The publication of Richard Goldstone’s op-ed in The Washington Post on Friday heralded a weekend of frenzied hasbara. Goldstone’s “retraction” (though ‘qualification’ is more accurate) of the report into Operation Cast Lead was welcomed by Israeli leaders, Israel advocates in the USA, and others.
Ha’aretz columnist Aluf Benn described Goldstone’s op-ed has “a major public relations coup”, claiming that Goldstone had “retracted his allegations that Israel had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during Operation Cast Lead”.
These responses ironically paralleled the fallout to the Report itself, with sound and fury (and in this case, delight) preferable to cold facts. Since the Israeli government and its propagandists have a track record in establishing certain ‘myths’ and ‘truths’ that are then repeated for years to come, here are five points about the Goldstone op-ed and the fallout.
1. The Washington Post is not the United Nations.
Or, in other words, an opinion column in a newspaper does not have the same weight – to say the least – as a UN-commissioned report stretching over 500 pages, written by four respected international jurists. Sounds obvious I know, but you wouldn’t think it, to see some of the Israel lobby responses. Oh, and just to reiterate a point – the Report was written by four jurists, not Goldstone by himself.
2. What the Report actually claimed about the targeting of civilians.
In his op-ed, Goldstone wrote that Israel’s own investigations (see below) “indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy”. This in particular has been seized on as an indication that a core element of the Report has been ‘retracted’.
This is misleading. The Report never claimed that Israel set out to intentionally murder civilians, but said that Cast Lead was “deliberately disproportionate” and intended “to punish, humiliate and terrorize”. Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, has been making this point on Twitter. He commented, that the “crime of indiscriminate warfare” – not “deliberate killing” – was indeed “state policy”, and that there had been “no retraction” on that part.
There is no shortage of evidence regarding Israel’s deliberately disproportionate use of force. Even during the attacks, Israel was preparing for the ‘day after’, under “the working assumption” that “Israel has suffered a blow to its image in the West in the wake of heavy civilian casualties” –a “negative sentiment” that would “only grow as the full picture of destruction emerges”.
An IDF spokesperson said that: “Anything affiliated with Hamas is a legitimate target”, while on 14 January, as the military assault continued, The Jerusalem Post reported Shimon Peres’ description of Israel’s aim as “to provide a strong blow to the people of Gaza so that they would lose their appetite for shooting at Israel”.
Then there’s the so-called ‘Dahiya Doctrine’ (after the Lebanon war in 2006) – coined when the IDF Northern Command chief in October 2008 discussed how Israel would conduct the next war: “civilian villages” would be considered as “military bases”, an “approved” plan, he affirmed. Another paper written by a reserve Colonel for the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University – titled ‘Disproportionate Force’- observed:
With an outbreak of hostilities, the IDF will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses. Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes.
These recommendations were noted by Ha’aretz, two months before Operation Cast Lead, in an article titled, ‘IDF plans to use disproportionate force in next war’.
One could go on – there are the booklets given to soldiers by the Israeli army’s chief rabbinate, especially produced for Cast Lead, that in one section compared “Palestinians to the Philistines”, or the disclosures by Israeli military personnel since the attack, such as one commander’s admission that the IDF “rewrote the rules of war for Gaza”
3. The Goldstone Report’s findings were corroborated by other groups and investigations…
…such as the Human Rights Watch report on white phosphorus, Breaking the Silence’s testimonies, and evidence from PCHR in Gaza. B’Tselem documented 252 dead children, a report by two Israeli used testimonies to allege the use of human shields, and Amnesty International concluded that “Israeli forces committed war crimes and other serious breaches of international law”, including “indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against civilians”. There is also the report[PDF] by the US National Lawyers Guild delegation to Gaza, and the Independent Fact Finding Committee report [PDF] commissioned by the Arab League, and made up of experts from South Africa, Netherlands, Norway, Chile/Germany, Portugal, and Australia.
An important side point here –remember how in the wake of the publication of the Goldstone Report, Israeli military officials and politicians spoke about the need “for changes in the international laws of war”. Why the imperative to ‘change’ the laws, if Israel had not broken any?
4. When the accused conducts ‘independent’ investigations of itself.
In his op-ed, Goldstone makes reference to Israel’s own internal investigations of allegations regarding Cast Lead, commenting that “Israel has done this [investigate ‘transparently and in good faith’] to a significant degree”. Goldstone cited the UN report into how the original Report’s recommendations are being implemented, yet there is a strange discrepancy.
While Goldstone felt able in his op-ed to refer to what was (or wasn’t) being endorsed by Israel as “a matter of policy”, the UN Committee[PDF] repeats testimony by Israel’s Military Attorney General (MAG) that “the military investigations system he heads is not a viable mechanism to investigate and assess high-level policy decisions”. The Committee also (somewhat drily) noted that the MAG’s “dual responsibilities” as both “legal advisor” to the “military authorities”, as well as “his role as supervisor of criminal investigations…raises concerns” [my emphasis]. In other words, Israel’s internal investigations are conducted by the lawyer of the subject of the investigation.
The Goldstone Report itself noted that the Israeli system “to deal with allegations of serious wrongdoing by armed forces personnel does not comply” with the relevant international principles. There is no shortage of examples of the culture of impunity. Amnesty International slammed the Turkel Commission into the murderous assault on the flotilla as a “whitewash”. Last November, The Jerusalem Post reported that the IDF had investigated 400 “complaints” related to Operation Cast Lead, interviewed “more than 600 officers and soldiers”, and the total number of indictments to date was three. A report by Israeli NGO Yesh Din revealed that between 2000 and 2009, less than 6 percent of investigations by the military police “against soldiers suspected of committing offenses against Palestinians and their property” led to indictments. B’Tselem’s report last year, ‘Void of Responsibility’, featured similar statistics: out of 148 cases in which Palestinians were killed between 2006 and 2009, only 22 resulted in a military police probe.
5. What the op-ed did not even mention.
As others have pointed out, the Goldstone Report’s findings were not just related to the deaths of civilians; on the contrary, there were numerous other aspects of Israel’s conduct in Gaza that the Report considered unlawful, including: use of certain weapons, the use of human shields, and the destruction of property.
Not only that, but the Report also focused on the context for the assault, and described Israel’s “blockade policies” as a “violation” of the Geneva Convention. The Report said that Operation Cast Lead cannot be viewed “in isolation” from the Israel’s general policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, many of which constitute “violations of international law”.
None of this was even mentioned, let alone ‘retracted’, in Goldstone’s op-ed. As ‘The Magnes Zionist’ blog pointed out, “even a superficial reading of the op-ed shows that he has not retracted a single comma in the Goldstone Report”. Indeed. In fact, Goldstone restates the Report’s original position: “Our report found evidence of potential war crimes and ‘possibly crimes against humanity’ by both Israel and Hamas.” Perhaps for the sake of closure then, though I’m not sure Israel’s propagandists will concur, it’s time to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court.
By Ben White
British Journalist in Middle East