Not surprisingly, the radical extremists at NGO Monitor and many others are jumping on the op-ed by Richard Goldstone to “prove” that human rights groups, and others, who have been calling for investigations into Israel’s conduct in Operation Cast Lead should retract their claims.
Goldstone essentially said two things of substance in his op-ed: that Israel has done a lot more than Hamas, which has done nothing, to investigate Cast Lead, and this is certainly true, though it might be damning with faint praise; and that Israel did not target civilians as a matter of policy.
To be sure, there are those who did take the Goldstone Report as conclusive proof that Israel targeted civilians intentionally. But here is what I wrote on November 16, 2009:
More overreaching can be seen in Goldstone’s flat statement that Israel, as a matter of policy, targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure. Indeed, it is true that the pattern of destruction he cites in his report raises this very disturbing question. But that’s all it does—raise it. Goldstone makes a flat judgment without proving his case, or even substantially supporting it. He’s a prosecutor by trade; he has to know better than that.
B’Tselem, referring to that same accusation, said, on October 19, 2009:
…the mission’s conclusions regarding Israel’s overall objectives in carrying out the operation were not sufficiently supported by facts arising from the mission’s research.
Human Rights Watch also reiterated that the original Report did not support a conclusion of Israel intentionally targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure.
Not surprisingly, the fanatics at NGO Monitor chose not to name a single instance of an NGO leveling the accusation of intentionality that was alluded to in the Goldstone Report.
Goldstone, in his op-ed, stated that “civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.” But that was never the question. The question always was whether Israel took sufficient precautions to minimize civilian casualties and whether civilian infrastructure, which at least some Israeli leaders said they saw as legitimate targets, was illegally targeted. These matters have not been adequately investigated, and Goldstone, despite his overstated praise for Israeli investigations that are not transparent or timely (and are therefore of questionable quality) does not say that they were.
Cast Lead raised important questions about asymmetrical warfare that have hardly even been touched since the event. Hamas made it clear that they willfully targeted civilians, a war crime and a crime against humanity. Israel, on the other hand, has at its disposal enormously firepower. It doesn’t have to intentionally target civilians in order to inflict horrifying damage to civilian lives and infrastructure, as happened in Gaza.
That’s why international humanitarian law requires stringent efforts to minimize that damage as much as possible.
Richard Goldstone’s sloppiness with language, first in the report and later in public statements of which his op-ed was not the first, has clouded these issues. And that is unfortunate, not only for the many innocent victims in Gaza as well as southern Israel.
Cast Lead was a powerful opportunity to further develop the standards and mechanisms of accountability in international law. It raised not only the issue of asymmetrical war, but also questions of law regarding territories held by an unrecognized government that controls civilian infrastructure. Law requires specificity in these matters, but the politicization of the Goldstone Report has hopelessly distracted the international community from these important issues.
Israel, which was forced, despite its bungling refusal to cooperate with Goldstone, to initiate far more investigations than it would otherwise have done, is working to restore the impunity it believes it had before Cast Lead. Fanatics like NGO Monitor who work tirelessly to ensure Israel’s demise by demonizing critics of its settlements project and routine human rights violations now have more fodder for their hateful work.
And that is going to reverberate well beyond Gaza.
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[…] by Mitchell Plitnick on this blog. (Mitchell has just posted a follow-up worth reading at his “Third Way” blog, on the fall-out from Goldstone’s op-ed.) The following piece by Bernard Avishai (the […]
“Human Rights Watch also reiterated that the original Report did not support a conclusion of Israel intentionally targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure”
With respect to civilian infrastructure, this isn’t correct. Ken Roth’s piece, to which you link, explicitly says that the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure was a matter of policy:
“These include Israel’s indiscriminate use of heavy artillery and white phosphorous in densely populated areas and its massive and deliberate destruction of civilian buildings and infrastructure without a lawful military reason. This conduct was so widespread and systematic that it clearly reflected Israeli policy.” [my emph.]
This same accusation was made in the Goldstone Report, and in human rights reports at the time (e.g. Amnesty’s ’22 Days of Death and Destruction’). Which makes sense, because a mass of evidence clearly supports it.
As for Goldstone’s retraction: the Goldstone Report itself never made the claim that Israel systematically targeted civilians with direct military force as a matter of policy. It found that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians on certain occasions – which HRW still finds – and it also described a broader policy of collective punishment directed against the civilian population (a description that has also been used by HRW, Amnesty, the Red Cross, etc.). To repeat: the Report didn’t accuse Israel of systematically targeting civilians with direct military force as a matter of policy in the first place.
What Goldstone was retracting in his op-ed wasn’t this charge – which he never made in the first place – but the lesser charge that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians on some occasions. And that retraction is based on no evidence, to put it charitably (in fact he does cite two bits of evidence, but distorts them both).
You’re right regarding the infrastructure point, a reflection of my erroneous wording in the article. The point I was trying to make was that Israel made the claim that Hamas-controlled infrastructure was a legitimate target. While this would be generally understood to be in violation of IHL, it needs to be more specifically laid out, as Israel could be said to have cynically exposed a loophole here that needs to be closed. I should have made this point separately, rather than including it in the HRW point. You’re quite right that HRW, among others, myself included, have made the charge of a deliberate policy of hitting civilian infrastructure.
As to the point of accusation of deliberate policy regarding targeting civilians, Goldstone writes in his op-ed “…The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion. While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.”
The original report stated, for one among several examples alluding to deliberate targeting of civilians:
” To the extent to which statements such as that of Mr. Yishai on 2 February 2009 indicate
that the destruction of civilian objects, homes in that case, would be justified as a response to
rocket attacks (“destroy 100 homes for every rocket fired”), the Mission is of the view that
reprisals against civilians in armed hostilities are contrary to international humanitarian law.
Even if such actions could be considered a lawful reprisal, they do not meet the stringent
conditions imposed, in particular they are disproportionate.
and violate fundamental human
rights and obligations of a humanitarian character.
One party’s targeting of civilians or civilian
areas can never justify the opposing party’s targeting of civilians and civilian objects, such as
homes, public and religious buildings, or schools.
Thanks for the response. We agree on the first point, then.
One the second: the Report states, reasonably enough, that statements like Yishai’s “indicate the possibility of resort to reprisals” [my emph.], which, it adds, are illegal [pp. 21-2]. It doesn’t go beyond that – i.e. it doesn’t (unless I’m missing something) accuse Israel of systematically targeting civilians as a matter of policy. The bit you quote is likewise cautious:
“To the extent to which statements such as that of Mr. Yishai on 2 February 2009 indicate
that the destruction of civilian objects, homes in that case, would be justified as a response to rocket attacks… [it would be illegal]”.
Even then Goldstone is talking about the possibility that civilian house were deliberately targeted – not necessarily civilian individuals directly.
If the Report had wanted to accuse Israel of systematically targeting civilians with direct military force, it would have done so clearly, like it did with the other accusations (e.g. collective punishment). It didn’t. So that isn’t – cannot be – what Goldstone is retracting.
I guess on this point we’ll agree to disagree. it seems to me that if issue were confined to infrastructure, the Report would have only said that, rather than include civilians, as it did. It seems rather clear to me that both the report and the op-ed refer as well to civilians per se. It does not to you, I understand. So, we’ll agree to disagree and others following this exchange can make their own judgment. Thanks for your comments as well, and the constructive spirit in which they were made, all too rare in the blogosphere.
Thanks for your responses, too. Yes, looks like we’ll have to agree to disagree. Permit me this final comment, just to clarify, and then feel free to have the last word (if you want it).
I agree that attacks on civilians per se (as opposed to civilian infrastructure) were mentioned in the Report. Indeed the Report documents multiple incidents of what it describes as intentional attacks on civilians. This is what I take Goldstone’s op-ed to be now denying. That’s why he focuses on the al-Samouni incident, rather than on arguments about what the policy was at higher levels (something he can’t claim to have new information anyway, since as the UN Committee report he cites in the op-ed points out, Israeli inquiries haven’t investigated the upper levels of policymaking).
The Report does not however charge Israel with having a systematic policy of targeting civilians directly. Noting some comments from Yishai (a man whose invitation to tour Israel Goldstone has now apparently accepted), the Report says that these raise the “possibility” of a policy of reprisals, and notes that any such policy would be illegal. But it does not say that such a policy was actually in place. And that’s not just a language thing: when the Report wants to accuse Israel of something, it does so directly and clearly (as it did re: human shields, torture, collective punishment, etc.). In this case, it didn’t.
(Of course, Goldstone could have chosen to be clear about what he was saying in the Op-Ed, meaning we wouldn’t have to speculate like this. This is one of many strange things about that piece.)
Mitchell, I hate to quibble, but this is what Judge Goldstone says:
“The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion. While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.”
He has not concluded “that Israel did not target civilians as a matter of policy.” Rather he is saying that the Israeli investigations of “some incidents..indicate” that the “policy” explanation in the cases in the report is inferior to the “criminal-intent-or-gross-negligence-of-the-operational-commander” explanation. Goldstone has not reputed the Dahiya doctrine-explanation, nor does he consider the IDF investigations to be sufficient. He remains committed to a public judicial inquiry that will determine inter alia whether the Dahiya doctrine was behind the Gaza Op or not.
I guess we will differ here primarily on the use of the word “indicate,” which, in the context of an op-ed Goldstone had to know would be interpreted as meaning that Israel did not target civilians as a matter of policy. While he may not be claiming conclusive proof here, it certainly reads to me that he is saying that he is personally of the belief, barring new evidence, that such a policy did not exist (a belief I happen to share, to the extent that I don’t think they willfully targeted civilians, but also that they didn’t exercise any particularly strong caution to avoid it, which is, to me, the real issue, as a powerful army can always do this).
Goldstone may remain committed to such a public inquiry, though that is not evident from this op-ed, but the article itself has made that already minuscule possibility even more remote. While I think a lot of this reflects the impression I got of Goldstone when i met him, that he does not grasp the political repercussions of actions especially in the Israel-Palestine realm, I find it hard to believe that he didn’t understand that such an op-ed would make further inquiries less likely.
So, on this point, I will stand by what I wrote.
Just for one further point, I think my reading is largely in line with that of my ex-boss, B’Tselem’s Executive Director, Jessica Montell. You can see her response to Goldstone at http://www.forward.com/articles/136752/
[…] Radical Extremists Jump On the Goldstone Op-ed (mitchellplitnick.com) […]
Your use of the phrase “civilians and civilian infrastruction” as if these are somehow equivalent concepts suggests to me, given your enormous knowledge of Middle East history and events, an intentional deception. You know perfectly well, I’m sure, that the linked-to Human Rights Watch statement focuses on intentional killing of civilians and not destruction of infrastructure.
It is an incontrovertable fact that Israel targeted infrastructure and vital non-military resources such as a flower mill and 31,000 chickens (who were apparently launching rockets?). We do not need Goldstone to point out this naked truth whether he recants or not.
Whether or not Israel intentionally targeted civilians is a complex question. How does one measure a nation’s intent? Whether or not Israel’s military targeted infrastructure is a primitive question. It simply did.
Please do not blur together essentially different concepts. Events of the past week are confusing enough already.
Thank you, Alan, I think if you look above at my response to Jamie you’ll see I already addressed that issue. I did not change the original text to correct my error, as I felt one could see it in the comments and it would be disingenuous to change it to hide my mistake. Perhaps, though, I also erred in thinking that sufficient, and after reading your comment, I’ll consider changing the text.
[…] by Mitchell Plitnick on this blog. (Mitchell has just posted a follow-up worth reading at his “Third Way” blog, on the fallout from Goldstone’s […]
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