A Permanent Moral Stain

Even if no Israeli is brought to court in The Hague in the near future, the moral stain will not be erased and the repercussions are yet to be seen.

Israeli criticism of the Goldstone Commission report ignores a basic fact: The pattern of action taken by Israel in the Gaza Strip had already been determined the day after the Second Lebanon War. Indeed, in the summer of 2006, it became clear once and for all that Israeli society would no longer be prepared to face a war of choice that exacted victims on its side. That is, Israel wants military victories, but it refuses to pay the human price they entail. Hence, a sober decision - the result of cold, political calculation - was made to conduct a campaign to punish Gaza with no Israeli losses.

There is not a single Israeli, especially among those who have themselves been soldiers, to whom the lives of young people in uniform are not dear. However, the practical meaning of this decision was that a heavy price would be paid by the entire Palestinian population, indiscriminately.

Therefore, there is no need for an Israeli commission of inquiry into Operation Cast Lead, because there is nothing to investigate: The entire matter is as clear as the noonday sun. Since Hamas operates from within population concentrations in one of the Western world's most crowded areas, it would be impossible to reach it without harming civilians. Indeed, had a decision been made to preserve civilian lives, it would have been necessary to adopt a completely different mode of action, perhaps involving commando operations deep into enemy territory, and these are always very costly in terms of soldiers' lives.

Instead, Israel's political and military leadership decided to use tremendous firepower that lacks the ability to distinguish between a combatant preparing to launch a rocket and a child playing in the yard. To this end, a new moral doctrine was also formulated. This doctrine - from the school of Prof. Asa Kasher and Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin - is known today in everyday Israeli language as "a license to kill."

And, indeed, all the decision makers knew in advance that a terrible catastrophe would ensue in Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces carried out precisely the instructions it received from its spiritual teachers, its commanders and the government itself. The army did not intend to kill civilians with malice aforethought - it just bombed, eliminated and flattened anything that seemed necessary for purposes of reconnaissance, maneuvering and advancement. Since every building could have served as a cover for Hamas people, the targets were unlimited.

This, for example, was what happened on January 16 in the case of Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, three of whose daughters were killed and whose niece and two other daughters were injured, when a tank opened fire on the family's home. The commander of the Golani Brigade force suspected there were armed men on the roof of the house, directing sniper fire in the area. Even though he saw nothing definite, and the silhouettes could have belonged - and did belong - to members of the household, he ordered the tank to fire. The shelling was not proceeded by fire from light weapons, or warning shots in the air. Rather, a shell was immediately fired, at the heart of the target.

According to the rules and norms determined prior to the fighting, there was nothing amiss regarding the actions taken by the Golani force commander. From his perspective, all the houses were legitimate targets, because it would have been possible to carry out reconnaissance efforts against our forces from any of them.

It is clear that there was no prior intention to harm noncombatants, but the disaster that befell the Abu al-Aish family was an inevitable and foreseeable outcome of implementing the zero-risk principle. This is one example among many demonstrating how cheap the price of Palestinian lives was in Israeli eyes. The price, however, was not determined in the field, but rather was embedded in the parameters determined for the operation at its outset, by the top echelon of Israel's leadership. Here, too, everything is clear: The responsibility lay not with the junior and intermediate command levels, but rather with those who shaped the new combat norms and approved them. Therefore, the entire problem is first and foremost a moral one, and the Israeli political elite cannot evade taking responsibility for it.

The Goldstone report was inevitable. Even if it is not balanced, even if it does not take Hamas into account properly - it has sounded a harsh warning signal by expressing the international public's attitude toward Israel after Gaza. The bottom line is that Operation Cast Lead has contributed another brick to the wall of delegitimization that is gradually closing in on the Jewish state. Even if no Israeli is brought to court in The Hague in the near future, the moral stain will not be erased and the repercussions are yet to be seen.

Zeev Sternhell is an emeritus professor at the Hebrew University, and winner of the 2008 Israel Prize for Political Science