BY COLUM LYNCH | APRIL 18, 2011
In the aftermath of Israel’s 2008-2009 intervention into the Gaza Strip, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, led a vigorous campaign to stymie an independent U.N. investigation into possible war crimes, while using the prospect of such a probe as leverage to pressure Israel to participate in a U.S.-backed Middle East peace process, according to previously undisclosed diplomatic cables provided by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
The documents provide a rare glimpse behind the scenes at the U.N. as American diplomats sought to shield Israel’s military from outside scrutiny of its conduct during Operation Cast Lead. Their release comes as the issue is back on the front pages of Israel’s newspapers, following the surprise recent announcement by Richard Goldstone — an eminent South African jurist who led an investigation commissioned by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council — in a Washington Post op-ed that his team had unfairly accused Israel of deliberately targeting Palestinian civilians.
In one pointed cable, Rice repeatedly prodded U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to block a recommendation of the board of inquiry to carry out a sweeping inquiry into alleged war crimes by Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants. In another cable, Rice issued a veiled warning to the president of the International Criminal Court, Sang-Hyun Song, that an investigation into alleged Israeli crimes could damage its standing with the United States at a time when the new administration was moving closer to the tribunal. “How the ICC handles issues concerning the Goldstone Report will be perceived by many in the US as a test for the ICC, as this is a very sensitive matter,” she told him, according to a Nov. 3, 2009, cable from the U.S. mission to the United Nations.
Rice, meanwhile, assured Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman during an Oct. 21, 2009, meeting in Tel Aviv that the United States had done its utmost to “blunt the effects of the Goldstone report” and that she was confident she could “build a blocking coalition” to prevent any push for a probe by the Security Council, according to an Oct. 27, 2009 cable.
Israel launched a three-week-long offensive into Gaza in late 2008 in an effort to prevent Hamas and other Palestinian militants from firing rockets at Israeli towns. The Israel Defense Forces killed as many as 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israel soldiers were also killed during Operation Cast Lead, and a number of U.N. facilities faced repeated attacks. The military campaign raised calls at the U.N. for an investigation into reports of war crimes.
In response, Ban commissioned a top U.N. troubleshooter, Ian Martin, to set up an independent U.N. board of inquiry into nine incidents in which the Israeli Defense Forces had allegedly fired on U.N. personnel or facilities. The U.N. probe — which established Israeli wrongdoing in seven of the nine cases — was the first outside investigation into the war, with a mandate to probe deaths, injuries, and damage caused at U.N. locations.
The board’s 184-page report has never been made public, but a 28-page summary released on May 5 concluded that Israel had shown “reckless disregard for the lives and safety” of civilians in the operation, citing one particularly troubling incident in which it struck a U.N.-run elementary school, killing three young men seeking shelter from the fighting. Israel denounced the findings as “tendentious, patently biased,” saying that an Israeli military inquiry had proved beyond a doubt that Israel had not intentionally attacked civilians.
But the most controversial part of the probe involved recommendations by Martin that the U.N. conduct a far-reaching investigation into violations of international humanitarian law by Israeli forces, Hamas, and other Palestinian militants. On May 4, 2009, the day before Martin’s findings were presented to the media, Rice caught wind of the recommendations and phoned Ban to complain that the inquiry had gone beyond the scope of its mandate by recommending a sweeping investigation.