The Goldstone Report itself was the subject of a polarised political debate, so it comes as little surprise that Judge Richard Goldstone’s admission that parts of the report were flawed has attracted a similarly black-and-white response.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu quickly urged the United Nations to “toss this report into the trash can of history.” Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said Goldstone’s recantation, an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Friday, vindicated Israel: “We had no doubt the truth would come out eventually,” he said in a television interview.
On the other side, Sami Abu Zahri, a spokesman for Hamas, said Goldstone’s change of heart “does not change the fact that war crimes were committed” during Israel’s nearly month-long war in Gaza.
Much of this reaction from politicians – perhaps not surprisingly – ignores the substance of both the Goldstone Report (officially, the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict) and Goldstone’s reappraisal. The latter certainly raises questions about the accuracy of parts of the report.
But it does not go nearly as far as columnist Aluf Benn, writing in Ha’aretz, who said Goldstone “retracted his allegations that Israel had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during Operation Cast Lead.” Human rights groups call that an overly generous reading of Goldstone’s essay, and say that many of the report’s central allegations still stand.
No investigations of policy
The crux of Goldstone’s op-ed is that Israel did not intentionally target civilians during the Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Cast Lead.
“While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognised in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy,” he wrote.
That finding would certainly call into question one of the report’s central conclusions. The report has a long section on the intentional targeting of civilians, which includes among other things the attack on the Samouni family home which left 29 people dead. In all but one of the cases Goldstone reviewed, “the mission found… that the Israeli armed forces had carried out direct intentional attacks against civilians.”
But intentional targeting was not the only war crime alleged in the Goldstone Report’s more than 450 pages.
The report, for example, accuses the Israeli military of being “systematically reckless” in its use of white phosphorus shells. The shells themselves are not illegal under international law, but the report faults Israel for “violation of the customary law prohibition against attacks which may be expected to cause excessive damage to civilians and civilian objects.”
The question, in other words, is not just whether Israel intentionally targeted civilians, but whether it caused civilian casualties by using a disproportionate level of force – a crime under international law.
Nor does the entire report deal with the killing of civilians. One section asked why Israel blew up government buildings belonging to Hamas, noting that there was “no indication” they were legitimate military targets.
“What the army has done are individual cases, in some cases looking at high-level operational decisions,” said Sarit Michaeli, a spokesperson for B’Tselem. “But there have been no high-level investigations of matters of policy… who chose government offices in Gaza as legitimate targets, and on the basis of what, for example? That was not investigated.”
It’s also important to note that Goldstone does not speak for the entire fact-finding mission. The report was penned by a panel of four jurists; Goldstone has become the team’s public face, but none of his co-authors co-signed his op-ed.
A long-term impact?
Within Israel, where Goldstone’s op-ed is nonetheless being hailed as a vindication, much of the debate has focused on whether the report – flawed or not – will impact future military operations. Israeli policymakers and analysts, after all, increasingly talk about another Gaza war in terms of “when,” rather than “if.”
Gabriela Shalev, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, said in a radio interview that Goldstone’s recantation would essentially justify a repeat of Operation Cast Lead.
“If we have to defend ourselves against terror organisations again, we will be able to say there is no way to deal with this terror other than the same way we did in Cast Lead,” she said.
But Bradley Burston, a columnist for Ha’aretz, argued that the report would force Israel to rethink some of its military policies. The Israeli army would be less likely to bomb targets without a “clear and demonstrable military advantage,” and more inclined to cooperate with future international investigations, he wrote.
“Knowingly or not, every member of the Israel Defense Forces, and certainly every commander, will be carrying excerpts of the Goldstone Report into combat, into the next war we fight, and the next, and into every battle, raid, and incursion in between,” he wrote.
Michaeli, from B’Tselem, dismissed prime minister Netanyahu’s demand that the report simply be cast aside and ignored. Flawed or not, she said, the Goldstone Report had a positive impact.
“This is an absurdity, if you consider the fact that the report itself is the reason for many of the investigations that Israel is now using to demonstrate its proper conduct,” Michaeli said.