I've been trying to get to this post all week, and I think it's really important that I do, because something very significant has been happening, and I don't think it's been getting much press. It's about the fact-finding mission organized by the UN Human Rights Council, and chaired by Judge Richard Goldstone. It's generally referred to as the “Goldstone Report.”
Here's a quick background summary: in 2008 there was a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel which had been holding up fairly well. However, Israel received intelligence that Hamas was constructing a tunnel from Gaza into Israel. These tunnels have been used, in the past, for terrorist activity, including the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. Acting preemptively, Israel bombed the tunnel. In response to this act, Hamas began a campaign of launching rockets into southern Israel. These rockets were aimed primarily at civilian centers, with the southern town of Sderot being the most frequent target. Literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rockets were launched in the space of a few months. Finally, Israel mounted an incursion into Gaza, called “Operation Cast Lead.” It was mainly an aerial bombing campaign, and it led to a great number of civilian casualties.
In the wake of the operation, Israel was accused of war crimes by the Palestinian leadership, up to and including genocide. The UN organized its fact-finding mission, and Israel refused to cooperate with it—largely because it doesn't trust the UN to be anything approaching impartial. The result of that endeavor was the Goldstone Report, which confirmed that Israel had acted illegally and immorally, and while it didn't accuse Israel of genocide, it did accuse Israel of having a policy of intentionally targeting civilians.
Needless to say, the report was disastrous, from an Israeli point of view. It lent credence to Israel's enemies, who regularly accuse it of the most heinous crimes, and coming from the UN (and a Jewish judge), it made many of those who love Israel begin to doubt her—it seemed that there was some validity to the terrible accusations.
But, earlier this week, the story changed, and it changed dramatically. Judge Goldstone wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he backed away from much of his report, including the most damning accusations against Israel:
We know a lot more today about what happened in the Gaza war of 2008-09 than we did when I chaired the fact-finding mission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council that produced what has come to be known as the Goldstone Report. If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.
Our report found evidence of potential war crimes and “possibly crimes against humanity” by both Israel and Hamas. That the crimes allegedly committed by Hamas were intentional goes without saying — its rockets were purposefully and indiscriminately aimed at civilian targets.
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.
Let me be clear, as I have before: I am in absolutely no way implying that the death of innocent civilians, Palestinian, Israeli or other, is anything less than an absolute tragedy. I do not celebrate one of these “collateral damage” cases, and I pray that no one else does, either. But, tragedy is one thing; culpability is another. And, it seems that, as a state, Israel is not guilty of murder, or of other war crimes. Israel engaged in military action which, tragically, always leads to civilian deaths. If what Israel did was a crime, then nearly every military action in history is a crime, as well.
Many critics of Israel point to the high ratio of civilian deaths as evidence of Israeli wrongdoing. But, those numbers are actually low, compared to other aerial campaigns. In other words, Israel killed fewer civilians than other countries have in similar situations. That's especially extraordinary, because Hamas makes a practice (as countless others have confirmed) of hiding among civilian populations, specifically so that Israel is faced with an impossible decision: either retaliate, and kill innocents, or do nothing in the face of ongoing attacks from Hamas. The numbers of civilian deaths are actually evidence of Israel trying not to kill civilians, rather than evidence of an organized attempt by Israel to kill as many as possible.
I've pointed out before an observation I first heard from Alan Dershowitz. In American jurisprudence, if I commit a crime, and in the process of trying to stop me, the police accidentally kill an innocent, then I am guilty of murder. Guilt is not decided by who pulls the trigger; guilt is decided by whose actions ultimately caused the death. By this logic, the civilian deaths were indeed a crime, but they were a crime committed by Hamas, not by Israel.
It's also important to say, but I am in no way claiming that no crimes were committed during Operation Cast Lead. It's apparent that individual soldiers, and possibly individual commanders, engaged in war crimes. Israel has a strong (although imperfect) record of investigating and prosecuting these crimes, and although Goldstone is not happy with the pace of these investigations, he is clear that he is satisfied Israel is undergoing them. It's impossible to imagine that any military operation of any reasonable size can happen without some of the soldiers doing awful, illegal things. Countries should be judged not by whether these happen, but by whether they are officially sanctioned/organized, and by whether they are investigated and prosecuted after the fact. By this standard, Israel is a moral actor; Hamas is among the most evil. Hamas openly and explicitly does the things for which Israel is condemned, while Israel does not do those things.
Time and again, we see this pattern. Israel fights an enemy. Israel is accused of heinous crimes. Most of the world accepts those accusations as fact. Hamass crimes are all but ignored. Weeks, months or years later, we discover that Israel, in fact, did not do these horrible things. But, the story has ended, and people's attention span has been exceeded, so no one pays attention.
Please remember this the next time Israel is accused of war crimes, genocide, apartheid, or anything of the sort. Israel should absolutely not be forgiven if it were to engage in any of these activities. But, until evidence arises that has, I think that Israel deserves the benefit of the doubt. And it needs those who love her to speak out for her good name.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. And all of its inhabitants.