Should a newspaper op-ed cancel a UN investigation of Gaza crimes?
When it was released in September 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council investigative document known as the Goldstone Report offered a detailed, shocking accounting of Israel’s 2008-09 invasion of the Gaza Strip. Hundreds of civilians were killed, scores of buildings were leveled, and water and sanitation infrastructure was attacked. The meticulous cataloguing received modest coverage in the corporate media.
Then on April 3, 2011, the report’s namesake—retired South African judge Richard Goldstone, who headed a four-person investigative commission—took to the pages of the Washington Post op-ed section to announce he’d had a change of heart. (The Post, perhaps sensing a blockbuster, posted the op-ed online early on April 1.)
In the conventional media narrative, Goldstone’s column was treated as an official withdrawal of the report’s criticism of Israel: “Hoping to Rehabilitate Image, Israel Looks to Retraction of a Critical UN Report,” the New York Times (4/4/11) declared, while USA Today (4/6/11) had “Israel Invites UN Official After Report Reversal.” A brief Washington Post (4/6/11) piece was headlined “Goldstone Invited Back After Finding Is Retracted.”
The Times (4/3/11) explained that Goldstone had “retracted the central and most explosive assertion of its report—that Israel intentionally killed Palestinian civilians there.” Another Times article (4/15/11) declared that Goldstone “retracted the panel’s key conclusions, especially that Israel had deliberately made civilians targets.”
And on April 4, the paper pondered Israel’s options in the wake of the “retraction,” weighing whether this “could be used to rehabilitate its tarnished international image or as pre-emptive defense in future military actions against armed groups.”
The Goldstone Report and Goldstone’s op-eddo not have equivalent weight, of course—one being an official UN document produced by a fact-finding commission consisting of four international human rights experts, and the other being a newspaper opinion piece expressing the personal views of one of those members. (The other three members released a statement in the wake of Goldstone’s op-ed standing by their report’s conclusions—Guardian, 4/14/11.)
Goldstone’s Post piece came out after the jurist had endured remarkable personal attacks by people offended by the report’s criticism of Israel, including an effort by the South African Zionist Federation to exclude him from his grandson’s bar mitzvah (Jewish Daily Forward, 11/29/10, 4/6/11). The declarations by leading supporters of Israel welcoming Goldstone back into the community from which he had been excluded (e.g., New York Times, 4/6/11) should have raised questions about his motivations for recanting the report.
But even read as a personal statement produced after considerable public pressure, Goldstone’s column is quite opaque, with a vague thesis and frustratingly few specifics. “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document,” he wrote in one of the most frequently quoted lines in the piece. That statement, in isolation, is essentially meaningless—and in context, it’s not much clearer.
The crux of Goldstone’s argument concerns intentionality. That Israel killed hundreds of civilians in Gaza is undeniable. Some of the initial strikes were deliberate attacks on Gaza police officers, justified based on Israel’s argument that these civilian law enforcement officers were in fact militants (a conclusion rejected by the Goldstone commission). In other cases, white flag-waving Palestinian civilians were shot by Israeli forces. In one incident, mourning tents were attacked with steel projectiles.
These sorts of attacks would seem to be “intentional” as the term is generally understood. The report includes accounts from Israeli soldiers (many from the Breaking the Silence movement) that suggest commanding officers advocated shoot-first policies: “If you are not sure—shoot”; “If we suspect someone, we should not give him the benefit of the doubt”; “You don’t only shoot when threatened. The assumption is that you constantly feel threatened, so anything there threatens you, and you shoot.”
When Goldstone wrote for the Post, “Civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy,” he appeared to be looking at intentionality in a narrow legal sense, as a question of whether soldiers were explicitly ordered to kill civilians. This is a different question from whether soldiers killed civilians on purpose, or whether Israeli policy made it likely that they would do so—or whether, as in the Goldstone Report’s actual complaint, that policy “provided for a low threshold for the use of lethal fire against the civilian population.”
By focusing on that narrow question, the op-ed succeeded in distracting from an array of potential Israeli crimes that the report did offer evidence for. As Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch wrote (Guardian, 4/5/11):
Goldstone has not retreated from the report’s allegation that Israel engaged in large-scale attacks in violation of the laws of war. These attacks included Israel’s indiscriminate use of heavy artillery and white phosphorus in densely populated areas, and its massive and deliberate destruction of civilian buildings and infrastructure without a lawful military reason. This misconduct was so widespread and systematic that it clearly reflected Israeli policy.
The only concrete incident mentioned in Goldstone’s Post op-ed was this:
For example, 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.
Goldstone went on to note that a “frustrating” Israeli investigation is underway, which he seems to believe will eventually hold someone accountable.
The UN report had detailed the Israeli military’s brutal treatment of the al-Simouni family. Soldiers stormed one home, throwing an explosive device into a room full of family members:
In the midst of the smoke, fire and loud noise, Ateya al-Samouni stepped forward, his arms raised, and declared that he was the owner of the house. The soldiers shot him while he was still holding his ID and an Israeli driving licence in his hands. The soldiers then opened gunfire inside the room in which all the approximately 20 family members were gathered.
Israeli soldiers eventually forced about 100 members of the family to crowd into another house. Five members of the family who left the house to collect firewood were then attacked by what may have been a missile launched from helicopters. Soon thereafter, attacks were directed at the house, killing 21 members of the family. The Goldstone Report found “that the weaponry used allowed a high degree of precision with a short response time and that the five men and then the house were the intended targets of the attack.”
Goldstone’s op-ed offered no compelling reason to question this account—only the claim that Israeli officials now attribute the killings to some sort of human error. The early Israeli response to the massacre, as the Goldstone Report noted, was to deny there was any such incident at all.
It is one of several examples documented in the report of what it calls either deliberate or intentional attacks—including Israeli white phosphorous shelling of a hospital and the shelling of a mosque. Goldstone’s “retraction” rested on his faith that investigations by the Israeli military might eventually clarify how the decision was made to strike this particular house.
Media interest in Goldstone’ssupposed “retraction” was especially keen among those who wildly misrepresented its content. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (4/5/11) wrote that it was “shocking” that “Israel was accused of deliberately targeting civilians during its brutal 2008-09 war with Hamas.” Cohen gave no explanation as to why this would be shocking, but the important part was that it apparently was not true:
Goldstone has retracted his findings. He no longer believes that Israel intentionally targeted civilians during the Gaza war (although he still believes Hamas did) and says that any deaths were inadvertent—the usual fog of war, the usual panicked decision.
The report focused on Israeli actions that were “either reckless, disproportionate or deliberate.” There is nothing to suggest that most of the report’s findings are in serious dispute. Attacks on clearly identified civilians, the destruction of houses and infrastructure have nothing to do with “the usual fog of war.”
Cohen also claimed: “As Goldstone acknowledges, Israel has looked into every charge of war crimes—incident by incident. Some soldiers have indeed been punished because some awful things happened.”
This is completely false: Goldstone does not claim that Israel “has looked into every charge of war crimes.” The Israeli investigations that seem to have swayed him are quite limited, as several critics of Goldstone’s op-ed have pointed out. Jessica Montell of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem wrote in a subsequent Washington Post column (4/6/11):
This is what made Goldstone’s commentary so confusing (along with his refusal to elaborate in response to media requests). He points to a report on Israeli military investigations from a UN committee of experts led by retired New York judge Mary McGowan Davis to buttress his apparent conclusion that the killing of civilians was not official Israeli policy. Montell and others—including the other members of the Goldstone commission itself—looked at the very same Davis report and arrived at nearly the opposite conclusion: The Israeli investigations do not adequately probe into matters of policy.
In his Post column, Cohen seemed to suggest that Israel’s critics had more sinister motivations: “Those who gleefully embraced the Goldstone report have to ask themselves why. They may hate the answer.” The same applies to those who embrace Goldstone’s unconvincing “retraction,” and who mold its meaning to fit their agenda.
As U.S. ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said (Federal News Service, 4/6/11), “What we want to see is for it to disappear and no longer be a subject of discussion and debate in the Human Rights Council or the General Assembly or beyond.” By creating the misimpression that the report is now retracted, the press are playing along.