Richard Goldstone in UN Human Rights Council
Richard Goldstone during a session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, Sept. 29, 2009. Photo by AP
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Israeli officials yesterday lauded Judge Richard Goldstone's comments over the weekend in which he softened his stance on Israel's conduct during the Gaza offensive two years ago. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called on the United Nations to withdraw its report on the incursion.

Goldstone headed the UN Human Rights Council's investigation into the operation in the winter of 2008-9.

"If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document," the judge wrote in an opinion piece in Friday's Washington Post.

A senior Foreign Ministry source said Goldstone did not tell anyone in the government that the piece would appear and did not coordinate it with Israel.

In the Post, Goldstone acknowledged that, although the report alleged evidence of potential war crimes and "possibly crimes against humanity" by both Israel and Hamas, he stands by his allegations that Hamas targeted civilians. But he revised his view of Israel's conduct.

"That the crimes allegedly committed by Hamas were intentional goes without saying - its rockets were purposefully and indiscriminately aimed at civilian targets," he wrote

On Israel, Goldstone wrote: "While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the UN 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."

Goldstone noted that the final report by a UN committee following up on the Goldstone commission's report found that Israel had devoted "significant resources" in investigating allegations of misconduct during Operation Cast Lead. Hamas, which controls Gaza, has not mounted a similar investigation, even though the Goldstone document called on both sides to do so.

Israeli defense sources stress Goldstone's acknowledgment that Israel had not intentionally attacked civilians. The Goldstone report covered 32 incidents of suspected war crimes. All of them were investigated by the Israel Defense Forces. In four cases, the chief military prosecutor recommended legal action against those involved; in the others it found that the IDF had conducted itself according to the laws of war.

Since the end of Operation Cast Lead, the army has looked into about 150 complaints and suspicions of violations of orders during the fighting. Five formal investigations have been opened. A soldier who stole a Palestinian's credit card has been convicted and indictments have been filed against two soldiers who allegedly ordered Palestinian children to open bags suspected of being booby-trapped. About 10 other cases are being investigated, including alleged cases of the use of Palestinians as human shields.

Goldstone admitted that "asking Hamas to investigate [the firing of rockets into Israel] may have been a mistaken enterprise." He called on the UN Human Rights Council to condemn last month's murder of five members of the Fogel family in the West Bank as well as recent rocket attacks from Gaza.

Goldstone wrote that he shared the concern of the UN follow-up committee, chaired by Judge Mary McGowan Davis, that in his words, "few of Israel's inquiries have been concluded and [I] believe that the proceedings should been held in a public forum."

He said if his commission had had access to evidence from Israel, "it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes." Israel did not cooperate with the Goldstone investigation, citing anti-Israel bias at the Human Rights Council.

"We made our recommendations based on the record before us, which unfortunately did not include any evidence provided by the Israeli government," Goldstone wrote.

Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman told Haaretz that Israel's decision not to cooperate with the Goldstone commission would have created a precedent allowing every international observers to delve into defense officials' operational considerations.

"I would have welcomed Israel's cooperation," Goldstone wrote. "The purpose of the Goldstone Report was never to prove a foregone conclusion against Israel. I insisted on changing the original mandate adopted by the Human Rights Council, which was skewed against Israel. I have always been clear that Israel, like any other sovereign nation, has the right and obligation to defend itself and its citizens against attacks from abroad and within."