'If I Had Known Then ..."


Richard Goldstone's op-ed in the Washington Post was a highly unusual thing. A public figure, responding to new facts unavailable before, essentially says that one core aspect of his report has turned out to be only partially true - and he takes personal responsibility for it. Yes, a man in public life took to the most hostile imaginable environment, the Washington Post op-ed page, to say he has been partially proven wrong. There were indeed 400 separate alleged incidents of IDF war crimes that Israel has been investigating, which is a hell of a lot of smoke for no fire. But to infer that most civilian deaths in Gaza were therefore calculated and intentional, rather than mistaken and collateral, was a step too far.

The reason for Goldstone's reassessment, he tells us, is the evidence found by Israel's internal investigations - and the very existence of Israel's extensive investigations. Hamas has done nothing equivalent because they were obviously targeting civilians and couldn't care less. Ill-targeted random rockets into Southern Israel were - and are - ipso facto war crimes directed at civilians. The deaths of 400 children by Israeli firepower? Not quite so clear-cut given the density of the population in Gaza, the ubiquity of Hamas throughout, and Israel's legitimate right to self-defense.

Two points stand out to me. The first is the integrity of Goldstone. His report stuck to what it could find but was stymied by the Israeli government's refusal to cooperate:

Israel’s lack of cooperation with our investigation meant that we were not able to corroborate how many Gazans killed were civilians and how many were combatants. The Israeli military’s numbers have turned out to be similar to those recently furnished by Hamas (although Hamas may have reason to inflate the number of its combatants). As I indicated from the very beginning, I would have welcomed Israel’s cooperation. The purpose of the Goldstone Report was never to prove a foregone conclusion against Israel.

The op-ed, I think, makes his defense of his report's original attempt to get at the truth within the evidence available more plausible. A man with an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic agenda would never go public with this partial retraction in the face of new evidence, would he? He would dig in, as the necons always do. And the fundamental reason he reached his inference of war crimes from such appalling casualties in the first place was because the Israelis refused to provide him with their full side of the story. In some cases, those details, withheld from Goldstone by the Jewish state, make all the difference:

The most serious attack the Goldstone Report focused on was the killing of some 29 members of the al-Simouni family in their home. The shelling of the home was apparently the consequence of an Israeli commander’s erroneous interpretation of a drone image, and an Israeli officer is under investigation for having ordered the attack. While the length of this investigation is frustrating, it appears that an appropriate process is underway, and I am confident that if the officer is found to have been negligent, Israel will respond accordingly.

I don't know how Goldstone could have known these exculpatory details without Israeli cooperation. Telepathy? And he must know that both his report and his acknowledgment of new evidence will not defuse the vile rhetoric levied against him by the neocon media machine. Here's JPod, once again pouring oil on troubled waters:

He is a dupe, a fool, a clown, and a worldwide embarrassment. Not to mention a special kind of reprehensible and appalling figure of inglorious, hideous shame to his own people through the delivery and promulgation of a false document that helped anti-Semites everywhere feel themselves justified.

Beneath the extreme rhetoric, the implication is that Goldstone should have presumed that the awful human toll of the Gaza war - almost entirely on one side - was not a deliberate targeting of civilians to put pressure on Hamas. But his job was to find facts and precisely not to presume anything. And it remains a fact that he also insisted on calling Hamas' clear war crimes what they were - and are.

The second point worth making is that there is a thin line between deliberately targeting civilians and being indifferent to mass civilian casualties in a war in which they were inevitable. As Bernard Avishai puts it:

Israel's military strategists had made it plain that the operation was meant to "reestablish deterrence" ("lekasaich et ha'deshe" or "mow the lawn," as the phrase du jour had it); that the way to handle Hamas missile attacks was through destruction of Hamas "infrastructure," which could lead to only one result.

That infrastructure included a factory whose sole purpose was to make flour, and whose owner was given fair warning to evacuate before the place was bombed. That's obviously not designed to kill civilians; but it is designed to create misery for civilians. And in so far as the message of Cast Lead was clearly designed to punish and deter Hamas by making Gazans' life as miserable as possible, it was an act of collective retaliation.

It's worth remembering a key statistic: Palestinian casualties were ten times the number of Israeli casualties. Of the 1400 or so civilian deaths in Gaza, 300 were children. Civilian casualties accounted for half of the deaths in Gaza. Only three Israeli citizens were killed. This was also the pattern that had held for the year before:


Now imagine a scenario in which Jihadist terrorists killed 300 Israeli children in rockets targeted at Israeli infrastructure. Under what circumstances would Israel not call that a war crime?

(Photo: Farah Abu Halima cries after having a splint removed from her thumb to maintain a skin graft for her burns, at an MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) clinic, June 8, 2009, in Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Farah received horrific burns after a white phosphrous shell burst through the roof of her family home, killing her mother and seven other members of her family, while two others were shot dead while trying to evacuate the wounded. Not since Fallujah or Grozny has white phosphorus been used so extensively in a civilian area. By Warrick Page/Getty Images.)