The Goldstone Report, Two Years Later

Richard Goldstone retracts a central claim of his UN report but Israel and Hamas remain responsible for investigating war crimes.

Two years and three months ago, the Israeli army launched a forceful military campaign in the Gaza Strip in order to stop Hamas rocket attacks from the area. Years prior to that operation, crude yet deadly projectiles rained down on southern Israeli communities, killing a few and causing fear among thousands simply strolling to work or school in the morning. In December 2008, Israel had had enough and sent its elite soldiers into Gaza to suppress the fire.

The attack, code named “Operation Cast Lead” and commonly referred to as the “Gaza War,” was over relatively quickly. After meeting all of its objectives, the Israeli military ceased its offensive in just a few short weeks. But the collateral damage on Gaza’s civilian population and the wholesale destruction of much of the strip far exceeded anyone’s expectations.

Months after Cast Lead, the United Nations Human Rights Council tapped a famous South African judge, Richard Goldstone, to lead an internationally designated fact finding mission to uncover possible human rights abuses during the conflict. After close to a year in the field, thousands of interviews and on the ground assessment of the damage, Goldstone and his team published their 575 page report, the main conclusion being that Israel purposely targeted Palestinian civilians and used Gaza residents as human shields during patrols.

The report generated an extreme amount of rhetoric on both sides of the Israeli divide. Critics of Israel cheered Goldstone for his courage in denouncing a state that, according to them, has been given a free pass on war crimes. Supporters of Israel branded Goldstone a “self hating Jew” who compromised the very existence of the Jewish state. Indeed, Goldstone’s name in Israel was often equated as a slur, with Goldstone himself (who happens to be Jewish) banned from traveling to Israel and ostracized from Israeli communities around the world.

Goldstone is once again in the news, but this time he is trying to set the record straight after years of assault on his character. In an op-ed to The Washington Post earlier this month, he discussed how he arrived at those controversial conclusions and why he now believes that Israel did not intentionally target civilians “as a matter of policy.”

Or, as Goldstone says in his own words, “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report (PDF) would have been a different document.”

For Israel, Goldstone’s retraction is a huge sigh of relief. The report, in all its detail, put an enormous stain on Israel’s image around the world, describing the small state as a perpetuator of war crimes and one whose leadership deliberately neglected to investigate those responsible. The inquiry also provided Hamas with a silver platter opportunity for self promotion as a legitimate Palestinian resistance movement, even though charges were also leveled against its combatants in the report.

The world, however, must be careful not to paper over the entire inquiry with a single redaction, nor discredit the UN study as a politically motivated product filled with inconsistencies and false assumptions. The fact that the most serious charge against Israel has been dismissed is no vindication of the entire operation. All of the other comments and recommendations by Goldstone and his team, including Israel’s use of white phosphorous in populated areas, the bombing of civilian infrastructure and the killing of numerous civilians, are still there in black and white. And while new evidence may pop up and negate those claims, as they have done in this most serious case, Israel’s military establishment should still be expected to prosecute every soldier that broke the laws of war during the Gaza campaign.

This demand weights even heavier on Hamas, which has yet to investigate any wrongdoing on the part of its fighters. This despite the fact that shooting rockets at Israeli civilians is a clear violation of international law.

1,400 Palestinians were killed once Cast Lead was officially terminated. Israel lost thirteen. Those numbers are quite different, with the Palestinians taking the brunt of the civilian casualties and all of the economic loss. But both parties are still responsible for upholding the UN’s requests for a thorough and accurate study of what went wrong. Goldstone’s power play should not impede that work from finishing, or in the case of Hamas, starting.