Partial Acquittal

After Richard Goldstone's mea culpa, it's up to human rights organizations to remind Israel that it's not off the hook.

Head of the United Nations (UN) fact finding mission on the Gaza Conflict, former South African judge Richard Goldstone listens through an earpiece after delivering a report before the Human Rights Council at the UN office in Geneva on September 29, 2009 after a human rights mission investigating violations committed during the military offensive in late December 2008 and January 2009 in the Gaza Strip. The UN report accused both Israel and the Palestinians of committing "war crimes" in the Gaza Strip, but was particularly critical of what it called Israel's use of disproportionate force in the conflict. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Once widely vilified, Justice Richard Goldstone has been exonerated in the eyes of most Israelis since his Washington Post retraction of much of his investigation into war crimes committed by Israel during Operation Cast Lead, its 2008-2009 war with Gaza. Indeed, the judge has now received an invitation to visit Israel from one of the most reactionary members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, Eli Yishai — who, during Operation Cast Lead, said Gaza should be destroyed.

But right-wing Israelis are not finished interrogating the supposed perfidy of their accusers. Increasingly, their spotlight is trained on the human rights community, including Israeli organizations that they believe cooperated with the U.N. fact-finding mission headed by Goldstone. But however emboldened the Israeli government may feel, the human rights community should not shirk the confrontation. Indeed, this is an opportunity to reassert the importance of our work, both in the context of the Goldstone process and now, two years later.

For example, my organization, B’Tselem, has been criticized for cooperating from the start with Goldstone’s U.N. fact-finding mission. We did indeed press Israel to cooperate with the Goldstone Commission, even after the government made the regrettable decision to boycott the investigation. We did so believing that the U.N. process held promise for the fairest, most comprehensive assessment of the events in Gaza. In the absence of the government’s endorsement, we provided the commission with our own documentation of the conflict and worked to get Israelis to testify independently. And when the Goldstone Report was released, we leveraged it to try to promote domestic Israeli processes of accountability, though we only had limited success.

None of this is to say we agreed in full with the Goldstone Report — on the contrary. B’Tselem adopted a nuanced approach, refusing to line up alongside those who rejected the report as biased and anti-Israeli, as well as those who wholeheartedly endorsed it as proof of Israeli war crimes. At the time, B’Tselem stated that some of the report’s conclusions were not sufficiently supported by the facts presented, drawing attention to precisely the point Goldstone now wishes to retract: the allegation of an intentional Israeli policy directed at killing civilians. In addition, we voiced concern that the Goldstone fact-finding mission judged Israel’s conduct according to stricter standards and with a lower burden of proof when compared with its approach toward Hamas.

Goldstone’s latest statement is a much shorter document than the original 575-page report. Yet it also warrants a critical reading as it leaves many more questions unanswered than it resolves.

Indeed, he now clears Israel of the unfounded accusations of crimes against humanity and the deliberate policy of targeting civilians. But his new approach, hailed by Israeli officials as a complete retraction, is limited to a small number of issues, however important they may be. Israel has not been absolved of the report’s other conclusions, including those regarding the use of prohibited weapons, the lack of protection to civilians, the obstruction of medical care, and the use of Palestinians as human shields.

Curiously, in his op-ed Goldstone praised Israel for fulfilling his recommendation that it launch its own investigations into its conduct in the war. But that claim doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. Although Israel opened 52 criminal investigations, only three led to indictments, and more than two years after the offensive, the status of the remaining cases is unclear. Meanwhile, the broader issues of policy that have raised legal concerns — the choice of weapons, the open-fire regulations that accompanied the troops on their way to Gaza, the damage to civilian infrastructure, and the like — have been left unaddressed by the Israeli government. Still unexplained is the fact that close to half of those killed in Gaza — at least 758 people according to B’Tselem’s painstaking documentation — were uninvolved civilians. Were all these deaths regretful collateral damage? Or were they the result of disproportionate force and lack of appropriate caution by Israel? Israel’s military is still stranded in the vast gray area between “the most moral army in the world” (as many Israeli spokespeople put it) and perpetrators of “crimes against humanity.”

Goldstone, unfortunately, has removed himself as a participant from these debates. But B’Tselem and other human rights organizations will not let up so easily. Goldstone’s retraction does not obviate Israel of all blame. And ignoring the remaining issues serves neither Israel’s interests nor those of Cast Lead’s victims. Dealing honestly with the still-unanswered questions is both a crucial exercise in addressing the past and the only way to build a better future.

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