I don’t know if anyone can stand reading much more about the Goldstone Report regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza last winter commissioned by the United Nations Human Rights Council, but as we approach Yom Kippur and prepare to look deep into the mirror to see ourselves as we truly are it surely behooves us to investigate carefully when someone appears to see something wholly different reflected back than what we ourselves see. Or what we think we see. Or what we wish were there for all to see. Nor does it behoove us to reject something as unreasonable merely because it is associated with the United Nations, an organization so little ashamed of its systemic bias against Israel for so long that most of us can barely remember when things were otherwise.
The basic facts are not in dispute. Between 2005 and 2007, Hamas terrorists fired almost 3000 rockets into Israel more or less all of them aimed at civilian targets. In June of 2008, a ceasefire brokered by the Egyptians went into effect and was more or less effective: the number of rockets sent into Israel decreased during the following months to about 225. Things began to go south in November when Israel entered Gaza to destroy a tunnel built near the border that they believed was intended to assist in the capture of Israeli soldiers and Hamas responded with renewed rocket and mortar fire. By the middle of December, Hamas had announced its intention not to renew the ceasefire and then, on December 27, 2008, Israel undertook a massive campaign against Hamas called Operation Cast Lead. By January 15, Israel had undertaken more than 2350 air strikes against Hamas and claimed to have destroyed more than five hundred enemy targets. Hamas, assisted by Fatah on the West Bank, responded with more rockets. Israel responded with more air strikes, with a naval blockade, and with a limited ground invasion. Then, on January 17, Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire. For a while, the rocket attacks against Israel continued. Eventually, however, that too ended and a wary peace returned to Gaza.
The question on which the world has focused is whether Israel did all it could to limit civilian casualties during the operation. Clearly, the Palestinians took the bigger hit during the days of the operation itself and by far. The IDF, for example, published the finding that 1,166 Palestinians died during Operation Cast Lead, of whom just under 300 were civilians. (Other groups have published other numbers in the same ballpark.) Israel suffered thirteen casualties, including three civilians. The obvious imbalance between the losses suffered on both sides, however, is not as meaningful a statistic as it might sound at first: saying that more Palestinians died during an operation directed against Hamas in Gaza and then supposing that to mean that the Israeli used excessive force to achieve such lopsided results is a bit like observing that more Japanese citizens died in Hiroshima than Americans and then using that statistic to judge whether President Truman was justified in his decision to use an atomic bomb to end the Second World War.
Still, there is no denying that the civilian population of Gaza suffered mightily as a result of the violence: when the fighting stopped, more than 4000 homes had been destroyed, more than 400,000 residents were left without running water, and large sections of Gaza City were in ruins.
Shortly after the ceasefire went into effect, the United Nations passed one of its famously one-sided resolutions calling for an international fact-finding mission to investigate Israeli misconduct during the way. (In uncovering instances of Palestinian misconduct, the United Nations as usual showed no interest at all.) Indeed, the first individual asked to chair the proposed commission, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, turned the offer down specifically on the grounds that the initial resolution itself was unfairly and unjustly one-sided. But then South African prosecutor Richard Goldstone stepped forward and found himself able to accept the commission. He did his job and produced his report, which was released a few weeks ago on September 15. And that is where everything stops being clear at all.
Richard Goldstone is an unlikely person to be biased against Israel. He himself is Jewish. He once won the International Human Rights Award given annually by the American Bar Association. He holds an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University. He was the chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda from 1994 to 1996. His own daughter described him in the pages of the Jerusalem Post a few days ago as a Zionist who loves Israel. And yet his report, for all it finds evidence of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity on both sides of the conflict, reserves its harshest criticism for Israel.
The report is well over 500 pages long. It’s a long read. It’s detailed and it’s complicated. I haven’t read the report from cover to cover, but I’ve been through a lot of it. (You can see it for yourself in full at http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Guardian/documents/2009/09/15/UNFFMGCReport.pdf.) Because the initial resolution singled out only Israel for scrutiny, Israel declined to participate in the process. But Judge Goldstone claims to have done his best and, indeed, refused to accept the limited mandate imposed on him by the U.N. and so focused his report on Hamas and the Palestinians as well as on Israel.
As far as I can tell, the high number of civilian casualties on the Palestinian side derived directly from Hamas’ regular practice of hiding its fighters in civilian centers such as mosques, homes, schools and even United Nations installations, thus actually increasing the likelihood of civilian deaths in the event of a strong Israeli response to the endless rockets they themselves spent months firing against civilian targets within Israel. None of this, however, appears in the Goldstone report, which also ignores Israeli efforts to warn the civilian population to flee before an imminent attack by dropping leaflets, attempting physically to direct civilians away from target areas, and using telephone calls and text messages in an effort to save civilian lives. Nor is any credence given to the Israeli claim that it planned its military operation carefully in an effort precisely to conform to the standards of international law and not specifically to flout its norms.
The reaction of the world has been predictable. Israel’s enemies loved it. Israel’s friends hated it. Gary Ackerman, who represents me and most of my congregants in the House of Representatives, issued a statement in which he said that, "In the self-righteous fantasyland inhabited by the authors [of the report], there is no such thing as terrorism, no such thing as Hamas, there's no such thing as legitimate self-defense." An editorial in The Economist last week evaluated the Goldstone Commission’s interest in singling out Israel for blame as an example of “willful blindness to other evidence (that) makes (the report itself) look like a dash for political cover.” Even more eloquent was the essay on the topic by Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian Attorney-General and well-known human rights activist, that was published in two parts in the Jerusalem Post last week. But the award for brevity and clarity goes to the American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who qualified the report as “unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable.” That more or less sums up my reaction as well.
From what I’ve read, including in the Goldstone report, I am convinced that Israel did what it could—and, I suspect, more than most nations would have done—to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza. But there can be no justification for Israel failing to safeguard the lives of Jewish children by placing a higher value on the lives of the enemy than on the lives of our own people. It’s an unpalatable truth to contemplate, but that’s how it works in wartime. And it’s how every other country behaves, including our own. Civilians die in the context of reputable, justifiable military operations all the time. Only an insane person would fail to find that upsetting, but the question isn’t whether this is a good or a bad thing, but whether Israel did all it reasonably could have done to minimize civilian casualties. I have not seen any real evidence that Israel failed correctly to balance the need to be solicitous of the welfare of civilians with the need to be victorious in war.
Speaking personally, it seems to me that the real issue has to do with the nature of the larger conflict. In the end, the Palestinians of Gaza chose to be governed by a terror organization that has no difficulty opening espousing the murder of Jews as a reasonable means to a political end. To refer to a decision like that as regrettable is to say the very least, but to imagine that a people can make a national decision along those lines and then be immune from the consequences that flow directly from it is more than naïve.
To those who view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a regional one between unfriendly neighbors, it will always be upsetting that violent confrontation should play any sort of role at all in its resolution. But to those of us steeped in the study of Jewish history whose worldview is focused through and framed by the events of the Shoah, it is not possible to view the effort of a terrorist government to make political hay through the intentional murder of Jewish civilians (and particularly Jewish children) as just another example of contiguous peoples not getting along. This is not about sharing our toys or our cookies: it is a kind of cosmic battle between those who would destroy Israel—and who have traditionally known no moral bottom line in terms of what they will do to achieve their ends—and those pledged to defend the safety of Jews wherever they live. Richard Goldstone, himself a veteran of the effort to bring after-the-fact justice to Kosovo, to the former Yugoslavia, and to Rwanda, appears to fall in the first category. The specific reason he and I do not and possibly even cannot see eye to eye on the matters discussed in his report is because I myself do not. Could things really be that simple? It strikes me that at least in this one case they really could be!