The intensity of the debate raised by Richard Goldstone’s Washington Post op-ed indicates just how much his name still symbolizes an open wound for Israeli society.
Eighteen months after the publication of his commission’s report on the 2008-2009 hostilities in Gaza, Goldstone is now voicing regrets. Goldstone contends that, had he had access to information from the Israeli military, he would have reached different conclusions. He now concedes that Israel did not intentionally target civilians as a matter of policy, and that there are no grounds for believing Israel committed crimes against humanity. He also praises Israel for taking great effort to investigate complaints, contrary to Hamas’s failure to do so.
The Israeli press, as well as Israel’s government, have exuberantly embraced this new development, claiming that Israel has been vindicated and calling for a complete retraction of the Goldstone Report. This reaction overstates the scope of Goldstone’s article. It also indicates a worrying deterioration in the standards that we Israelis demand of ourselves.
Without a doubt, the Goldstone Report had flaws. B’Tselem said at the time that its conclusions were not sufficiently based on the facts presented, precisely on this point of an intentional policy directed at killing civilians. In addition, we voiced concern that the fact-finding mission examined Israel’s conduct according to more stringent standards and with a lower burden of proof compared to those applied to Hamas. Goldstone’s recent statement is therefore welcome to the extent that it acknowledges these flaws.
These critiques, however, do not negate the validity of the report’s central recommendation: that both Israel and Hamas must investigate themselves. Goldstone now contends that Israel is doing this, while Hamas is not. But on this point, he again draws conclusions on a weak factual basis.
If the question is whether or not Israel has done more than Hamas, then we can pat ourselves on the back. However, a substantive review leaves much room for criticism. Goldstone positively refers to over 400 investigations, but almost all of these are operational inquiries — military debriefings often conducted by those within the chain of command of the incident being investigated. They are not intended to address legal questions. Israel has opened 52 criminal investigations into incidents in Operation Cast Lead. Three of them have resulted in indictments. Regarding most of the remaining investigations, two-and-a-half years after the operation their status is still unclear.
I would also note that a significant number of the investigations Goldstone favorably cites in his article were opened only as a result of the international pressure that resulted from his report. Therefore it is truly a demonstration of chutzpah to suggest, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, that the Goldstone Report should be shelved because Israel has investigated itself.
The Goldstone Report suggested that Israel may be guilty of the worst of all crimes — crimes against humanity. It made this claim without sufficient factual basis and without hearing Israel’s version of events — though this is due to Israel’s highly regrettable decision not to cooperate with the fact-finding mission. Now, with his statement that “civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy,” Goldstone has effectively retracted this allegation. Israeli officials are interpreting this as a nullification of the Goldstone Report in its entirety and a stamp of approval for all their actions in Operation Cast Lead.
In this context, it is crucial to restate the basic facts: In Operation Cast Lead, Israel killed at least 758 Palestinian civilians who did not take part in the hostilities; 318 of them were minors. In excess of 5,300 Palestinians were injured, more than 350 of them seriously. More than 3,500 houses were destroyed, and electricity, water and sewage infrastructure were badly damaged. In many ways, Gaza has not yet managed to recover.
Of course, the extent of the civilian suffering does not necessarily indicate wrongdoing on the part of Israeli forces. Yet reports by B’Tselem and other organizations, by journalists and, yes, by the original Goldstone commission raise extremely grave suspicions that Israel did violate the laws of war. These allegations must be investigated by a competent and impartial body.
Unfortunately, Israeli investigations focus exclusively on individual cases rather than addressing policy questions. The definition of legitimate military targets; the use of white phosphorus and inherently inaccurate mortar shells in populated areas; the rules of engagement and the levels of force employed — were all these decisions legal and appropriate? The Israeli public has yet to receive a satisfactory answer to these extremely important questions.
One question has been answered: Israel, unlike Hamas, did not have a policy to intentionally fire at civilians. But is this cause for rejoicing? Shouldn’t our expectations be a bit higher? Heaven help us if our moral standard is reduced to not committing crimes against humanity. From my country, I demand a lot more.
Jessica Montell is executive director of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.