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The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict

Henry Siegman recounts the controversy over the Goldstone Report in Israel and expands on the country's continued moral depravity.

The following is an essay excerpted from The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict, edited by Adam Horowitz, Lizzy Ratner, and Philip Weiss(Nation Books, 2011)

Discrediting Goldstone, Delegitimizing Israel

At its heart, the controversy over Judge Richard Goldstone’s “Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict” is not about Goldstone. It’s about Israel.

Goldstone and his fellow commission members are human, and therefore fallible, and there may well be legitimate grounds for criticizing some specific aspects of the report. Indeed, an expert panel of distinguished international lawyers who convened at Chatham House, the British think tank, to assess procedural criticisms of the Goldstone Mission identified aspects of the report that contributed to perceptions of bias. Nevertheless, they concluded that “the Report was very far from being invalidated by the criticisms. The Report raised extremely serious issues which had to be addressed. It contained compelling evidence on some incidents.”

One need not be an expert, but only possess a decent respect for human life, to conclude that any military operation in which the kill ratio is over 100 Palestinians — mostly civilians — to 1 Israeli soldier requires an immediate, honest, and open investigation to determine the reasons for such vast and tragic a disparity.

That Israel’s government did not launch such an investigation on its own is a profoundly saddening indication of its growing indifference to the lives of Palestinian civilians. It constitutes an abandonment of the humanism that was so essential a feature of early Zionism and a betrayal of the most fundamental principles of Judaism. Israel’s government demands that its neighbors formally recognize the legitimacy of the state’s Jewish identity. But nothing threatens to bring the legitimacy of that identity into greater question than the State of Israel’s own behavior—i.e., its seeming indifference to the possibility of the loss of innocent life on so vast a scale as occurred in Operation Cast Lead.

According to the prophets of Israel—invoked in Israel’s Declaration of Independence as defining the identity and purposes of the Jewish state—the legitimacy of Jewish existence in Palestine is determined by its adherence to the demands of justice. Isaiah declared God’s disdainful rejection of the Israelites’ religious observances and, indeed, their very presence in the land if they desecrate its holiness by rampant injustice and oppression. That Hamas, which for years had its suicide bombers target innocent Israeli citizens, has a worse record than Israel is hardly a source of comfort for those who saw the rebirth of Jewish independence as signifying something more than the success of one more nationalist enterprise.  

Particularly ugly are efforts by Israel’s government to discredit Goldstone personally because of his role as a justice in South Africa’s Apartheid government. That role may be one for which Goldstone deserves to be criticized. But Goldstone’s past failings tell us nothing about the integrity of his report twenty years later, following his distinguished and widely respected contributions as an international jurist — not to speak of the role he played, at President Mandela’s request, in helping guide the transition of South Africa’s courts from Apartheid to the rule of law in a democratic society.

And if, as oddly suggested by some members of Netanyahu’s government whose own political views are decidedly neo-fascist, Goldstone’s role in South Africa’s Apartheid government compromised his legitimacy, what legitimacy is left for the State of Israel, which secretly collaborated with that Apartheid government in the 1970s and ‘80s, supplying it with arms and partnering with it in the development of nuclear technology?

Israel’s government has charged Goldstone with failing to examine the history and circumstances that justified Israel’s decision to launch the war in Gaza. It is a strange accusation.

First, there was nothing in Goldstone’s report to suggest that he and his commission considered Israel’s actions in Gaza an unjust war (despite evidence, as indicated below, that war might not have been Israel’s only option). To the contrary, the report explicitly affirms Israel’s right and obligation to protect its citizens from terrorist violence. Indeed, the very rules of war that the report uses to weigh Israel’s actions apply specifically to just wars, not to unjust ones. An unjust war should not be waged at all.

Second, Goldstone pleaded with Prime Minister Netanyahu to allow his commission to visit Sderot, the Israeli city that was relentlessly targeted by Hamas’s rockets, so that its residents could be interviewed and their stories included in the report. Netanyahu refused. Indeed, he did not even deign to reply to the request. So the decision to discredit and delegitimize the commission and its chair was made by Netanyahu and his government before the commission had done its work—well before there were any findings that Israel could pass judgment on.

The report does omit one salient set of facts from its discussion of the history and circumstances of Operation Cast Lead. But it is an omission that works to Israel’s benefit by failing to explore evidence that might have called the legitimacy of even a less lethal Gaza offensive into question.

The historical background to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead is not limited to the rocket assaults on Sderot; that is only part of the story. It must also include the role Israel played from the very outset of the Palestinian elections in 2006, which resulted in Hamas’s defeat of Fatah.

For all the talk of Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” its government set out to undermine and subvert by violent means the outcome of that democratic election. In collaboration with the Bush administration, it mobilized, armed, and funded the Gaza militia commanded by Muhammad Dahlan, at the time Abu Mazen’s security adviser, in order to overthrow the newly elected Hamas government. When this plot failed, as detailed in Vanity Fair, and Hamas preempted the Israeli- and U.S.-sponsored putsch, Israel sealed off Gaza with the aim of destroying its economy and impoverishing its population. The expectation was that the suffering it is inflicting on Gaza’s civilians would turn them against Hamas.

Israel’s claim that Operation Cast Lead was its only way of ending Hamas’s assault on Israeli civilians was given the lie by Brigadier General (Res.) Shmuel Zakai, former commander of the Israeli Defense Forces’ Gaza division.

As reported in Haaretz on December 22, 2008, just five days before Operation Cast Lead, Zakai charged Israel’s government with having made a “central error” during the tahdiyeh, the six-month period of relative truce between Israel and Hamas. He argued that Israel had failed “to take advantage of the calm to improve, rather than markedly worsen, the economic plight of the Palestinians of the Strip. . . . When you create a tahdiyeh, and the economic pressure on the Strip continues . . . it is obvious that Hamas will try to reach an improved tahdiyeh, and that their way to achieve this is resumed Qassam fire. . . . You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they’re in, and expect that Hamas will just sit around and do nothing.”

The truce, which began in June 2008 and was due for renewal in December, required both parties to refrain from violent action against the other. Hamas had to cease its rocket assaults and prevent the firing of rockets by other groups such as Islamic Jihad (Israel’s intelligence agencies acknowledged that this had been implemented with surprising effectiveness), and Israel had to put a stop to its targeted assassinations and military incursions. This understanding was seriously violated on November 4, when the IDF entered Gaza and killed six members of Hamas. Hamas responded by launching Qassam rockets and Grad missiles. Even so, it offered to extend the truce, but on condition that Israel end its blockade. Israel refused. It could have met its obligation to protect its citizens by agreeing to ease the blockade, but it didn’t even try. It cannot be said, therefore, that Israel launched its assault to protect its citizens from rockets. It did so to protect the continuation of its strangulation of Gaza’s population.

This, too, is part of the history of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. Its omission from the Goldstone Report no more compromises its findings that both Israel and Hamas are guilty of war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity than the omissions that so distressed Israel’s government.

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Henry Siegman is director of the U.S./Middle East Project and a visiting research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.