On April 1, Richard Goldstone made a much-discussed retraction of part of his commission’s report criticizing Israel’s behavior during the 2009 Gaza war.1 Goldstone’s statement has produced in Israel a predictable burst of self-congratulation. From the Prime Minister on down, the message from the Israeli government is a defiant “We told you so!” spoken from the always privileged vantage point of an innocent victim wrongly accused. Along with this, we have an updated Israeli version of the Prodigal Son; Goldstone, a South African former judge and liberal Zionist of the old school, has supposedly come (rather shamefacedly) back home.
The government spokesmen clearly, perhaps deliberately, miss the point. Goldstone’s emendation to his report in The Washington Post by no means exonerates Israel’s conduct in Operation Cast Lead, as the Israelis called the intervention in Gaza. Rather, Goldstone’s revised statement rectifies the egregious failure of the Goldstone report to clearly condemn Hamas for its crimes leading up to and during the conflict, and expresses some satisfaction with the Israeli army’s own investigations into at least some of the alleged cases of war crimes.
Perhaps most important, Goldstone unequivocally states that “civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.” I am sure that this last statement is correct; anyone who knows the Israeli army knows that, for all its faults and failings, it does not have a policy of deliberately targeting innocent civilians. Suggestions to the contrary are simply wrong.
But serious questions remain about Israel’s Gaza war; Goldstone’s recent statement does nothing to dispel them, nor, I would guess, did he intend to do so. (The other three members of the original Goldstone Commission have meanwhile reaffirmed its original findings.) I want to touch on three such issues: the intensity of fire and the official and unofficial “rules of engagement”; the overall planning and strategy of Operation Cast Lead; and the wider setting within which the operation took place. Sober consideration of these themes reveals, in my view, systemic moral failure on several interlocking levels.
Let’s be clear: before the war, Hamas and its allies bombarded Israel with many hundreds of rockets aimed deliberately at killing civilians. There is no possible excuse for these crimes, which have recurred in recent weeks. For most Israelis, this fact alone was enough to justify whatever the army did in Gaza. The logic, in its mild version, goes like this: “We withdrew from Gaza and got missiles in return, so we had no choice but to blast them as hard as we could.” This is a self-serving distortion—based on the preposterous notion that Israel has today and has had in the past no real influence on what happens in Gaza or in Palestinian society generally, together with the…
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