Even if granted the very best of intentions, Richard Goldstone’s report on Israel’s and Hamas’s conduct during last winter’s military operation in Gaza has left a bitter and confusing legacy. Bitter, because rather than being a constructive prod toward self-examination of the morality of a new kind of warfare, the report has left Israel only more isolated and defensive. And confusing because the way Goldstone described his work in an exclusive interview with the Forward does not square with the irresponsible conclusions in the report itself.
We’ll take the second point first. When he spoke with our Gal Beckerman on October 2, Goldstone took pains to characterize his mission for the U.N. Human Rights Council as purely fact-finding, gathering information that would later be evaluated and tested. A useful road map for further investigations, he said. It was almost as if he were trying to frame the 575-page report as a brief that members of the international community could look at and decide for themselves whether further action was warranted.
“We had to do the best we could with the material we had,” he said during the interview. “If this was a court of law, there would have been nothing proven.”
And: “I wouldn’t consider it in any way embarrassing if many of the allegations turn out to be disproved.”
Nothing proven? Allegations? The air of tentativeness that hung over Goldstone’s remarks that day was surely missing from the stark and disturbing legal conclusions in the report, in which Israel was told flat out that it had violated international law by targeting civilians — “the people of Gaza as a whole.”
Nor is there anything tentative about Goldstone’s words in a New York Times opinion article published after the report was released, in which he wrote, “Repeatedly, the Israel Defense Forces failed to adequately distinguish between combatants and civilians, as the laws of war strictly require.”
It is difficult to know what to make of these contradictory statements, except that it’s obvious Goldstone is trying to climb down from the dangerous perch he had built. His mission was a thankless one, made more complicated by Israel’s refusal to cooperate — a strategic mistake, as it turns out, giving Israel no standing to criticize the outcome and placing its best friend, the United States, in a supremely awkward position.
As it is, the report has provided fresh ammunition to Israel’s growing list of enemies and detractors, giving little weight to the fact that the military incursion into Gaza was a defensive action provoked by Hamas’s persistent shelling and violence. Worse — and here is the bitter legacy — the damning conclusions all but shut down the honest introspection that should have followed this troubling mini-war.
How does a nation properly defend itself against a terrorist insurgency? How does an army distinguish between soldiers and civilians when their clothes, habitations and behaviors are indistinguishable? How can morality be measured in this new kind of warfare?
Israel has a noble tradition of sharply evaluating its own actions in the aftermath of controversial wars and military exercises, and Operation Cast Lead should not be an exception. No matter how tainted the telling, there are tragic stories in Goldstone’s report that must be explored. No matter how blurry the lines between justified actions and immoral ones, the reasons behind the large number of civilian deaths in Gaza must be probed. Israel cannot be seen, inside or out, as losing its conscience in the scramble for survival.
But even if the Netanyahu government had the stomach to launch such an investigation, it may not have the heart. Who, now, will believe another side of the story? Who even knows what Goldstone believes?