, cannot be too late. Let Israel and all those others who stand accused of war crimes, finally face the music, stand before a court and accept that they have done humanity wrong. No one country should be allowed to systematically carry out such atrocities over the course of 60 years and still be considered a respectable state among states. As Rafiki, the wise monkey of the Lion King, once so prophetically said, "It is time."