Retired Judge Richard Goldstone chaired a three-person fact-finding mission to investigate charges of war crimes on the part of Israel and Hamas during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip two-and-a-half years ago. The commission disbanded after the report was submitted, and there is no procedure in place for revoking or revising it. Neither have its other members made their voices heard. As in other cases involving "water under the bridge," there is little weight given to regrets after time has elapsed or circumstances have changed.
Given these reservations, and in the spirit of the current tides sweeping the region, (in Libya, for example ), Goldstone's comments in The Washington Post should be taken for what they are worth. Goldstone was invited to chair the committee because of his standing as a jurist in South Africa, which moved from an apartheid regime to democracy (with all the problems that entails ), and because of his Jewish roots and basic sympathy for the State of Israel. The "Goldstone commission" and "Goldstone report" are brands associated with his name.
The dispute surrounding the report, published in September 2009, was concerned less with the facts on the ground and more with the significance attached to them. There was a bit of debate about the definition of "civilians" - for example, did it include Hamas people who earned their living as police in the daytime and were active in the terror attack system after work? But the main dispute was over the question of why civilians were being harmed: Was it a matter of intentional policy, an overriding order that was translated into implementation? Or were these exceptional cases, mostly unintentional, and had the minority of cases that turned out to be intentional properly addressed in legal or disciplinary forums?
The government of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces General Staff adhered from the outset, and rightly so, to the narrative of exceptions and investigations. The Goldstone report seemed to adopt as its working assumption, however, that these incidents were the outcome of policy - a view reinforced by rash declarations by government ministers. Also contributing to this interpretation was Israel's refusal to cooperate with the work of the fact-finding mission, lest this be taken as an endorsement.
Israel does not need a comparison with Hamas, whose members launch rockets at civilian sites in order to exculpate themselves. Its internal, moral obligation - and not just for reasons of international utility - is to do everything in its power to avoid harming the innocent. A certain amount of regret on Goldstone's part must not cause Israel to regret the limitations it has imposed on its army.
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