Desmond Travers was one of the four members of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, which produced the controversial Goldstone Report. Travers is a retired Colonel of the Army of the Irish Defence Forces. His last appointment was as Commandant of its Military College. He also served in command of troops with various UN and EU peace support missions. I recently spoke to Travers by phone about the report. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. Were you surprised by the criticism of the report?
There was a lot of criticism even before the report came out, primarily against individuals, especially Justice Richard Goldstone. So we were not unduly surprised by the whinging when the report was released, except for the intensity and viciousness of the personal attacks. Justice Goldstone has publicly invited the critics, especially within the U.S. government, to come forward with substantive evidence of incorrect or inaccurate statements. But there has been no credible criticism of the report itself or of the information elucidated in it.
2. Douglas Griffiths, the American delegate to the Human Rights Council, said, “While Justice Goldstone acknowledged Hamas’s crimes, in examining Israel’s response sufficient weight was not given to the difficulties faced in fighting this kind of enemy in this environment.” Is that a fair criticism?
I was a soldier for 42 years and I reject that criticism, which seems intended to excuse alleged Israeli breaches of the laws of warfare. I retired as a colonel in the Irish army in 2001 having served in war zones in Cyprus, Lebanon, Bosnia and Croatia, and I would not underestimate the challenge of combat in built-up areas. Nonetheless, armies have never had the technological luxury that they do today when it comes to taking out targets without inflicting collateral damage.
3. What’s your opinion of the overall U.S. reaction to the report?
The Obama Administration said that Israel should carry out an investigation into its actions, and that’s an enormously important statement for the U.S. to make. In the view of the fact-finding mission the core message of the report is that there has to be an end to impunity to commit war crimes.
4. Critics have also said that Hamas deliberately inserted its fighters among civilians and that doing so increased the civilian toll. Did you find that to be the case?
We found no evidence that Hamas used civilians as hostages. I had expected to find such evidence but did not. We also found no evidence that mosques were used to store munitions. Those charges reflect Western perceptions in some quarters that Islam is a violent religion. Gaza is densely populated and has a labyrinth of makeshift shanties and a system of tunnels and bunkers. If I were a Hamas operative the last place I’d store munitions would be in a mosque. It’s not secure, is very visible, and would probably be pre-targeted by Israeli surveillance. There are a many better places to store munitions. We investigated two destroyed mosques—one where worshippers were killed—and we found no evidence that either was used as anything but a place of worship.
There is a sinister and foolish notion among certain proponents of insurgency warfare that to fight an insurgency means that civilians will inevitably be killed. But if you give the state authority to be indiscriminate with the lives of civilians in pursuing insurgents, it plays into the hands of the insurgents. Dead bodies are grist to the insurgents’ mill: if the dead are on your side they represent insurgent victories and if the dead are on their side then they have martyrs.
5. What is your view of the claim by Israeli officials that the IDF is the most “moral” army in the world?
Given the tactics, the weapons used, and the indiscriminate targeting, I think this is a dubious claim.
6. What other issues do you think need to be addressed?
We were disturbed by the lethality and toxicity of weapons used in Gaza, some of which have been in Western arsenals since the Cold War, such as white phosphorous, which incinerated 14 people, including several children in one attack; flechettes, small darts that are designed to tumble upon entering human flesh in order to cause maximum damage, strictly in breach of the Geneva Convention; and highly carcinogenic tungsten shrapnel and dime munitions, which contain tungsten in powder form. There is also a whole cocktail of other problematic munitions suspected to have been used.
There are a number of other post-conflict issues in Gaza that need to be addressed. The land is dying. There are toxic deposits from all the munitions that have been dropped. There are serious issues with water—its depletion and its contamination. There is a high instance of nitrates in the soil that is especially dangerous to children. If these issues are not addressed, Gaza may not even be habitable by World Health Organization norms.