TRAVERS: Gaza is a gulag maintained by democracies February 5, 2010

Hostage in Gaza Charcoal & pastel smallMcPHEE
“Hostage in Gaza” [charcoal and pastel] by Dora McPhee

Dr Hanan Chehata interviews Colonel Desmond Travers, co-author of the Goldstone report  -  MEMO Exclusive -  2 February 2010

One year after the horrendous Israeli military assault on Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, in which over 1400 men, women and children were viciously and brutally slaughtered by invading Israeli troops, MEMO sat down with Colonel Desmond Travers, one of the four co-authors of the Goldstone Report and the only military expert on the team, and discussed his views on Israel, Hamas and the incredibly mixed reception of his groundbreaking and now iconic report.

The UN appointed fact-finding mission, of which Colonel Travers was an integral part, set out to investigate the claims that war crimes had been committed by both Israel and Hamas during the 22 day attack on the people of Gaza between 27th December 2008 and 18th January 2009.

After the most extensive and rigorous investigation of its kind to ever be carried out on the region, the Goldstone Report concluded that war crimes and possible crimes against humanity had been committed by both sides but by far and away the most blame was apportioned to Israel whose military tactics included, according to Colonel Travers, “hostage taking, felling of houses, destruction of the judicial police infrastructure, destruction of hospitals and the medical infrastructure, destruction of the agricultural, water and sewage infrastructure.” The mission investigated 36 separate incidents of alleged Israeli offences, (although there were countless more that Colonel Travers wishes they had time to investigate) and “in all of the 36 cases we found against the perpetrators” but of which Travers says “we didn’t accept their explanation.” It also included a “horrific” missile attack on al-Maqadmah mosque while people were at prayer, killing 15 civilians and wounding 40.

When asked if there may have been grounds for Israel to target the mosque given claims by people such as Colonel Tim Collins in a recent BBC Newsnight programme that mosques had been used to store weapons, he completely rejected such “spurious” and unfounded allegations. He stands resolutely by the Goldstone Report’s findings which stated clearly that there was no evidence of any kind that weapons were stored in the mosque that they investigated. Although the Report’s authors made it clear that they could not generalise as they could not investigate all the mosques that were attacked by Israel, and there were many dozens attacked, they chose to investigate the al-Maqadmah Mosque because that was the most serious of all the Israeli attacks on a Muslim place of worship. However, the report concluded that: “The Mission found no evidence that this mosque was used for the storage of weapons or any military activity by Palestinian armed groups. As far as this mosque is concerned, therefore, the Mission found no basis for such an allegation.”

Colonel Travers therefore puts such allegations down to “negative stereotyping inferences” about Muslims and as he said, this sort of blasĂ© acceptance of facts without proof “couldn’t be applied elsewhere. During the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland if a British public figure or a military figure had said, ‘Catholic Churches are warehouses for Semtex’ there would have been an international outcry, especially in the Catholic world over such a slur.” As such, in reference to Tim Collins assertions, after commending him for his military achievements, Colonel Travers says, however “his comments are so much in breach of good evidentiary procedures that I’m sure he knows he lapsed. To serve the propaganda interests of one belligerent over another ill serves his otherwise fine reputation… Collins made statements he knows to be unsound… he has to know this is drivel.”

The impact of the Goldstone Report has resonated around the globe and has already affected international relations as well as international law. Asked how he felt about the impact the report is having in terms of Universal Jurisdiction, which is the body of law which allowed for a British arrest warrant to be issued recently against former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, he responded, “I think it’s fantastic. Let militaries all over the world take heed and politicians take heed of this fact, that their holiday travel arrangements might be severely curtailed if they do naughty things!” Furthermore, as he pointed out, even before the military action had begun, “there were extremely aggressive statements made about what the Israelis would do when they went into Gaza made by Tzipi Livni and by the Minster of Defence and by several generals and some academics. Those statements are incitements of war crimes in their own right.” He also spoke about the rather worrying developments of a “very fervid Rabbinate in the military” . The effect of the Goldstone Report has certainly also caused much consternation in Israel and Colonel Travers observed, “Israel has been severely frightened by this. It wandered around Europe begging Europe not to impose sanctions on it. It’s jet-setting around the place.”

Colonel Travers was clearly pleased with the impact that the report was having and stated that in the evolution of international humanitarian and human rights law “I think the Goldstone report will probably be a mile in that evolutionary process in the right direction.”

However, if Colonel Travers’ goal of seeking “an end to impunity” in the region is to be achieved we must acknowledge that this is only the beginning and there is still much work to be done. When MEMO pointed out to him the apparent anomaly that while the name of the soldier Gilad Shalit was mentioned as the only Israeli prisoner being held on the Palestinian side, no mention was made in the report of even one name from the 8 to 9000 Palestinian men, women and children being held in Israeli jails in blatant contravention of international law. He conceded that the authors of the report were aware of this fact and that following presentations from human rights organisations on this subject they were all “extremely disturbed by the treatment, illegal detention, torture and abuse of women and children and men.” He further stated that, particularly “the treatment of children in this fashion is unacceptable” 
 “it is unspeakable, outrageous. Some of the items described about the (Israeli) detention of (Palestinian) children is very, very, very troubling.” The Goldstone report therefore only seems to scratch the surface in terms of Israeli offences and abuses of the Palestinian people, but it is an excellent start.

Colonel Travers described how, from the outset, Israel stubbornly refused to assist the UN fact-finding mission every step of the way, whereas Hamas co-operated “one-hundred percent” .

In discussing the root cause of the war I put to him Israel’s standard lament that they could not live with the barrage of Hamas rockets that constantly reigned down on Israeli citizens in places such as Sderot, but Colonel Travers scoffed at the suggestion that there was any legitimate argument of self-defence and stated quite clearly “there isn’t one.” This is because, Colonel Travers explained, there had been a ceasefire since June that year and that for months “Hamas rockets had ceased being fired into Israel and not only that but Hamas sought a continuation of the ceasefire… and Israel said no.” On the contrary he felt that “the subtext in the raison d’etre for going into Gaza by the (Israeli) army” was to find and release Gilad Shalit.

Following what was clearly therefore an unjustifiable attack on a besieged civilian population, wreaking the most devastating havoc on their lives, liberty and civilian infrastructure Colonel Travers says: Israel is now “on notice as far as I am concerned
 they want to think twice before they try on another similar act again.”

The Goldstone report is a vital document, a unique attempt to bring the perpetrators of war crimes to justice for the brutality they have exercised against the people of Gaza. People who still, one year later, have been unable to rebuild their lives because of the illegal siege, (which is almost in its fourth year now) that Israel continues to impose on them, (with the direct complicity of Egypt) and the war crimes thus continue. Israel must be brought to account for its actions. As Colonel Travers said, “Gaza is occupied territory. I would go further and say that the land, sea and air that they breathe is more or less determined by the occupier and the quality of it and it’s deteriorating.” “Gaza has now come into the history books in the same way as Guernica, Dresden, Stalingrad. Gaza is a gulag, the only gulag in the Western hemisphere; maintained by democracies; closed-off from food, water, air.” But Gaza cannot be relegated to the history books yet. The atrocities are happening now, every day, and the world community must sit up and do something before it is too late.

Colonel Desmond Travers has a distinguished military carer that spans over 40 years. Before retiring from the Irish forces in 2001 he had worked in key EU and UN roles including commanding peacekeeping troops in Cyprus and Lebanon and he served in the Balkans twice. He has been the Commandant of the Irish Army’s Military College, The Curragh, and currently teaches a module on war crime investigations at the Institute of International Criminal Investigation in The Hague where he also sits on the Board of Directors.

For the exclusive full-length interview with Colonel Travers Download the full interview transcript.

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