The recently released report of the United Nations Human Rights Council on last winter's war between Israel and Hamas, which was chaired by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone and just approved by the Human Rights Council, condemns both Israel and Hamas for "war crimes" and possibly "crimes against humanity." However, the report - which was approved by a vote of 25-6, with 11 abstentions - reserves the bulk of the blame in its 575 pages for Israel.
To understand how this report, which is clearly biased against Israel, came about, it is necessary to consider three factors: the nature of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which has displayed a long-term bias against Israel dating back to its previous incarnation as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights; the context of the Israeli invasion of Gaza; and the dynamics of military combat in urban areas against guerrilla forces.
1. The nature of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Originally formed to protect human rights throughout the world, the UNHRC has instead chosen to single out Israel for blame. Despite an estimated 400,000 civilians having been killed in the Darfur region of Sudan, and tens of thousands of civilians killed in conflicts in Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Afghanistan, the UNHRC regularly castigates Israel for human rights violations, while other countries killing civilians during armed conflicts escape such condemnation. One must ask why Israel, which has been defending itself against terrorist attacks since it was created in 1948, merits such criticism from the UNHCR.
The answer to this question lies in the fact that the UNHCR has become politicized - that is, it has become yet another battlefield in the Arab-Israeli conflict, as Palestinians and other Arabs constantly bring charges against Israel to the UNHCR. Given the fact that such violators of human rights as China, Cuba, Russia, Malaysia and Egypt are members of the UNHCR, it should not be seen as surprising that politics, not human rights, dominates discussions at the council, despite the fact that the United Nations' charter calls for the organization to prevent or stop conflicts, not to exacerbate them as the UNHCR has done. Indeed, by 2006 the anti-Israeli bias in the UNHCR had become so bad that then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan criticized it for "disproportionate focus on violations by Israel," while neglecting other parts of the world such as Darfur, which he termed a "graver" crisis.
Neither Mr. Annan's statement, nor a similar one a year later by Mr. Annan's successor, Ban Ki-Moon, seemed to have much effect. The anti-Israeli bias of the UNHCR has continued unabated, and it is not surprising that an investigatory commission organized by the UNHCR would have an anti-Israeli bias from the start. The fact that one of the top investigators of the commission, Marc Garlasco, was revealed as a collector of Nazi memorabilia, and that another, Christine Chinkin, had accused Israel of war crimes while the fighting was still going on in January, only reinforced the anti-Israeli bias of the commission. (Israel refused to cooperate with the commission on the grounds that such cooperation would legitimize the panel, whose report the United States also criticized for its one-sided nature. Indeed, the biased nature of the UNHCR's resolution on the Goldstone report was so bad that even Judge Goldstone himself criticized it.)
2. The context of the Israeli invasion. The Goldstone Report concentrates on a number of cases where it accuses Israel of "disproportionate" force and "deliberately targeting civilians" - both violations of international law. What was missing from the report was a detailed analysis of the reasons why Israel decided to invade Gaza, where it allegedly committed the crimes of which the Goldstone Report accuses it.
After suffering no fewer than 8,000 rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza since 2001, and a sharp escalation of the attacks after Hamas unilaterally terminated a six-month cease-fire in December, Israel chose to invade Gaza. Israel had no choice but to enter Gaza to suppress the rocket and mortar attacks that were making life unbearable in southern Israel from the Gaza border to Be'ersheva, as "red alerts" forced inhabitants of the region under threat from the attacks to flee to shelters on a regular basis, thereby disrupting normal life. Under these circumstances, an impartial commission, looking at the causes of the Israeli invasion, might well have found it to be a justified act of self-defense. However, as noted above, the Goldstone Commission was far from impartial.
3. War in urban areas. Urban areas are among the most difficult in which to wage war, especially against guerrilla forces who often hide among civilians. In the case of Gaza, there are numerous pictures and reports of Hamas fighters firing rockets from civilian areas such as houses and schools.
Any commander leading his troops into combat has two central tasks: successfully completing his mission and protecting his soldiers. In the fighting in Gaza, where Hamas fighters hid out in houses and had fortified positions near schools, each Israeli commander faced a very difficult choice - destroying the Hamas fighters with tank or artillery fire, or risking increased casualties among his own troops by getting involved in close-in combat. In the so-called "fog of war," therefore, it is not surprising that Palestinian civilians got killed as Israeli soldiers fought their way into Gaza, despite clear reports that Israel did, in fact, try to minimize civilian casualties.
However, there is a larger moral issue here that was not covered at all in the Goldstone report. Which of the two sides bears the greater moral onus: Hamas, which deliberately fired mortars and rockets from Gaza at civilians in Israel, or Israel, which sought to suppress such fire at its civilians by invading Gaza and, in the process, killed Palestinian civilians - not deliberately, as the Goldstone report alleges, but as part of the military operations aimed at stopping the rockets?
In sum, given the evident bias of the UNHCR, it is difficult to give its report on the recent Israeli-Hamas war much credence.
The George W. Bush administration boycotted the UNHCR, but the Obama administration has decided to rejoin it. The fact that the U.S. failed to sway many nations in the UNHCR vote against Israel casts doubt on whether that decision will change the dynamics of future UNHCR investigatory commissions, or even the debates on the council itself.
Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor Emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University and is currently visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. His publications include "Israel's First Fifty Years" and "Contemporary Israel: Domestic Politics, Foreign Policy And Security Challenges." His e-mail is email@example.com.