“There were almost no mistakes,” alleged the Goldstone Report, the result of a United Nations Fact-Finding Mission sent to investigate Israel’s conduct during its incursion into Gaza two years ago, an attempt to stop Hamas militants from firing rockets into its cities. “What occurred in just over three weeks at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 was a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.”
Like most Western countries, from the U.S. to its NATO allies, Israel has frequently been accused of violating international law during wartime. But this report marked the first instance in the country’s history that an official and respected international body had given credence to the accusation that the Jewish state had intentionally and systematically targeted civilians for massacre—that Israel had acted just as wantonly as the terrorists it claimed to combat. To grasp the gravity of this event, imagine the scandal if the United Nations endorsed a statement equating the U.S.’ tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan with the conduct of Al-Qaeda.
The explosive charges in the Goldstone Report were triumphantly brandished by Israel’s most strident critics. The allegations were soon cited as justification for branding the embattled country a genocidal state, used to support efforts to arrest top Israeli officials across Europe, and even marshaled in an attempt to bar Michael B. Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States and a former Harvard professor, from speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School. The damage to Israel’s reputation, and to that of its staunchest defender against the Goldstone Report—the U.S. under the Obama administration—cannot be overstated.
But can it be reversed? Because last Friday, the head of this infamous fact-finding mission told the world that he had made a mistake.
“If I had known then what I know now,” Richard Goldstone wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post, “the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.” Although Israeli investigations “have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers,” Goldstone now asserts, “they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.” He lauded Israel for launching inquiries into its conduct, and noted that Hamas had failed to do the same, further underscoring the difference between democratic Israel and its terrorist neighbor.
Some, including Israel’s former prime minister, have deemed Goldstone’s retraction “too little too late.” Accusing Israel of state terrorism and effectively equating it with its enemies, they argue, is a bell that one cannot unring. Commendable as Goldstone’s courageous act of contrition may be, the influence of his little known op-ed will likely pale in comparison to the harm caused by his well-known report.
But those who care about the future of Israel and Palestine cannot let Goldstone’s admission fall by the wayside. The judge’s mea culpa provides a perfect opportunity to broach a sorely needed constructive debate over morality during wartime, sans the hyperbole and propaganda that have pervaded the discourse thus far. Having dispensed with the scurrilous notion that Israel deliberately targeted civilians during its military operations, we can focus on determining how it and other Western armies can best minimize those civilian casualties—even during asymmetrical conflicts as in Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Indeed, when a state engages an opponent like Hamas—whose fighters are purposefully indistinguishable from local civilians, and often intentionally stage attacks from crowded population centers—a considered debate over military ethics is crucial.
Unfortunately, the grave flaws in Goldstone’s report that he now largely acknowledges ensured that isolated attempts by some thinkers to grapple with exactly these sorts of moral questions were drowned out by the partisan cacophony that ensued after the report’s release. But Goldstone’s retraction allows us to reclaim the missed opportunity of his mandate, and ask the hard questions about appropriate wartime conduct that have so far been sidestepped in favor of political posturing.
Consider a subject addressed by the Goldstone commission itself: Having gathered intelligence indicating that Hamas had stored munitions within civilian facilities, Israel developed and deployed “roof knocking” missiles—duds designed not to explode, but to land harmlessly yet noisily atop structures and scare the civilians being used as human shields out of the building. Goldstone argued this was “a dangerous practice and in essence constitutes a form of attack rather than a warning.” Is this true? What are some alternatives?
Israel also airdropped thousands of leaflets and sent thousands of text messages to Gaza’s residents, directing them to established safe zones. Was this tactic sufficient? Could it be improved or augmented?
Another example: Within the first few minutes of its campaign, Israel attacked Hamas’s police force. According to international law, a civilian police that is necessary to keep the peace is far from a legitimate military target. But what happens when there is no clear division between the police and army, and many on the force are also card-carrying members of recognized terror organizations? Goldstone’s report makes no distinctions, and asserts that Israel’s attack on Hamas’s police force constituted an attack on noncombatants. Is this correct, or are revised, nuanced criteria warranted?
These questions are not going away. On the contrary, as the U.S. and its allies find themselves embroiled in similar asymmetrical conflicts with non-state actors in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, these concerns become ever more urgent. In the wake of Goldstone’s retraction, it is finally time to begin addressing them.
Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. Beth I. Drucker ’13, a Crimson photographer, is an economics concentrator in Dunster House. Yair Rosenberg ’11-’12, a Crimson associate arts editor, is a near eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Adams House.