"I'm not here because the government of Israel sent me," he told reporters, as he hammered home his arguments again and again. On a main point - Israel's refusal to cooperate with the probe - Gold said cooperation would not have improved the final report, which charged Israel and Hamas with war crimes during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza last winter. "This was a fixed fact-finding mission," Gold said. "It wasn't looking for the truth. It was looking for a narrative that condemned Israel and let Hamas off the hook."
Then why did Gold agree to the debate?
To be sure, the event was a landmark occasion: a former Israeli diplomat appearing on stage with the South African jurist named by the UN to probe Israel's actions during Operation Cast Lead. In fact, hours before Gold and Goldstone were introduced, the UN General Assembly in New York approved a resolution fully endorsing the report and paving the way for the matter to be taken up in the Security Council and down the road, the international courts.
Invited by Brandeis, Gold came to this sleepy college town armed with aerial maps, video and sound clips and other evidence showing how Israel warned Gaza civilians of its impending actions. "I obviously did a great deal of my own preparations," he said, insisting that all of the materials he used were in the public domain. In other words, he used "material the UN Gaza mission could have obtained itself," he told The Jerusalem Post. "It didn't need Israeli participation," he said.
Given the chance to hear an Israeli response to a topic that has dominated headlines since September, when the Goldstone report was made public, hundreds of students, professors and members of the local Jewish community packed into an auditorium at Brandeis. The event was also streamed live over the Web.
Israeli officials who've gone on record about the report have said its mandate from the UN Human Rights Council was flawed and one-sided. Immediately, Goldstone attempted to dispel that argument, saying he wrote the final mandate himself. "It really was my sincere hope," he said, in an argument reiterated throughout the night, "that Israel would seize this opportunity of an evenhanded mandate and cooperate with the mission."
He further dismissed allegations that his report undercuts Israel's right to defend itself. "I publicly stated on many occasions, Israel has the right to protect its citizens," even "a clear duty to do so," he said. The mandate therefore did not question the use of military force, but whether it was used in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law.
Gold's introductory remarks reflected how high the stakes were for Israel. "The UN Gaza report is the most serious and vicious indictment of the State of Israel bearing the seal of the United Nations since the UN General Assembly adopted the infamous 'Zionism is racism' resolution in 1975," he said. "In the report, Hamas, a recognized international terrorist organization, is almost protected throughout its text. Its forces appear innocuously as 'Palestinian armed groups.'"
In fact, he added, by 2008 nearly a million Israelis were under reach of rocket fire, and after Israel withdrew from Gaza the attacks only escalated.
Using slides, Gold's defense was three-pronged, taking on the report's main allegations that Israel deliberately attacked civilians and attacked public buildings resulting in a huge scale of destruction. He showed aerial maps of Gaza, where schools and military caches could be seen in close proximity.
"I ask you, what would you do if your population is facing repeated rocket attacks for eight years and your enemy is embedding his military capacity in his own civilian area?" he asked. He added that the IDF sent multiple warnings - via leaflets and phone messages - but Hamas instructed citizens to act as human shields. Hamas booby-trapped large numbers of buildings in residential areas, he said, showing another map.
GOLD AND Goldstone went head to head when it came to an attack on a Gaza mosque as 300 Palestinians prayed inside. Mosques were not militarized, Gold insisted, as Goldstone countered: "You don't mortar shell it during a service... That hasn't been explained to us at all. It's that sort of incident that cries out for investigation by an open, credible investigation in Israel and why shouldn't they do that?"
"I'm telling you this, Israel did not attack that mosque," Gold countered. "Of the 36 incidents that are mentioned in the report, there are 12 that the Israeli army never heard of." Regarding the alleged attack on the mosque, he said, "The Israeli position has been that that mosque was not attacked by Israel."
And they hit a sharp divide over Israel's ability to investigate itself, which Gold expressed confidence would happen. "The military is investigating itself behind closed doors," Goldstone charged. "That's not a legal system. That's not a judicial system. It's not justice at all."
Goldstone and Gold took questions from the audience, with preference given to students, who were urged by the Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz to "make up your own mind on important and highly contested issues that too often are argued with more heat than light."
Indeed, one student asked Goldstone about the objectivity of one member of the fact-finding team, Christine Chinkin, who in a joint statement published in London's Sunday Times on January 11 said Israel's acts during the amounted to "prima facie war crimes."
Goldstone answered that had the probe been considered "judicial," Chinkin's statement would have disqualified her.
His answer - that the letter was signed by other eminent international scholars, that the letter only dealt with "technical issues" related to Israel's right to self-defense and that Chinkin has previously condemned Hamas - fell short, according to Hillel Neuer of the Geneva-based UN Watch. "Goldstone has consistently evaded any accountability under the law applicable to international fact-finding missions, by repeatedly declaring that his panel was 'not judicial,'" he wrote in an opinion essay after the debate. "But this is a red herring. The simple truth is that his fact-finding mission was legally subject to a well-established set of standards. Sadly, however, these were ignored."
Indeed, one student asked about the conditions in Gaza, and Goldstone lightened the mood by recounting nightmares he had before his investigation. "I was, quite frankly, and I'm not ashamed to say it, I was very nervous, a Jew going to Gaza," he said. Three nights before his trip, he woke up with a terrible nightmare that "I'd been kidnapped by Hamas and people in Israel were rejoicing."
He then turned serious, lamenting the humanitarian problems there, including a lack of water, infrastructure and jobs.
Gold, with downturned lips, conceded there was "enormous damage" in Gaza as a result of the war. But he cited the border to Egypt, through which Gazans may obtain supplies. Turning to the report, he added: "Why does Hamas not appear as a responsible party for what happened?... This war never would have happened if rockets weren't launched at the State of Israel."
During Gold's press conference after the event, he asserted those arguments repeatedly. But a final comment blurred the lines between why Gold agreed to come to Brandeis and his former role as a diplomat speaking on behalf of his country.
Asked by a student journalist whether a Palestinian speaker should have been invited to the discussion, to provide an alternative perspective to Gold's, Gold argued that Israel was chiefly accused in the report and therefore deserved the chance to respond.
"The weight of the report is not against Hamas," he said. "It is against the State of Israel and therefore someone from Israel should have given an answer and that's why I came."