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Goldstone Retracts Israeli War Crimes Claim

Author of eponymous report asserts Israel did not target civilians

Marc Tracy
April 04, 2011
Richard Goldstone.(NYT)
Richard Goldstone.(NYT)

Richard Goldstone, the South African judge who headed the U.N. Human Rights Council investigation into the 2008-9 Gaza conflict, announced Friday in an op-ed that, basically, he was wrong: Contrary to the Goldstone Report’s finding that there was evidence that Israel committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, new evidence—stemming largely from Israeli probes into the Israel Defense Force’s conduct—demonstrates that there was no Israeli policy of targeting Palestinian civilians, which was the main basis of allegations of potential war crimes. (That Hamas, by contrast, intentionally targeted Israeli civilians “goes without saying,” he said.)

Here is the key paragraph: “The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion. While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.”

So the man whose name is literally synonymous with the allegation that Israel committed war crimes during the Gaza conflict now says Israel did no such thing. (Haaretz reports that he may have felt swayed by a debate last week at Stanford over the Report, which he attended.) What might be even more validating than Goldstone’s admission itself is who and what he attributes it to: The Israeli army. He wrote his op-ed, he said, in light of a new report, released several months ago, that found (he quotes from it), “Israel has dedicated significant resources to investigate over 400 allegations of operational misconduct in Gaza.” For Israel’s army to be vindicated through its own honorable scrupulousness is quite a thing. Those (like myself) who worry about the trajectory of Israel’s government should feel consoled that its increasingly right-wing and religious character has apparently not bled much into the military.

Having said that, most of the people reading this blogpost were already quite sure the Report was wrong, and didn’t need Goldstone to tell them so. As Goldstone aptly explains it, the Report essentially saw dead civilians and, without any further evidence, assumed intentionality, when in fact, the IDF’s track record of attempting to minimize civilian casualties, combined with Hamas’s track record of using civilians as human shields to either deter retaliation or provoke outcry when retaliation kills civilians, should have moved the mission to find unintentionality; in this case, according to Goldstone himself, subsequent evidence proved them right and him wrong. (Incredibly, he is still doing this: “Our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion,” he writes, when the notion that Israel was not deliberately targeting civilians was—given that it turned out to actually be true—probably a pretty reasonable conclusion to draw.)

Goldstone’s mea culpa will also mean little to the (I’d guess smaller) percentage of readers who will just not believe the man, or will argue that Israel nonetheless maintains overwhelming responsibility for those civilian deaths. Certainly broader criticism of Israel’s Gaza policy have not been wiped out by one man’s admission that his extreme accusations turned out to be wrong.

So the question becomes: What is the result of Goldstone’s admission?

I think the shaping Israeli consensus, as reported by the New York Times, gets it right: While much of the damage the Report did cannot be undone, the next time Israel is responding to rockets aimed at its civilians—whether it is Hamas from Gaza or Hezbollah from Lebanon—the international community (and particularly, I would suspect, Western officials) will likely grant Israel much more of the benefit of the doubt in assessing how it responds than they otherwise would have.

I think translating Goldstone’s op-ed into Turkish is a great idea that isn’t going to accomplish very much.

I think it’s odd that both Prime Minister Netanyahu and various American groups are calling on the United Nations to retract the report altogether. If your original position was that the report was illegitimate, then this shouldn’t change anything. Besides, from a realpolitik standpoint, if I were Israel I would think twice about implicitly lending the U.N. its endorsement, given the Palestinian strategy to achieve statehood via the international body.

I am not sure what I think about Goldstone’s argument that, had Israel cooperated with him from the outset (which it completely refused to do), he would have found this evidence back then, the Report would have been “a different document,” and there wouldn’t be this mess in the first place. Just as likely, much of the evidence Goldstone now relies upon took more time to uncover than his mission spent, and so the mission, with its faulty assumptions, would have made similar findings. Still, it is an interesting counterfactual, and if there is another occasion for a similar mission, the experience of this one may affect the next one in a way that does credit to Israel’s vindication here.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.