The big Israel-Palestine news of the week is Richard Goldstone's op-ed in the Washington Poston Sunday (4/3/11). The short version you pick up from the media is that Goldstone has "retracted" his UN-sponsored report on war crimes during Israel's Operation Cast Lead war in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.
The "retraction" language is fairly common--as in the New York Times headline (4/4/11), "Israel Grapples With Retraction on UN Report."
But is there any real retraction?
Goldstone, a retired South African judge, chaired a four-person fact-finding commission investigating crimes committed by both sides. As he explains in his Post column, the Israelis refused to cooperate, which obviously affected the report's findings:
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.
Goldstone writes that he now believes that "civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy." He sides with a follow-up report from the UN, which credits Israel for launching some investigations of their Gaza war--though he added:
I share the concerns reflected in the McGowan Davis report that few of Israel's inquiries have been concluded and believe that the proceedings should have been held in a public forum. Although the Israeli evidence that has emerged since publication of our report doesn't negate the tragic loss of civilian life, I regret that our fact-finding mission did not have such evidence explaining the circumstances in which we said civilians in Gaza were targeted, because it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes.
Israel would certainly like observers to interpret Goldstone's latest comments as an exoneration. In reality, however, he offered far less consolation to Israel than its supporters claim.
The report's original accusation that Israeli soldiers committed war crimes still stands, as does criticism of Israel's use of unconventional weapons such as white phosphorus, the destruction of property on a massive scale and the taking of civilians as human shields.
Cook adds that some observers see this as a mostly misdirected debate over intentionality--whether Israeli forces meant to kill civilians, or merely disregarded the fact that their actions would kill civilians. As Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch put it at the 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.
Roth also tweeted some criticism of the New York Times' coverage:
NYTimes wrong on Goldstone oped. He said intentional killing wasn't policy. No retraction on indiscriminate warfare.
NYT wrong again. Goldstone says Israel didn't intend to kill but its policy was still crime of indiscriminate warfare
So what has happened then? Goldstone--who has been under tremendous pressure to distance himself from the report that bears his name--now says that there may have been cases where the Israeli military was not behaving with intent to kill civilians. Left unchallenged is the fact that many civilians were actually killed in attacks where little was done to prevent such killing.
But those details may not matter, if Richard Cohen's column in the Washington Post today (4/5/11) is any indication. Cohen writes that it was "shocking" that "Israel was accused ofdeliberately targeting civilians during its brutal 2008-09 war with Hamas." But now comes vindication:
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. But to Cohen, it's now all "the usual fog of war." Cohen also claims:
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.
It is not clear where Goldstone says or implies this in his brief op-ed. As Roth and other writers have pointed out, the Israeli investigations have yielded few indictments.
Cohen closes by writing:
Those who gleefully embraced the Goldstone report have to ask themselves why. They may hate the answer.
One might assume that he's suggesting anti-Semitism on the part of Goldstone's "gleeful" champions. Ironically in a piece admonishing those who rush to judgment, Cohen recalls that
a West Bank settler family of five was recently murdered in their home by what are universally thought to be Palestinians. This, too, has put Israel on edge.
As I noted before, there is plenty of speculation that a Palestinian committed those murders--but no evidence to date to that effect. Apparently speculation is enough for Richard Cohen. He should ask himself why. He may hate the answer.